ManagementSpeak: Keeping our systems running is our best practice.
Translation: We not only lack imagination, we disapprove of it.
KJR Club member Max Fritzler points out how limited “best” can be.

Spotting a dysfunctional IT organization is pretty simple. End-users talk about the “helpless desk” and the “local area not-work.” Managers gripe that simple requests disappear into the prioritization black hole. Executives tell horror stories about multi-million dollar project fiascoes. And inside IT you find a shell-shocked inability to do anything more than flail away at things without accomplishing anything useful.

A complacent IT organization — one that’s “good enough” — is harder to recognize. So hard that several correspondents challenged the whole idea. In response to last week’s column on the subject, they asserted that “raising the bar” is just more executive abuse — an insistence that if IT was a car, it should accelerate instantaneously, stop on a dime, corner as if it ran on rails, deliver a hundred miles per gallon, never need an oil change, and cost $25 bucks plus tax.

Yes, some executives are unreasonable and yes, they do use the phrase “raise the bar” to justify back-breaking workloads. So what?

It doesn’t make all IT organizations equally effective, and it doesn’t justify complacency. It certainly doesn’t mean the nagging feeling that information technology shouldn’t cost so much, take so long, and be so overall hard to accomplish — that it could be much, much better — isn’t sometimes justified.

You’re the CIO, caught in the middle. You need criteria, not complaints, defensiveness, or vague feelings. To help you out, here are the seven warning signs of a complacent IT organization … or at least, seven of the warning signs:

1. It’s a ghost town at 5pm.

IT staff members should feel a sense of urgency about problems that crop up, an intensity about finishing tasks by their deadlines, and personal pride in the quality of the work they deliver. If, no matter what’s going on, everyone feels comfortable that it will wait until tomorrow, you’re running a complacent organization.

That doesn’t, by the way, mean you should hope for the obverse. If everyone works late hours and six or seven day weeks all the time, it suggests a very different problem: Desperation. It comes from strong motivation — usually fear — coupled with severe ineffectiveness. Complacency is a matter of attitude and culture; ineffectiveness is a matter of process and training.

2. ” ‘They’ don’t use the software they way they’re supposed to.” Complacent IT’s job is finished when projects deliver software that meets specifications and end-users receive training in how to operate it. Being beyond blame is the goal.

In an effective IT organization the job isn’t finished until the business has changed as planned. That means understanding the context behind the specifications. And it means training end-users in how to do their jobs with the new software — quite different from learning how, where, and when to move the mouse pointer and click the buttons.

3. Fixing the same problems, over and over again. It’s an unmistakable sign: If your e-mail server (or what have you) crashes so often that your department has achieved excellence in restoring it quickly, it’s time to shake things up.

4. More allegiance to the profession than to the business. Allegiance to a profession is a worthy dimension in any corporate culture. It establishes high standards and a shared set of ethical guidelines. When the IT staff has more allegiance to their profession than their employer, though, they’ve lost their sense of what defines value — a context-free set of abstract criteria replaces business horse-sense as the measure.

5. Metrics. No, you won’t be able to spot complacency in the graphs that show how well IT meets or exceeds service levels. If those don’t show that everything is just fine, it means the IT staff is so inept or demoralized that nobody bothers to game the system.

Complacency is hidden in how metrics are defined in the first place, or in their absence. It’s in the agreement as to what constitutes a reasonable set of targets: Reasonable, of course, means easily achieved.

6. “That’s how we do things around here.” This, and the closely related, “We’re different,” tells you nobody is looking for a better way of doing things. They’ve become complacent.

7. “We’re working our tails off and nobody appreciates our efforts.” If there’s one constant in the universe of business, it’s that the employees who complain the loudest about how hard they’re working are the ones who show up late, leave early, and produce the least while they’re there.

“Better,” said Voltaire, “is the enemy of good.” That’s a healthy attitude. Complacent organizations get it backward: Good enough is the enemy of better.

Sorry for the delay — next week’s column will provide solutions. I promise!