Nailing governance

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It’s summer — the season when sunlight falling across a sandy beach will warm you through and through, driving the last vestiges of winter’s cold from your chilled and battered muscles. Ahhhh.

Put a convex lens between you and the sun, though, and OUCH!

The difference between diffused warmth and ignition is focus.

Swing a hammer at a piece of wood and you’ll get a dent in the wood. Swing the same hammer at a nail positioned over the wood and you’ll get a hole in the wood, filled with a nail. The difference between a dent and penetration is focus, too — the nail focuses the hammer’s energy onto a much smaller area.

Want your IT organization to have more impact? The secret is no secret — it’s the ability to focus your organization’s energies.

The only problem is, the entire company’s political ecology operates to blur your focus.

It happens like this: A dozen or so different executives and managers submit project requests … important requests … for IT. IT has enough staff to support only three of them at any one time. That, however, would result in winners and losers, so you reach a compromise with the executive committee. Instead of choosing three projects to work on, staffing them fully, and getting each done in the six months a fully staffed project would take, you instead launch all twelve. With twelve projects in play you assign your staff among them so that everyone works on four projects at once.

Being reasonable, you recognize that each project will take four times as long as it would with dedicated teams working on them. But that’s okay, because while nobody is getting exactly what they want, everyone is getting enough.

Except that it isn’t okay. It’s a disaster. First of all, no project should ever have a timeline longer than six months. Beyond that there’s no sense of urgency — two years and forever are mathematically equal, according to the calculus of project management.

Second of all, it isn’t the case that a developer, divided among four projects, will get the same amount of total work done as one who is dedicated to a single project. It takes time for people to switch their attention from one to another — real, significant time, which translates to perhaps 10% or more additional overhead.

And finally, even if neither of these effects were true, it’s still bad business. Compare the business benefit to be had in the two cases. With dedicated project teams, every six months another three projects would finish, delivering their business benefit. One fourth of the total benefit would arrive after six months, another fourth after a year, and so on. With divided effort, the company experiences no benefit at all until two full years has elapsed. If all projects deliver the same annual benefit … call it a Benefit Unit (BU) … then after two years the company with dedicated project teams will receive nine BUs. The one with divided effort will receive none.

Nine to nothing — that’s a winning score. The mathematics behind it isn’t even complicated. In most companies it’s also unachievable, due to a recently-discovered psychological effect known as “envy.”

Okay, I lied about it being recently discovered.

Envy works like this: Imagine I offered you five thousand dollars, just for reading Keep the Joint Running every week. I imagine you’d be happy to have it.

Now imagine that after a few months you found out that I’m giving your colleague in the next cubicle ten thousand dollars for reading it. Would you still be happy about the five grand you’re getting? If so, you’d be unusual. Most people would be unhappy at the unfairness of it instead. They’d be envious.

So it is with IT governance. Give the members of the executive committee a similar choice — everyone gets the same small benefit, or everyone gets more benefit, but it’s distributed unequally — and most will prefer the former.

Most CIOs think of IT governance as a process — an organized series of steps, that operates on evidence and logic in an almost algorithmic fashion to establish IT’s priorities.

It sure would be nice if that was the case. It can be the case. But only if, as a prerequisite, the executive “team” is really a team — aligned to a common purpose instead of each one focusing on personal perquisites.

It does happen. It just doesn’t happen very often.