There are, according to the KJR Manifesto, no best practices, only practices that fit best.

More often than not, though, “best practice” refers to neither. Most so-called best practices are really no more than minimum standards of basic professionalism.

Take a situation I’ve run into several times over the past few years: Whether due to mergers, acquisitions, and divestitures, years of IT being stretched too tight, or just plain sloppy management, IT can’t produce an accurate business applications inventory.

Clearly these IT organizations aren’t in sync with “best practices,” which call for instituting:

  • PMO (Program Management Office): The body responsible for reviewing, approving, and tracking all IT-related projects. The PMO matters because it’s the projects it oversees that change the applications inventory.
  • CMDB (Configuration Management Database): A repository that keeps track of What’s Installed Where. Business applications are among the “configuration items” the CMDB keeps track of, along with every piece of real and virtual hardware, server OS instances, DBMS instances, development environments … every item IT has to keep up and running.
  • CAB (Change Advisory Board): The organization responsible for reviewing all “change requests” (read “installation requests”) to make sure development teams, IT infrastructure teams, and anyone else trying to change the IT production environment has dotted all requisite i’s and crossed all corresponding t’s. Also, for making sure someone updates the CMDB to reflect every change.
  • EAMS (Enterprise Architecture Management System): An information system that keeps track of … well, of all layers of the enterprise architecture, from hardware at the bottom to platforms layered on it, to information repositories, applications, and the business capabilities, functions, and processes that depend on them.
  • ARB (Architecture Review Board): Enterprise Architecture’s enforcement arm — the organization that reviews all IT-related plans to ensure they conform to the company’s technical standards. And, for making sure every change results in an update to the EAMS.
  • Forms: Lots of forms, to make sure each change consistently updates the CMDB, EAMS, and enterprise project portfolio to keep them consistent with one another. Or, as an alternative, application integration that makes sure an update to any of these systems synchronizes the others.
  • MA (Mandatory Arbitration): With three different committees, each responsible for finding flaws in the creative work of other people, do you think all parties will agree? Envision the oarsmen on a trireme with multiple captains directing them to row in different directions.

Forget (or at least delay) best practice. Achieving the minimum standard of basic professionalism in all this is more than ambitious enough. And that’s having a single, trustworthy application inventory. What it will take:

Count each application once. Is the application installed on multiple servers in multiple locations? Doesn’t matter. Count it once. Do you have separate Dev, Test, Prod, and possibly other intermediate instances? Doesn’t matter. Count it once.

Do you have multiple versions or releases installed? That does matter — count each of these as separate inventory entries.

Determine application granularity. If you, like most businesses, rely on large-scale suites to support major business domains (e.g. Workday for HR, Salesforce for CRM, SAP for ERP), the suites aren’t granular enough. Make each module an entry.

If your business is at the other granularity extreme, microservices are too granular to track in the inventory. Go up a level and track the applications microservices assemble into.

Manage app/platform dualities. To take an example, SharePoint is both an application and a platform for building applications. Track these uses separately.

Track the bare minimum. For each application track its name, version, product owner (or non-Agile equivalent), IT support lead, a brief description, and vendor. If you can’t easily implement the inventory on a spreadsheet you’re being too ambitious.

Related: If you find yourself tossing around terms like “metadata,” stop unless you’re planning on using an EAMS for the job. Don’t even daydream about metadata until you have an accurate inventory.

Survey the business. Ask each top-level executive this question: “What are the five applications your organization relies on the most? Please reply; also please forward this survey to your direct reports, asking them to respond and also to forward it to their direct reports.”

Use the results to validate your inventory, but be careful. Your business respondents might not use the same application names you used in your list.

Enlist the PMO and ARB. Ask them to let you know of any new applications being installed, updates to existing ones, and retirements.

And finally, instill in everyone the first rule of inventory management: What the inventory shows today will be wrong by this time tomorrow.

While we’re on the subject of Total Cost of Ownership, News of the Weird reports that it costs the U.S. Mint 2 cents to manufacture each penny.

Which has, I’m sure, a clear tie-in to this week’s topic: How COVID-19 has transformed business leadership.

We can keep this short: It hasn’t.

Except that it has aimed a spotlight at those who are in leadership roles but shouldn’t be.

Back in 2002, in InfoWorld, I published these words:

Leadership is easiest in a crisis.

Crisis provides motivation and mutual trust, something leaders have to provide themselves in less urgent times. Crisis also provides alignment of purpose, allowing leaders the luxury of authoritarian decision-making. In less urgent times, leaders must consult with others, building alignment of purpose through the hard, delicate, necessary work of careful consensus building.

Leadership calls for competent execution of eight tasks (see Leading IT: <Still> the Touchest Job in the World): (1) Setting direction, (2) making decisions, (3) staffing, (4) delegating, (5) motivating, (6) managing team dynamics, (7) establishing culture, and (8) communicating. They comprise the job description for anyone in charge of an organization.

Before COVID-19 these eight tasks were what leaders had to master. That hasn’t changed, except that the stakes are higher and some of the tasks have become more difficult.

That the stakes are higher is obvious. So is what’s making many of the eight tasks harder — acceleration of the ongoing shift from in-person to remote employees.

Leaders still have to set direction. Excellent leaders won’t delegate that task to the virus, limiting their horizon to today’s immediate challenges. Yes, they do have to set a course that navigates through the crisis. But they’re also looking down the road to anticipate how their markets will change and what they need to do to take advantage.

Adequate leaders make decisions. The best leaders pay attention to how they make them, or, better, to who makes important decisions and how. Because the best leaders recognize that if they’re the best person to make most decisions they’ve done a terrible job of …

Staffing: The need to attract, recruit, hire, and promote the best talent available is, if anything, more important. That’s true for most businesses right now, because the stakes of bad decisions are higher, so leaders need the best in place to delegate decisions to. That means retaining the best in the face of painful layoffs and furloughs.

But it’s the soft skills of motivating, managing team dynamics, engineering and establishing culture, and most of all communicating that haven’t changed at all in principle … nothing about how they have changed has altered the essence of leadership one bit.

But leaders will have to brush up on the techniques they use.

Take a simple example — one that used to be so broadly accepted that it has become an assumed part of the leadership landscape: managing by wandering around. Guess what: Most business leaders, should they wander around, will wander around empty cubicles.

This and other informal techniques like so-called “skip lunches” (because those at the table communicate directly with an executive leader, skipping the intermediate leadership levels) to get an unfiltered view of What’s Going On Around Here … Zoom-based skip lunches are a non-starter.

And in a related development, those who work in teams will seldom if ever meet their teammates face to face either.

Merely competent managers will accept purely transactional relationships as an inevitability and adjust how they assign and receive work accordingly.

Excellent leaders will fight this every step of the way, recognizing that effective organizations are still built on trust-based relationships. For example, just because Zoom has supplanted … let’s start calling them “flesh-to-flesh” interactions … is no reason for leaders to abandon the once-common practice of weekly or bi-weekly one-on-one conversations with their direct reports.

Which gets us to communication and its sub-skills of listening, informing, persuading, and facilitating. Leaders still need to listen … to individuals, but also to figure out the more interesting challenges of organizational listening … so they know What’s Going On Around Here. They need to inform everyone of everything they need to know. They need to persuade everyone that the direction they’ve set is the right one so employees energetically help make it happen.

As for facilitation, the fine art of getting other people to listen to each other, in my experience very, very few leaders are even remotely competent at facilitating web-conferenced meetings. That’s true even of those who were quite good at face-to-face facilitation.

So how has COVID-19 changed business leadership? The job description hasn’t changed a bit. But the techniques leaders apply to their work?

These need serious attention.