Welcome to the IS Survival Guide (first appeared in InfoWorld)

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It’s re-run time. This week’s presents the three principles IT managers (and, for that matter, non-IT managers) need most if they’re going to do their jobs well.

It is, by the way, the first “IS Survival Guide” ever published. It appeared in InfoWorld January 8, 1996, and I’m delighted to report that even after twenty years, if you’re going to limit things to just three management principles I can’t come up with a better list.

– Bob

KJR News Line

Welcome to the IS Survival Guide, the column that asks, “How can anyone succeed at such a bizarre job?”

You’re responsible for technology traditional IS executives still wish would just go away. You manage the most eccentric employees in the company. You deal with vendors who constantly use terms like partnership and value-added. And while this all goes on, you end up on five committees to advance the management long-term-direction-of-the-year.

Think of this column as management with an edge.

You won’t find any 7-S Paradigms here. No facile graphs that encapsulate a whole industry into four quadrants. No seductive alternatives to the hard work of being an effective manager. No panaceas.

Here’s what you will get: Suggestions and ideas that come from years of real management and executive experience managing technology; conversations with other managers and executives; discussions and debates with consultants, writers and academics; and just plain reading and thinking.

A lot comes from real-world experience of what works well. A lot more comes from real-world experience of what didn’t work so well.

Let’s get started.

The Three Principles of Management

A lot of management comes down to just three basic principles. Understanding them is easy. Applying them is harder. They are:

  • Customers — paying, external customers — define value.
  • Form follows function.
  • Everyone involved must be aligned to a common purpose.

When things go seriously wrong, you usually find something that violates one or more of these simple propositions.

Future columns will often touch back to these principles. Some will cover them in depth. Here are the Cliff’s Notes.


Customers define value, by exchanging something else they value — money — for your product or service. (A commonly misused term, value-added, is simply the difference between the cost of raw materials and revenue from goods sold.)

Paying customers define value. Internal customers (a nasty oxymoron) do not define value (or quality, which is just one component of value). How can they, when they don’t pay.

The usual definition — anybody whose inbox receives the contents of your outbox — reveals the core fallacy. Customers make buying decisions. And unless your internal customers establish your capital and operating budget, they aren’t the people who make the buying decisions for your products and services.

Always find a way to link your priorities and plans to paying, external customers, or at least to the hot-buttons of your company’s top executives.

Form Follows Function

Well this should be obvious, and it is — when engineers design machines. Designers of organizations fail miserably at it. Compensation plans frequently encourage employee behavior that’s at odds with the organization’s goals. Accounting techniques encourage obstructive bureaucracies and political infighting. When we measure performance at all, we measure what’s easy to measure, not what we care about.
Usually, violations of the FFF principle stem from asking the wrong question. For example, “Should our analysts have an incentive plan?” The right questions: “How do we want our analysts to behave? How do we measure that behavior? How should we reflect its value in our compensation plan?”

Aligning Everyone to a Common Purpose

Well of course, but we have internal customers. Our job is to satisfy them. Somebody else deals with paying customers.

Unless every part of your organization embraces the same externally focused goal, your company’s products and services will lack focus and cohesion. That includes you. Here’s a test: what’s your industry? Information Systems? Or the marketplace your company participates in?

Request for Submissions

I’m collecting examples of ManagementSpeak (ManagementSpeak: “I’m not saying no, but I’m certainly not saying yes.” Translation: “No.”). I’ll publish the winners (and their definitions) in future columns.

Welcome to the IS Survival Guide. I hope you find it valuable.

Comments (2)

  • Your first is still one of your best!

  • Yours is the only column I have consistently subscribed to since 1996. I have had three different careers (jobs) since then but each one benefited from your column. Now that I am retired, I still read it and wonder why none of my bosses ever followed your ideas. I can officially provide “sage” advice in my current “retired-part time job” and much is based on what I learned from you. Funny that now I am “listened” to and the advice has not changed!! Keep up the good work!

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