It’s re-run time. This week’s presents the three principles IT managers (and, for that matter, non-IT managers) need most if they’re going to do their jobs well.

It is, by the way, the first “IS Survival Guide” ever published. It appeared in InfoWorld January 8, 1996, and I’m delighted to report that even after twenty years, if you’re going to limit things to just three management principles I can’t come up with a better list.

– Bob

KJR News Line

Welcome to the IS Survival Guide, the column that asks, “How can anyone succeed at such a bizarre job?”

You’re responsible for technology traditional IS executives still wish would just go away. You manage the most eccentric employees in the company. You deal with vendors who constantly use terms like partnership and value-added. And while this all goes on, you end up on five committees to advance the management long-term-direction-of-the-year.

Think of this column as management with an edge.

You won’t find any 7-S Paradigms here. No facile graphs that encapsulate a whole industry into four quadrants. No seductive alternatives to the hard work of being an effective manager. No panaceas.

Here’s what you will get: Suggestions and ideas that come from years of real management and executive experience managing technology; conversations with other managers and executives; discussions and debates with consultants, writers and academics; and just plain reading and thinking.

A lot comes from real-world experience of what works well. A lot more comes from real-world experience of what didn’t work so well.

Let’s get started.

The Three Principles of Management

A lot of management comes down to just three basic principles. Understanding them is easy. Applying them is harder. They are:

  • Customers — paying, external customers — define value.
  • Form follows function.
  • Everyone involved must be aligned to a common purpose.

When things go seriously wrong, you usually find something that violates one or more of these simple propositions.

Future columns will often touch back to these principles. Some will cover them in depth. Here are the Cliff’s Notes.


Customers define value, by exchanging something else they value — money — for your product or service. (A commonly misused term, value-added, is simply the difference between the cost of raw materials and revenue from goods sold.)

Paying customers define value. Internal customers (a nasty oxymoron) do not define value (or quality, which is just one component of value). How can they, when they don’t pay.

The usual definition — anybody whose inbox receives the contents of your outbox — reveals the core fallacy. Customers make buying decisions. And unless your internal customers establish your capital and operating budget, they aren’t the people who make the buying decisions for your products and services.

Always find a way to link your priorities and plans to paying, external customers, or at least to the hot-buttons of your company’s top executives.

Form Follows Function

Well this should be obvious, and it is — when engineers design machines. Designers of organizations fail miserably at it. Compensation plans frequently encourage employee behavior that’s at odds with the organization’s goals. Accounting techniques encourage obstructive bureaucracies and political infighting. When we measure performance at all, we measure what’s easy to measure, not what we care about.
Usually, violations of the FFF principle stem from asking the wrong question. For example, “Should our analysts have an incentive plan?” The right questions: “How do we want our analysts to behave? How do we measure that behavior? How should we reflect its value in our compensation plan?”

Aligning Everyone to a Common Purpose

Well of course, but we have internal customers. Our job is to satisfy them. Somebody else deals with paying customers.

Unless every part of your organization embraces the same externally focused goal, your company’s products and services will lack focus and cohesion. That includes you. Here’s a test: what’s your industry? Information Systems? Or the marketplace your company participates in?

Request for Submissions

I’m collecting examples of ManagementSpeak (ManagementSpeak: “I’m not saying no, but I’m certainly not saying yes.” Translation: “No.”). I’ll publish the winners (and their definitions) in future columns.

Welcome to the IS Survival Guide. I hope you find it valuable.

Let’s do some math. You manage 1,000 nodes in three locations within one city. Figuring a three-year life per node, that comes to something like $700,000 per year for PCs, maybe $30,000 per year for file servers, $10,000 per year for concentrators, routers, and so forth, and maybe another $25,000 per year for your WAN. Add sales tax and do some rounding and you’re spending a million a year.
Of course, your bosses selected you on the strength of your skills in product selection, negotiation, and contract management.
What? Nobody ever trained you in these skills? You can bet your adversaries, professional salespeople, have had a lot of training. In fact, they have well-defined tactics for dealing with you. People in sales do what it takes to make the cash register ring.
So look out for your own best interests. That can mean neutralizing the more unscrupulous tactics many sales professionals use. You don’t believe they play hardball? Here are some steps taken from the marketing strategy of a major manufacturer in our industry. The strategy assumes that when the customer chooses a competitor’s product, it’s not because that product has superior technical features or a lower cost but because the sales team made “marketing errors.”
To remedy these “errors,” the sales representative and his or her manager will pay a call on the decision maker, asking for specific details on why the decision went against them. Then, within a few days, they will call on the decision maker and his or her manager to refute the decision. If cost is one of the reasons, the salesperson might say something like, “Don’t expect to get something for nothing.”
The next call goes to the manager without the decision maker present, with the sales manager trying to discredit the decision maker as having made errors, losing track of the business purpose, and becoming emotionally involved in the decision.
According to the document: “An important part of this strategy is to occupy management’s time, to worry the recommender and evoke displays of emotion from him, thereby giving proof positive of his loss of objectivity.”
This same marketing document describes the “Three ‘S’ tactics:” scare, stall, and sell. Included under scare is “May jeopardize your job,” “May try to get you fired,” and “Go over your head to your boss.”
When their management explains to your management that you’re just an overgrown tech weenie who doesn’t understand the business issues, do you think you’ll win by hauling out your Request for Proposal and walking your management through it?
Nope. You’ll win if, when you announce your decision, you remind your management of the facts of life: that you’ll have one winner and four losers, and that at least one of them will try to go over your head to discredit you, your process, and your decision.
Encourage your management to say it has been fully informed about your decision. Ask them to express complete confidence in it. Ask them to note that the sales force failed to get the company’s business and clearly has an axe to grind.
Then, when a sales representative calls your boss, you have some assurance he or she will answer the telephone with a clear head and perspective.
When they call you, make it clear that if they accept the loss gracefully you’ll welcome them into the next competition, but if they try to go over your head you’ll make sure they never get a dime of business from your company as long as you’re there.