Six Telltale Signs of IT Failure

December 10, 2009
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Shovel by lanchongzi via Flickr

We see high-functioning IT organizations that manage their pipelines according to weighted prioritization frameworks that account for business value, available data, and consensus of need. They manage their assets proactively and apply the right skills. They know how to talk to business people.

All this sounds like standard operating procedure, right? Not so fast. There are IT organizations that wait for the business to engage, assign resources haphazardly and without forethought, fail to scope work, and use jargon so thick it would clog your arteries if you drank it. The well-worn adage is that if you look up and you see that you’re in a hole, stop digging. If there are tools of the trade for IT mediocrity, these six are the shovels:

  1. The CIO is all about keeping the lights on. There have been some high-profile decisions in the last several years—News Corp and Harrah’s come to mind—of companies deciding not to replace their former CIOs. The implication is that these guys simply keep the machines humming, right? Show me a company that measures its IT leadership by system uptime and I’ll show you a bunch of unhappy IT employees. Or a company that’s increasingly

Shovel by lanchongzi via Flickr

We see high-functioning IT organizations that manage their pipelines according to weighted prioritization frameworks that account for business value, available data, and consensus of need. They manage their assets proactively and apply the right skills. They know how to talk to business people.

All this sounds like standard operating procedure, right? Not so fast. There are IT organizations that wait for the business to engage, assign resources haphazardly and without forethought, fail to scope work, and use jargon so thick it would clog your arteries if you drank it. The well-worn adage is that if you look up and you see that you’re in a hole, stop digging. If there are tools of the trade for IT mediocrity, these six are the shovels:

  1. The CIO is all about keeping the lights on. There have been some high-profile decisions in the last several years—News Corp and Harrah’s come to mind—of companies deciding not to replace their former CIOs. The implication is that these guys simply keep the machines humming, right? Show me a company that measures its IT leadership by system uptime and I’ll show you a bunch of unhappy IT employees. Or a company that’s increasingly offshoring core skills.
  2. IT is viewed—and run—as a resource pool. One client recently tried to explain to me how its BI team members were also responsible for delivering on non-BI projects. Uh oh. Spreading resources too thin risks blurring the lines between projects, rendering completion vague and inchoate.
  3. IT management tries to squelch information or suppress feedback. A data warehouse manager recently sidled up to me after an executive readout and said, “Thanks for not throwing us under the bus.” We wouldn’t have—the data warehouse while immature wasn’t a showstopper—but he thought it might be. The point is that he attended the readout anyway. Many IT managers instead choose to circle the wagons, not participating in open forums that might result in reprioritized work tasks or suggested improvements. Worse, they’ll actively spread negative buzz about a new project or the group that’s leading it. That giant sucking sound? It’s the competition hiring your best people away and leaving you with the paranoid jerks.
  4. Lack of business-IT alignment. More specifically, the business won’t consult IT before commissioning outside vendors. It’s an erosion of confidence and trust. Despite our nudging, a media company’s marketing department refused to engage IT before building a CRM solution. Finally ceding to our pressure, marketing agreed to put the internal IT organization on its vendor list. IT had to respond to the RFP on equal footing with the CRM vendors vying for the work.
  5. No closed-loop success measurement. Perfunctory costing worksheets hastily completed and subsequently forgotten are far more pervasive in IT organizations than aligning IT projects with business priorities. So what is success, anyway, and how do we measure it? We wrote ten thousand lines of code. Our data warehouse has 700 tables, and 450 of them contain over 10 million rows. We’re up to twelve terabytes. And yes, we’re ignoring you.
  6. No repeatable rules-of-engagement. You simply cannot gather sustained business requirements by leaning in someone’s cubicle doorway dizzily scribbling into your Moleskine pad. Nor can you represent clear business needs by asking someone what data elements they want, or replicating their Excel spreadsheets in the BI tool-du-jour.

Here’s another indicator we’re seeing more often: if someone who works in your company won the lottery, would losing them put you in deep doo? If so, get a shovel and start digging.


photo by lanchongzi via Flickr (Creative Commons License)

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