George Will is catching up to me.

Two weeks ago he caught on to something I covered 21 years prior — that the average American is more affluent by most measures than the wealthiest of historical figures.

Then, last week he wrote about Baumol’s disease a mere 16 years after yours truly wrote about it in this space.

Do you think Mr. Will is mining the KJR archives? Are you? Please do. There’s good stuff in there, if I do say so myself.

In any event, Baumol’s disease is why sometimes you can’t increase productivity no matter what you try. It’s because, to use the classic example, the number of musicians Beethoven needed to play one of his string quartets back when he was composing is exactly the same as the number needed today, when he’s decomposing.

Baumol’s disease is an example of “market failure” — situations where a marketplace fails to efficiently allocate goods and services.

Which has what to do with managing IT?

I’m glad you asked. The answer is, nothing at all, if you’re among the enlightened IT leaders who have rejected what used to be considered best practice: Running an IT organization like a business — like an independent supplier delivering goods and services to its “internal customers.”

But like it or not, sometimes IT is stuck in the role of internal supplier. If you’re among the stuckees, and don’t have a clear path to unsticking yourself, you have little choice but to treat the rest of the enterprise as the market you trade in.

If that’s your situation, it’s worth a bit of your time and attention learning some of the better-known causes of market failure, figuring out whether they might apply to your internal market, and if they do, what you can do to mitigate the effects.

Market Failure Cause #1: Baumal

Since I brought up Dr. Baumal and his disease, it’s worth thinking through how it might apply to IT. It probably doesn’t have much impact on application development, or at least, not yet — most app dev shops have a number of opportunities for improving productivity.

It probably doesn’t apply to IT operations, either: Few have taken full advantage of all opportunities to automate infrastructure management and administration, and that’s before the cloud comes into play.

But business analysts and relationship managers are a different story. A lot of this work is person-to-person, and there’s a limit to how much you can compress conversations without losing the point.

Market Failure Cause #2: Monopolies

Market economies rely on the effects of competition to achieve efficient allocation of goods and services.

But internal IT isn’t supposed to have competitors. In this it’s like modern-day power companies, or perhaps urban cable service providers.

In the world at large, society deals with monopolies by establishing regulatory bodies such as public utilities commissions, which establish rules, regulations, and rates that give consumers roughly the same prices and quality of service they’d get if it was possible to avoid having monopoly providers.

Traditional IT has used much the same approach, setting up IT steering committees to allocate IT services.

It’s possible to avoid this path to unpopularity through the use of charge-backs, also known as transfer pricing. Whoever has budget can use it to buy IT services from the IT service catalog. Which seems much better, except that all this really does is move responsibility for IT resource allocation upstream to the corporate budgeting process, which achieves the near-impossible feat of being even less popular than IT’s governance processes.

IT can de-monopolize itself, though, by encouraging what’s usually called “shadow IT” — information technology implemented without engaging IT’s services at all. This increases the number of information technology providers in the company, creating true competition.

This doesn’t have to become a free-for-all, either, although this characterization comes up just about always when I recommend promoting shadow IT.

What’s needed is what happens in non-monopolized marketplaces. Take, for example, the construction business. There’s plenty of competition, but it isn’t a free-for-all at all. What keeps it all in check is a regulatory apparatus that establishes the rules all builders must adhere to.

IT already has an equivalent regulatory apparatus — its technical architecture function, which establishes the standards to which all production information technology must adhere.

Baumol’s disease and monopolies are only two of many market failures. Email me with your favorites (or, even better, leave a Comment) and next week we’ll pick up where we’re leaving off.

It’s time to talk about prairie chickens and how to cope with them. From the archives, 1996 vintage:

In graduate school, while I monitored electric fish, my friend Henry McDermott watched prairie chickens mate.

For years.

Male prairie chickens congregate in an area the size of a suburban lawn called a “lek.” The highest-status male grabs a territory the size of a kitchen table in the middle. The others array themselves outward from there, in larger but more peripheral chunks of turf, and they all do the prairie chicken dance. Female prairie chickens then wander through the lek, with most mating with the central male. Success declines with distance from the middle. It’s disco among wildfowl.

Biologists erroneously figured the biggest, meanest male owned the middle. Henry discovered something different: over the years, those males who survive drift to the middle. It’s a seniority system.

In the case of real prairie chickens, the senior birds are the ones that managed to not die of disease or be eaten by hawks and owls. But we’re more interested in Prairie Chicken Managers — the ones who, over the course of their careers, have drifted up the organizational chart because they were safe, inoffensive choices.

They’re the ones, that is, who managed to avoid being nailed by the organization’s political predators — something most easily achieved by treating all but the safest and least-controversial decisions as rabid weasels — creatures to be avoided at all costs.

Left to their own devices, Prairie Chicken managers are likeable enough. But they can be frustrating and dangerous if you need them to stick their necks out on your behalf, as when, for example, you find yourself managing a project and Something happens. Because while not all Somethings have an impact on budget, deadlines, scope, or risk, there are plenty that do.

When they do, you need a business sponsor willing to commit to the best course of action and to put his/her name on it. That isn’t in a Prairie Chicken’s nature.

Root Causes: Prairie Chickenism is a two-level affair. At the individual level, Prairie Chickens are what they are because they have both a heightened sense of self-interest, and an approach to personal cost-benefit analysis that emphasizes downside avoidance over upside opportunity.

While they might understand that from the organization’s perspective, playing it safe often isn’t particularly safe, that doesn’t matter as much as their understanding that from their personal perspective, playing it safe is much, much safer.

But that’s just the first-level root cause analysis of Prairie Chickenism. It’s the next level you need to master if you want to deal with these fowl managers effectively: Prairie Chickens are not found in isolation. They flock: When management positions open up, Prairie Chicken managers will generally promote other Prairie Chickens to fill them.

So you aren’t just dealing with a Prairie Chicken. You’re dealing with a Prairie Chicken culture.

Dealing with a Prairie Chicken manager: Well this one’s easy. So long as you don’t do anything to attract the attention of potential organizational predators … so long as you don’t do something your manager might consider risky … you’re in a safe situation from which to build your internal network of potentially helpful interpersonal relationships.

Take advantage of it. Establish the reputation you want among the people you want it with.

Then, when you decide you’ve had enough safety and are ready to try something more adventurous, you’ll know who to call. And, just as important, they’ll be willing to answer when you do.

Living in a Prairie Chicken society: Odds are, though, that if you’re dealing with a Prairie Chicken manager, you won’t be able to build relationships with other managers who aren’t Prairie Chickens, because there aren’t any.

It’s play-it-safe-ism from top to bottom.

What to do?

First and foremost, get it out of your head that there’s anything you can do to fix the situation. Nobody is going to have any interest in any thoughts you might have on the subject, because they already understand the path to success, and it isn’t yours.

Which wouldn’t be all that bad, other than having to live with your daily dose of boredom, except for one sticky little challenge: In the long run, for any business, playing it safe really isn’t safe.

So in the short term take advantage of the situation to build skills that will be attractive in the employment marketplace.

Because the main thing you need to do is plan your escape, because living among Prairie Chickens is a risky business.

Not in the sense of your employment being on shaky ground, because it isn’t.

No, at the risk of violating the metaphor, the risk, when living among Prairie Chickens, is that the syndrome is contagious.

And once you’ve caught a case of Prairie Chickenism, there’s no known cure.