The economy is ugly and will stay ugly for quite awhile to come. The impact on IT will be mixed. Worst of all: The significant and long-lasting pressure to reduce costs will, for many shops, result in the nearly certain deferral of non-discretionary expenses.
If that sounds too much like a consulting mouthful, in PlainSpeak it means putting off preventive maintenance and dodging new releases, even though the consequence will be to spend much more in the future to catch up.
That’s the worst. The best: Superficially attractive ideas that don’t really work thrive during periods of prosperity. Hardship makes them go away. Much of what has been going wrong can be traced back to ideas that look wonderful from high altitudes but fall apart under the close scrutiny they rarely receive.
Puncturing the worst of these bad ideas, and providing alternatives that work, is the reason I wrote Keep the Joint Running: A Manifesto for 21st Century Information Technology. Chapter 12 covers the worst of the worst — it’s titled “Digest with intestines, think with brain.” (Nekkid sales pitch: Don’t delay — if the book helps you avoid just one of the boneheaded so-called “best practices” promoted by self-proclaimed experts who have never had to run IT, your return on investment will be approximately 1,403.58%.)
Where was I? Oh, yes: Intestinal cognition. It’s a rarely mentioned root-cause in discussions regarding our current financial contretemps. It deserves special mention.
A perennially popular myth has it that trusting your gut is a good idea. It’s distinct from, but closely related to a parallel cognitive sin, Intellectual Relativism. The difference: Intellectual relativists consider the use of evidence and logic in making decisions to be futile, where those who trust their guts consider it to be a waste of time.
Checking the archives, it appears KJR first warned about intellectual relativism more than three years ago (“Political science,” 10/3/2005). I took my first shot at trusting one’s gut way back in 2001 (“And the best managers are …” July 16, 2001).
It also appears that with everything I’ve written about these subjects, I failed to warn just how dire the consequences can be.
For the record: Intellectual relativism and gut-based decision-making affect organizations at all levels and sizes, with potentially disastrous results. At the smallest scale they can prevent workgroups from achieving basic competence. At the largest it can drive entire nations to ruin.
Start one level down, with CEOs (this isn’t, after all, a political column). Divide them into two groups — call them Diogeneses and Rumpelstiltskins.
Diogenes spent his life searching for an honest man. Among CEOs, Diogeneses insist on straight talk and clear understanding, so they can make excellent decisions themselves and encourage the entire organization to do likewise.
Rumpelstiltskin, you’ll recall, spun straw into gold. Rumpelstiltskinesque CEOs spin informational straw, and worse, into fool’s gold, so as to earn huge bonuses while helping to sell the company’s most important product … a share of stock.
Were you to start a list with Enron (remember Enron?) and add every subsequent major failed corporate giant to it, I’d bet every one had a Rumpelstiltskin at the helm.
IT leaders need to keep the Rumpelstiltskins out of their organizations, too. It’s a constant challenge.
Project reporting is a good place to start, and sets the tone for everything else. Keep it simple: Every project, every week, is either green (on track), yellow (at risk of slippage), or red (off the rails).
Some CIOs consider Yellow or Red to be unacceptable. Those CIOs hear, every week, that every project is in the Green … until a project suddenly turns Red without warning.
A Diogenes CIO, in contrast, promotes a broad understanding that Yellow status is highly desirable from time to time. Yellow means project managers know risks sometimes turn into realities, recognize problems when they see them, and spend their energy fixing them instead of sweeping them under the carpet.
Project reporting is one example among many. Here’s the broader logic, step by step:
1. Small problems are easier to fix than big ones.
2. Left untended, small problems turn into big ones.
3. Rumpelstiltskins make small problems look like successes instead of fixing them.
Try this: Hang a sign in the entryway to IT that reads, “Rumpelstiltskin isn’t welcome here.”
If nothing else, it should get everyone’s attention.
When first published, the above column erroneously blamed Rapunzel for the sins of Rumpelstiltskin. My thanks to all who pointed out the error.