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Unkindest cut

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At least a dozen different people have, in correspondence, endorsed an alternative to bailing out AIG: Instead we’ll divide the $85 billion evenly among the 200 million adult U.S. citizens, giving each of us $425 thousand.

Other than the misplaced decimal point this would be a fine idea: The correct division of spoils is $425.

The economy has, in the words of Ambrose Bierce, an “implacable aroma.” The impact on your IT budget is a predictable, if misguided desire for panaceas. CIOs should plan on thinner budgets, demand for more services, and insistence that these two requirements are entirely compatible.

There’s no point in arguing, either. Those who insist will have both the authority to do so and the desire for it to be true. It’s a lethal combination — neither facts, nor logic, nor shouting at the top of your lungs will result in any discernable dissuasion.

You’re in danger. It’s time to dust off a basic rule of responding to requests: Both yes and no are bad answers — in this case because one admits incompetence; the other is insubordinate.

Answer yes and you’ve admitted to having run a hopelessly inefficient IT organization for lo these many years. If that weren’t the case, how can you now find the efficiencies necessary for delivering more for less? You’re dead.

Answer no and you’re disobeying a direct order from the person you report to. That’s generally a very bad idea. (Yes, I’m stereotyping CEOs. Some are quite reasonable and won’t put you in this situation. This type of CEO is terrific to work for, but quite useless as a rhetorical device.)

Your alternative to yes and no is, as always, “here’s what it will take.” You can get from here to there, but not for free. Some alternatives will require investment; all will have risks attached.

Investment and Risk pay for your ticket out of Can’t Win Land. They explain why you haven’t already done whatever it is you have in mind, without you looking like a slug.

Now all you need are the ideas.

Here are some starters. See if you can spot the risks (add a Comment below this column):

Increase trust: Distrust is expensive. It’s a luxury distressed companies can’t afford. Specifically, distrust drives unnecessary rework. This increases unit costs, lengthens cycle time, and decreases throughput in any process where it plays a role.

Increasing trust is far from simple. Distrust exists for a reason, and there’s no simple recipe for overcoming it. The chapter on Building and Maintaining Teams in Leading IT: The Toughest Job in the World provides some useful techniques, but it’s hardly exhaustive.

Managing the interpersonal dynamics among employees to identify and address dysfunctional relationships is a core leadership responsibility. Focus on it yourself, and insist that the managers who report to you focus on it as well.

Cut meeting participation in half: Many consider all meetings wastes of time. It might be true of some, and possibly most meetings in your company.

The challenge: You don’t know if they’re wastes of time because they aren’t needed or because, while needed, they aren’t run very well.

In my experience, most meetings are convened for good and valid reasons. Also, most have more participants than necessary, primarily due to distrust: If someone isn’t personally in the room, that person doesn’t trust those who are to do a competent and unbiased job.

Increase trust and you can probably cut attendance at the average meeting in half, freeing up all of those hours for other work.

Do something about negatively productive employees: Employees fall into three clusters. The first, and biggest, consists of those who put in an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay and deliver acceptable, workmanlike results.

The second consists of star employees. These folks aren’t twice as productive as the first cluster. They’re an order of magnitude more productive.

Then there’s the third group — employees who not only fail to deliver useful results themselves, but who interfere with everyone else.

Getting rid of these employees is a triple win. First, you save their salary. Second, since their productivity is negative, their departure increases average productivity.

The third benefit? These folks spread distrust the way a manure spreader spreads … well, manure. Get rid of them and the level of trust among those who remain will almost certainly increase.