The causes of greatness

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Depending on the business expert I’m listening to and the day of the week, I know three truths:

1. Good employees who work together as a team outperform great employees who don’t.

2. Good employees with great processes outperform great employees with bad processes.

3. If an employee is irreplaceable you should immediately fire that employee.

From first-hand observation I know that when it comes to Information Technology organizations:

  • Great employees can and do overcome bad processes.
  • Great employees can and do overcome lousy managers.
  • Great employees can and do pull along mediocre teams.
  • Making one or two great hires is the most critical step in turning around an underperforming organization.
  • Well-designed processes can be pretty useful, too.

Which is to say, if you want an organization that works, you’ll get more leverage from hiring great employees than from any other single effort you can undertake.

Great employees can overcome organizational deficiencies to deliver useful results. They can’t, by themselves deliver a great organization. That takes a lot more.

The question of what makes a great organization tick is rife with superficial thinking. The usual approach is what you might call the “Tom Peters Fallacy”:

  1. Find a great organization.
  2. Identify a trait in that organization you like.
  3. Decide that this trait is what makes that organization great.
  4. Declare that this trait is the panacea for all other organizations.

As far as I can determine, there is no one characteristic that by itself can make an organization great.

Well, okay — there is one: excellent leadership. That only works because I define “excellent leadership” as “Doing everything required to build a great organization,” thereby begging the question.

So … what is required to make an organization great, as opposed to simply functioning?

Leadership: A great organization does start with strong leadership, in a non-question-begging way. If there’s no direction — no focus, no goals, no plan, no definition of excellence, no clearly stated expectations for employees to live up to; no alignment of purpose and standards — the employees will keep things going, but not much more than that.

Great employees: Not every employee has to be a superstar, although all must be competent. Great organizations do need enough top-notch performers to demonstrate that high standards are achievable, not theoretical.

Focus on achievement: The definition of “great employee” has been diluted through too many managers reading about “emotional intelligence.” Employees who are focused on getting along will concentrate on how irritating their colleagues are. Employees who are focused on achievement will value their colleagues’ contributions and ignore their eccentricities.

Teamwork: Just as the definition of “great employee” can’t ignore the importance of serious technical ability, it also can’t ignore the importance of working and playing well with others, and of providing leadership in the trenches.

Willingness to innovate: This is IT we’re talking about. Information technology. The field where if you can buy it, it is obsolete by definition. IT organizations and everyone who works in them must be willing to try new technologies, processes and practices … and even more important must be driven to constantly find improvements to the ones already in production … or they stagnate.

Willingness to not innovate: “State of the art” means “doesn’t work right yet.” Most of the time, the work required of IT is best achieved by extending what you have, not by chasing whatever is being hyped in this year’s press releases, aided and abetted by publications hungry for advertising revenue.

Evidence-based decision-making: Great organizations make decisions through the use of evidence and logic, not wishful thinking and listening to one’s intestines.

You’ll note the usual buzzwords are notably absent. Governance, ITIL, CMM and all the other processes and practices (I used to call them Processes and processes) that are supposed to lead to inexorable success don’t, in fact, lead to excellence.

Excellent IT organizations do have them. Even more important, they are kept in their proper place — as useful tools that help employees be as effective as possible.

The best woodworkers have band saws, coping saws, lathes and routers in their workshops, and not just hammers and chisels, but their tools aren’t what make them the best.

Great IT organizations are the same. They practice good governance; follow consistent application maintenance, enhancement, design and testing methodologies; adhere to clearly defined change control procedures; and otherwise avoid making things up as they go along.

Their processes and practices are important. They are, however, merely the signs of a great IT organization.

They are not its cause.

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