By Bob Zimmerman, David Katauskas and Gary Heusner
2011: Lessons Learned, Best Practices Gained
After four years of working under intense economic pressure, 2011 was especially challenging for CIOs and IT Executive Management.
New habits resulting from the strain of balancing limited resources with the need for stability, innovation and growth have made it difficult for many companies to strictly adhere to their informed decision making processes.
As the economy slowly begins to recover, many organizations are looking back at 2011 for insight to support growth in 2012 and beyond.
Most Valuable Lessons Learned
Considering the diversity of the organizations represented at our event, it is interesting to note the consistency of the themes emerging from our discussion:
Don’t over extend your organization.
Although the business may benefit from taking on multiple new initiatives, over-extension often results in failure. While it is almost an axiom that CIOs try to exceed capacity to demonstrate the value of IT, overextending on the wrong projects can backfire.
Overextended organizations face higher attrition rates. They also develop “unable to deliver” or “poor quality of execution” monikers. If your organization can reliably deliver four projects in a year and you think you might get the fifth, is it reasonable to add projects six, seven and eight only to risk most of them? Is the potential for failure worth the effort of trying to address them all now?
Don’t succumb to executive or peer pressure to do something now if you are not ready.
Push back. It’s in everyone’s best interest that you take the time to set your teams up for success. Make sure you have the alignment, time, money, skills and people to execute successfully.
Understand the organizational challenges to getting buy-in.
Make sure your business partners and teams are ready to go in your direction. Don’t just line everyone up and expect them to execute perfectly. While this approach may work in some cultures, it won’t work everywhere. Tailor your approach and know you have buy-in before executing on critical initiatives.
Don’t take anything that was done before you arrived for granted.
Verify team information and make sure you can support a previous decision. Don’t assume the team investigated an approach to your comfort level or that it still works now. While this can slow things down at first, it will prevent you from making assumptions that could cost you later.
Validate market data before acting.
Be diligent in your research and be willing to lean on your customers to verify your assumptions before acting. Validate your information from more than one source when something is critical.
Document your decisions.
This is the best way to establish a clear history of the business decisions made and how they ultimately impact IT. Without a clear record, it will be difficult to clearly examine decisions and do better next time.
Don’t sacrifice the culture over cost pressures. Economic pressures can make cost cutting a revered outcome. However, be careful about creating a culture of “cost-cutting”. Being able to say, “How cool, I just cut xxxx dollars”, may not be worth the sacrifice of service and other goals. Guard your culture.
Show returns on long-term projects quickly to maintain support.
Whenever possible, put some business solutions on new architecture and platforms so you can show progress, ROI and get feedback. Waiting for the perfect model office will make it increasingly difficult to maintain support for the initiative unless people can see something tangible.
Evaluate your need for a Solution Architect.
Keep the door open to engage a Solution Architect who can provide a business perspective on complete enterprise solutions. Too many times there are “outlier” systems or solutions that aren’t properly planned for. This can result in process gaps and overlapping functionality that impede the business experience.
Leverage experts when planning data center co-location.
Before making the decision to locate a data center, don’t hesitate to get input from a co-location facilitator. These facilitators (the good ones) have really thought through their services and their ability to be up 99.9999% of the time with redundancy everywhere. Sources such as Rackspace provide managed services over-and-above the actual hosting locations.
They can provide support down to the O.S. layer including utility type activities such as load-balancing, backup and recovery.
Don’t assume that similar efforts come without new costs and challenges.
A new web portal build may not be the same as a previous one. Don’t assume that just because you have done something before, or are supporting older technologies, that you will save time and money. The costs of supporting older technologies are often hidden, so quantify these types of requests carefully.
Best Practices Gained
While we can’t change the past, our lessons give us the benefits of hindsight and the opportunity to respond more effectively in the future. We asked our attendees to share the best practices they developed based on their 2011 insights:
Build good relationships with outside partners.
You may not always have the ability to work with your existing resources on each and every project. In order to be continually effective, have a group of trusted partners and strong business relationships you can turn to for advice, resources and support.
Insist on due diligence.
Make sure you have a well-defined due diligence process in place. Whether evaluating a new technology or deciding whether to start a project, insist on following that process. Don’t accept shortcuts or quick solutions. Remember that gifted individual (recommended by a friend) who turned out not to be the answer to your problems? Perform your due diligence to make sure you also believe in the gift.
Build teams for resiliency and flexibility.
Create the strongest organization possible to take on the business-driven challenges faced by IT. Focus on building a team with the ability to tackle diverse challenges rather than simply assigning a few specialists to resolve a problem or pursue an opportunity.
The need to build this kind of team must be considered sacred and protected by management. This is the only way the team will believe in its value. Nothing will close the book faster than replacing the team’s meetings with other activities or allowing someone to “opt out for something more important right now”.
Make the hard “people” decisions.
Evaluate your team and make the hard decision to move people out if they can’t contribute enough (even if they are really nice or well connected within the company). If you don’t believe an individual is capable of contributing to team success, they probably are not. Making the hard decision will protect the entire team from getting hurt. Ultimately, the decision to separate should not be a surprise.
Build a playbook of options.
Spend the time to evaluate your organization, its capabilities and gaps in terms of what the business needs in order to succeed. When it comes time to act, having an objective understanding of organizational strengths and weakness allows you to move forward confidently and quickly.
Develop a strategy for adopting new technologies.
More often than not, the business will look at a new technology without input from IT. They tell IT to turn on that service and to do what is needed. IT needs to have a process to support the business decision without introducing risk.
Explore accounting alternatives when making cost justifications for investments.
There are numerous ways to outsource activities to skilled service providers. How you expense certain investments (such as Cloud vs. hosting yourself) may change based on how you expense it. You may get a bit more flexibility if you capitalize the expense by extending it through some weak years vs. having it as a fixed expense.
Be strategic and proactive about retaining good talent.
A proactive attitude to retention means incenting folks to stay engaged and involved for the long term. Don’t assume the talent you rely on won’t ever become a flight risk.
Another Year Wiser
While our discussion was wide ranging, most of our lessons learned are relevant to any organization looking to remove obstacles to growth.
There is one lesson, however, that goes beyond the specific ideas described in this document: The need to willingly detach from “what worked before” and revise our priorities. Far too many organizations get trapped by past best practices that are no longer capable of sustaining future success.
The most important lesson of all? Make sure you are in the right frame of mind to make decisions to help your company succeed. Recognize the importance of unlearning, relearning, sharing and embracing new best practices. Be wary of getting stuck in a dated decision making mindset and be receptive to thinking differently about the decisions you need to make in 2012 and 2013.