How do you raise the bar?

When you take over a thoroughly ineffective organization, everyone recognizes the need for change. They might resist each specific change (“I’m doing fine, but the rest of these losers need to be taught a lesson,” is a very common attitude in problem departments) but the overall need for change is clear.

But how about an organization that’s just good enough, and has been just good enough for enough years that being just good enough is ingrained in the culture? Of all the tasks a new leader faces, this is the most daunting.

IT organizations can become complacent in a variety of situations, but they all seem to boil down to a parent company that succeeds in spite of itself. Sometimes this is because it’s a regulated monopoly, or a company in a heavily regulated industry where gaining or losing customers is hard to do. Sometimes it’s too much venture money. Family-owned businesses seem especially prone to the problem, possibly because the owners think of employees as their extended family; often because family members hold executive posts through nepotism rather than merit.

I’ve seen it in government agencies, too. Not all of them, despite the ever-popular Business-Is-Great/Government-and-Academics-are-Stupid (BIG/GAS) theory. But those that are currently faddish are often bestowed with bloated budgets by an ever-willing-to-pander legislature, and a bloated budget is an invitation to increase staff whether or not there’s anything for the additional staff to do.

Regardless of the specifics, the root cause seems to be a lack of clear connection between organizational action and success, however an organization defines success. When that connection is unknown, it’s difficult for anyone in the company to understand how it is that their own efforts make much of a difference. Human psychology being what it is, few employees sit in the lunchroom, commiserating about this lack of clarity and their own unimportance.

Instead, most employees, in IT at least, develop independent criteria for what really matters. Their allegiance might be to a technology, a methodology, or a Big Honkin’ Project. It might even be to “making our internal customers happy.” Whatever it is, it has transferred from the company’s success to the success of their chosen priority.

And in you come, ready to clean house. Except that no matter what you say and what you do, employees have two comments in response: (1) “The new CIO just doesn’t understand how things work around here,” and (2) “The new CIO just doesn’t understand the importance of …” followed by each employee’s personal hot button.

Changing those two comments to, “I guess we have some things to learn,” isn’t easy. It can be done, but it isn’t easy.

Sometimes it’s worse than that. Sometimes a CIO who’s been in place a little too long wakes up in the early hours, when dark and monstrous creatures seem all too possible, and starts to sweat at the thought that maybe … just maybe … there’s a better way to run IT and all the complaining that goes on in the company is more than just the normal griping all CIOs get. Longstanding CIOs who try to shake things up don’t get comments #1 and #2. They get, “It’s just one of those management fads. If we keep our heads down for awhile it will all blow over.”

Changing that to “I guess we have some things to learn,” is even harder, because known quantities aren’t supposed to suddenly change into unknown quantities.

Start with diagnosis: Develop your organizational listening channels, inside and outside IT; look for patterns; peel the onion and look for likely root causes. Figure out what about the organization most needs changing, as opposed to what might be unfortunate but isn’t significant enough to deserve your personal attention.

Next, package the changes you need to make into a small number of initiatives — no more than three — which, when accomplished, will address your organization’s most pressing issues.

After that … well, after that comes a devil of a lot of pushing, pulling, sweating, and pick-and-shovel work to make them happen.

The specifics of which will be the subject of next week’s column.

(Truth in publishing: My consulting company, IT Catalysts, Inc., helps CIOs through this process. More truth in publishing: We won’t object at all if you contact us to see if it makes sense for your organization. Really.)