ManagementSpeak: We’re looking for a self-starter.
Translation: We want someone who shows up on time.
KJR Club member John Priebe was enough of a self-starter to provide this example of ManagementSpeak.

“It was a failed mail server.”

In response to my assertion last week that if IT is a ghost town at 5pm it’s a sign of a complacent organization, a correspondent described the situation: “At 6:00pm I wandered down to ‘see how it was coming’ and found only a contractor, who was there on his own nickel, but felt this was a critical issue that needed to be solved that evening. Many of the IT employees no longer work there, but the contractor is now a key employee.”

A thought: The employees might have needed firing. If the manager who hired them and allowed them to become so complacent didn’t leave with them, equally complacent employees undoubtedly took their place.

Say you’re leading a complacent IT organization — one that’s “good enough.” It’s time to shake it up. Great: How? Good intentions aren’t going to get you there.

I’ve seen IT leaders start by giving everyone a good scolding. It’s worse than useless — it’s stupid. It assumes everyone shows up every day thinking, “I’m going to do the minimum,” a complete misreading of the situation. In a complacent organization the problem isn’t malfeasance. It’s ignorance of what’s possible.

There are lots of other ineffective actions you can take. It’s pretty easy to spot them: They’re easy, entail minimal risk, and require relatively little of your time and attention. The effective ones require hard work, courage, persistence, and a thick skin. Most of all a thick skin.

So how exactly do you deal with a complacent organization?

For any change the place to start is a clear articulation of what’s going to be different. Tiresome as it sounds, it’s the old Vision-and-Mission thing — the bumper sticker summary. It’s a redefinition of IT’s brand: An easily-remembered touchstone for everything you’re trying to accomplish and a hook on which you’ll hang all of the hard, complex realities you’re about to undertake.

Next, define no more than three initiatives whose accomplishment requires the culture of discipline, urgency, and excellence you’re looking for. They should be broad in scope, clear in intent, and the criteria for recognizing improvement should be unambiguous.

They shouldn’t, however, be about the elimination of complacency. It’s the difference between “We’re going to tune the engine,” and “We’re going to win the Indy 500 — we need to tune the engine.” Your strategic initiatives make the culture change important.

Your new mission and strategic initiatives are the public face of the change. The place to start making it real is always your management team. If the departmental culture is complacent, the department’s leaders have accepted the complacency, might have caused it, and at a minimum have been ineffective in breaking through it.

At least one of your direct reports has to go. It’s usually best if at least one stays, too, at least for awhile. One has to go because there’s no way the whole organization could be complacent if all of its senior leaders are providing the right direction. It’s best if one stays because (1) it’s pretty unlikely that every member of the team is unsalvageable; and (2) even if they are, the IT staff needs reassurance that you don’t view every problem as a personnel problem … that you’re willing to invest in people and give them a chance, rather than simply replacing them all.

Almost certainly, among the ranks of your direct reports you have an apologist for the status quo. It’s your Dr. Pangloss, adept at explaining why you currently live in the best of all possible worlds. Fire Dr. Pangloss and replace him (or her) with an outsider who’s led a high-performance organization, and so is accustomed to and expects strong performance. In addition to adding a strong leader to your organization you send a message as to what will be required to succeed from now on, and you provide direct evidence to the remaining leaders of what’s possible.

For the same reason you also need to recruit a sprinkling of strong performers to the IT staff. It’s very easy for staff members to wave off management exhortations as the unrealistic ravings of those naive enough to fall for the platitudes that appear in the IT trade press. It’s a lot harder to wave off the successes achieved by their peers.

And finally: Get out of your office and get to know the IT staff directly. Create a presence for yourself. Make yourself real to them. Visit their cubicles; sit in on project meetings; invite them to “skip lunches.”

It’s easy to ignore the inhabitant of the corner office on executive row. It’s more difficult to discount someone with whom you’ve just had a productive, intelligent conversation.