“Every time I see a customer leaving one of my stores I see them walking out with $50,000 worth of groceries — what I expect them to buy from me over the life of our relationship. Of course I take back the tomatoes!” – Legendary Minnesota grocer Sid Applebaum

When I launched this column as Infoworld’s “IS Survival Guide back in 1996, it introduced the three bedrock principles of good management: (1) Customers … real, external, paying customers … define value; (2) form follows function; and (3) everyone involved must be aligned to a common purpose.

In the 28 years since then I’ve figured out, read about, and otherwise discovered one or two additional notions worth the attention of IT leaders and managers. But none of those notions have led me to jettison any of the big three I started with.

So I figured, as Keep the Joint Running winds down, it wouldn’t hurt to revisit them. And so …

Customers define value

Start by defining terms – the starting point for any rational conversation. And so, what is a customer? A customer is the entity that makes the buying decision about your company’s products and services. I say “entity” because while it might be a person who makes the buying decision, it also might be a committee, or, in these strange times it might be an AI. And so, “entity” it is.

Not the entity that uses them? No, although the sales process is a whole lot easier when the entity that uses a product or service also makes the buying decision.

So we need a different term for those who use, and as someone once pointed out, “user” sounds like someone who enjoys recreational pharmaceuticals. So for our purposes we’ll call those who use our products and services “consumers.”

We also need a term for those who provide the money used to buy products and services. Call them “wallets.” As anyone in sales will explain, everything is easier when the customer, consumer, and wallet are the same entity.

Then there’s the deficient oxymoron, “internal customer” – a term that conflates customers, consumers, and wallets. To be fair, IT does have these. But few IT leaders understand with clarity that the CIO’s internal customer is, personally, the person who can fire them or retain their services. Organizationally IT’s internal customer is the budget committee, which makes the decision as to how much the company should spend on information technology.

Form follows function

I was meeting with a CIO and his direct reports. My goal: Demonstrate to them that engaging my services for improving IT’s organizational performance by helping them construct a useful system of IT metrics was a good idea.

The CIO asked me a question: “What metrics do most IT organizations use?

I made the mistake of trying to answer his question. And worse, because I didn’t have any survey data to rely on, it was obvious I was tap-dancing, too.

The right answer was to answer a question with a question: Form follows function. Different IT organizations have different organizational performance goals. That’s what we needed to discuss.

“Form follows function” is the centerpiece of all successful designs, whether the subject is the organizational chart, the company’s compensation system, or minor matters like your company’s products and services. Start by nailing down “function” and take it from there. If you don’t, you’ll find yourself throwing spaghetti at the wall to see what happens to stick.

Align everyone to a common purpose.

Imagine you’re the captain of a galley – one of the oar-powered warships the Greeks and Romans used in their naval battles.

Imagine your galley’s crew is divided into 50 port oarsmen and 50 starboard oarsmen; also imagine you have two direct reports (mates; call them the p-mate and s-mate). The p-mate thinks the galley should head in the bow’s direction, and instructs their 50 oarsmen to push their oar handles as hard as they can. The s-mate thinks stern-ward is the better direction and tells his half of the crew to pull their oars as hard as they can.

What does the galley do? It spins, of course.

So you reorganize. Instead of a p-mate and s-mate you decide to have a bow mate and stern mate. Now, the front 50 oarsmen push their oars as hard as they can; the rear 50 pull their oars as fast as they can. What’s the galley do? It churns, taking all the power exerted by the oarsmen and using it to neutralize the oarsmen’s efforts.

Don’t believe me? Check this out: Dragon Boat Racing Teams Compete In Epic Tug Of War (Storyful, Sports) – YouTube .

This is what happens when those in your organization aren’t aligned to a common purpose. Each does what they think is best, but because they have different goals they mostly neutralize each other’s best efforts.

Bob’s last word: Please don’t think leading and managing IT, or any other organization for that matter, is so simple that three core principles are enough to get you by. Enough? No. But they’re a pretty good place to start.