ManagementSpeak: I want a member from each of the teams to work on resolving this conflict.
Translation: How do I benefit by getting in the middle of this?
This week’s contributor decided to eschew the fame and fortune that comes with attribution

If I tell you a secret, do you promise to keep it to yourself?

Okay, here it is: In most companies, the IS organization isn’t held in high esteem.

If it’s true in your company, make a list of five likely reasons. Done? Here’s my list of common reasons, which you can use for comparison:

  • Projects take too long, cost too much, and fail too often.
  • Analysts are arrogant, condescending, and speak in gibberish.
  • Systems are slow and unstable.
  • The Help Desk doesn’t.
  • Two words: Money Pit.

In your company it isn’t like this, of course, but I bet you know other IS organizations that have these problems, because they’re as common as dirt, and as hard to get rid of.

Now make another list, this time of how you plan to fix these problems. Take your time … I’ll wait.

Done? Compare it to my list of common solutions:

  • Reorganize IS.

Like high school kids in an old Mickey Rooney movie whose solution to everything is, “I know! Let’s put on a show!” most CIOs try to fix serious problems by reorganizing, which inverts cause and effect. Reorganization only makes sense as a consequence of an improvement program — it’s never the solution to real problems.

Like the old medical practice of draining blood out of a patient’s body, further weakening someone who’s already ill, reorganizations weaken you in three big ways: They distract employees from real work; they eliminate risk-taking, and they focus attention on the organizational chart. Let’s take these in order.

Employees stop thinking about systems architecture, database design and project deadlines during a reorganization. They start thinking about winners and losers. Employees feel loyalties to particular managers and antipathy toward others, so they worry about who’s going to come out on top. It’s a distraction, and no amount of leadership will change that.

And risk-taking? Who’s going to stick their neck out during a management shuffle? If you succeed, the manager who notices won’t be in a position to reward you, and if you fail your new manager will peg you for a loser. The first law of reorganizations is to keep your head down, and every employee knows it.

But the single most pernicious consequence of a reorganization is the attention it gives to the organizational chart. To understand why that’s bad just look at the drawing through an employee’s eyes. The org chart describes what my responsibilities aren’t.

Org charts show boundaries. Anything outside your box isn’t your responsibility — the org chart says so! And if you think that’s a good thing because it helps everyone understand what they’re supposed to be doing, think again.

Do you honestly think you’ve accounted for all the work that has to get done? If so, you’re wrong. In any organization there’s a bunch of miscellaneous stuff nobody keeps track of. Everyone just does what needs doing without thinking much about it.

Until you reorganize and everyone realizes, that stuff isn’t their job.

Even if, by some miracle, you’ve designed your boxes so every single thing that has to get done has an owner, you’re still not safe, because lots of work crosses organizational boundaries. Your new boxes are barriers that create friction — a loss of energy when trying to get work done. The trust that used to lubricate inter-box cooperation has been eliminated along with the old boxes themselves.

Sometimes you really do have to reorganize, but reorganizations always do damage. As with chemotherapy, the benefits sometimes outweigh the side effects.

Sometimes, but not often.