How tech bosses manage their teams for fun and profit

'Whenever I hear the word culture I reach for my org chart...'

CIO Manifesto It's seven years on from the great crash and IT departments are moving from the bunker mentality of keeping the lights on and maintaining legacy VB6. But what does that mean for the way we manage tech teams?

We invited an eclectic mix of senior IT execs to our own well-appointed bunker underneath a central London hotel to try and work out what we need to do with the people on our IT teams to make them relevant to a changing technology and business context. It's all part of our CIO Manifesto program.

One way you can spot senior leaders is that they are unusually skilled in disagreeing politely with their peers. So when we entered upon the topic of staff attitudes to change, the ten IT execs present managed to have at least ten shades of grey between experiencing stonewall intransigence to finding teams who desperately want to change, but who’ve been prevented by the culture and processes of their employers.

People and Culture are different

Actually the IT execs regarded “culture” as a bit of a lame excuse for not thinking of their staff as people, each of whom has their own set of ambitions and perceptions of what needs to be done. As one put it “you’re not dealing with a firm or a culture, you are dealing with this person”.

Most of them had at some point inherited a dysfunctional team and a common pathology for non-delivery is that many IT pros haven’t really been told what the real business objective was and more than one has ended up working really hard to achieve things that weren’t really wanted.

Setting expectations for how staffers can contribute was seen both as getting them to prioritise the right things, and as fixing morale, which is a bigger thing for senior IT execs than the footsoldiers often realise. At this level, the time they spend in any given job is often a lot less than the rest of the team and it’s not going to shock you to read that often the reason you have a new guy in charge of IT is that the rest of senior management want IT changed and they want it changed quickly.

[Yes I did say the “guy” in charge of IT, aside from chairing Reg round tables my role is to recruit senior IT execs to share their insights which includes getting female ones and frankly I haven’t done all that well, so if you are (or know) a woman who runs a substantial IT function, point her in this direction.]

The “flat” management structures that some firms believe make them more agile and meritocratic weren’t all that popular amongst the execs who ran larger IT functions. That’s because without a visible progression path it’s harder to retain good people and for larger and/or more ambitious projects the lack of leadership shows much more than when you’re just keeping the lights on.

If you’re not building team leaders, project managers and others to actually manage your programmes then the only option can be to TUPE the whole damned mess to an outsourcer who at least has managers and structures. Though this means you’re effectively buying in a management team.

Larger outfits are usually already layered, and the trick is to disrupt the layers just enough to get them to support change without imposing anarchy.

The overwhelming majority of people are found to be at least a bit resistant to change because they have a position that could be worse, have built up a way of working and relationships, and change offers uncertain rewards for them. Unsurprisingly the longer they’ve been in one post, the lower their perception of the upside/downside ratio.

Contrary to what most IT pros think, the execs we met are extremely reluctant to fire people. Few execs get off on this and of course partly that is a legal thing. Firing people usually requires a long death march of telling people they’re doing it wrong, writing that down, offering them realistic objectives, and checking to see if they’ve made progress. In the state sector this has to be repeated a few times.

No, they prefer training, motivation or what has become known as “a quiet word in the lift” where we gently let someone know that their role has more yesterdays than tomorrows. This is easier on the management and in the long run, the employee will likely have a better outcome if they look whilst employed than after a degrading experience in expedient headcount rightsizing.

That can interact in interesting ways with firms who have an “up or out” culture, since people may just leave anyway. The problem is, they're not necessarily the right ones, even if you can expect higher levels of commitment when the rewards for “up” are attractive enough. This is not a good or bad thing as such. The execs see this as a structure that they must quickly adapt to and work with, just as a DBA must deal with Oracle’s “preferred way” because he ain’t gonna change the DBMS himself.

IT execs seem to be dividing these days into those that “keep the lights on” and those who are effectors of change, the second role being far more fun and better paid because the management team want us to implement new controls and empower employees to do new more useful things. Still, change can be a pain, and if you’re not in a firm where the management want to change the longer term prognosis for the firm and your job in particular isn’t so hot.

Next page: Cargo cult Agile

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