It’s often said the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. Nothing could be more applicable to IT management.
Here are the five most common mistakes repeated time and again by IT managers, along with recommendations for how to avoid them.
Pitfall No. 1: Reactive vs. Proactive Response
IT managers are in a constant fire drill, responding to some “unbeatable fire” when they are desperate to correct an ensuing disaster. There is no due diligence with responses made in these situations — it’s all about getting and keeping the infrastructure up and running. Stop-gap measures merely address the symptom, but not the root cause, of most problems.
There are many reasons for this reactive mindset — lack of budget, legacy technology and perhaps the biggest one of all — IT operations and development teams consistently working at odds with each other. Frequently, the development department designs a solution that meets the business needs and then implements it, without the participation of the operations team.
This leaves the operations group either unaware of the new project or without encouragement to participate in its definition and creation. In the end, operations is usually left cleaning up the mess when that new project is unleashed on the network.
Given these realities, how can IT managers work around them? The key is communication — the best IT operations managers ensure their requirements are known throughout their companies. The most effective managers regularly review capacity plans with business goals and development plans.
They demand that the new application or functionality meets their monitoring standards, with adequate logging and debugging, as well as their overall disaster recovery plans, including hardware failure, security breaches, natural disasters and any other consideration. They justify limitations to the breadth of technology, for both hardware and software that they can realistically support.
They create transition plans for knowledge transfer and SLAs (service level agreements) for development to participate upgrades and support. By proactively evaluating the bigger picture early and often, they pave the way to providing the highest level of availability from their data center.
Pitfall No. 2: Breeding Conformity, Not Innovation
IT departments prefer predictable results and are typically adverse to change. With good reason. Seventy percent of the time when a system malfunction occurs the appropriate fix can be determined by answering a single question: “What changed?”, strict rules are enforced for system requirements, documentation, change management and security. IT operators enforce the rules — becoming almost militaristic in their zeal to ensure change is controlled. To a large extent, this is necessary to deliver highly available systems. However, it’s also the best way to perpetuate inefficiencies and risks.
IT leaders recognize the need to balance controls with incentives to creatively review and improve their systems. Employees must be empowered to propose new technologies or strategies to tackle nascent concerns over cooling, data storage, security, provisioning and monitoring strategies. By implementing regular performance audits where contextual analysis is encouraged, introducing employee contests or establishing an open door policy (and really meaning it), innovation — rather than conformity — becomes the rule.
Pitfall No. 3: Failing to Set a Reasonable Pace
Delivering too much too fast or too little too late seem to be the bane of any IT department’s existence. Growing too rapidly stresses more than hardware; it can equally overwhelm the operations department, as well as the users expected to use the new functionality with too much to learn and adapt into their daily activities. Conversely, delivering too little ultimately restricts the capabilities to respond to system vulnerabilities such as security and performance monitoring, and can frustrate users with inadequate or outdated functionality.
To successfully maintain a network, an IT manager needs to adequately assess the strengths and weaknesses of not only the IT department and its resources, but the business goals as well. If the user base is decidedly not computer savvy, technology should be rolled out in smaller chunks and accompanied by extensive training and support.
Similarly, if the functionality the business demands is really big or complex, it may not make sense to break it up into smaller features, which could ultimately delay the needed solution. Regardless of the situation, the most successful IT departments deliver a constant stream of incremental solutions that make sense for the business to receive.
Pitfall No. 4: Failing to Share Knowledge
IT professionals are notorious knowledge hoarders. There are multiple motivations behind this — from job security to egos to interdepartmental politics to just plain not having enough time in the day. Silos of information are built within individual teams, often resulting in redundant work by multiple teams.
Skill-sharing becomes complex and political within a department, and new hires struggle to succeed until they are able to establish their own turf and unique domain expertise. Of course the ominous “bus factor” (where a key resource could get run over by a bus and a project or business might fail) constantly hangs in the air. While individuals may succeed in this environment, the organization as a whole suffers.
IT departments need to invest in collaboration. This can mean deploying full collaboration suites like Microsoft SharePoint or Alfresco Collaboration Suite to an internal wiki or a series of topical group e-mail aliases. The bottom line is that all organizations within an enterprise are encouraged to publicly document solutions, research questions centrally and engage the entire group on a topical level when new questions emerge.
The constant activity provides incentive to add to the group knowledge base, and empowers the organization as a whole to succeed. Additionally, by encouraging and leveraging participation in outside communities for various technologies, opportunities for mind share and innovation increase tremendously.
Pitfall No. 5: Not Separating the Big Rocks From the Little Rocks
Anyone who has ever taken a management class knows the experiment that involves a glass bucket, some big rocks, some pebbles, some sand and a beer. In the rush to put everything in the bucket, most people start with sand, then pebbles and then the rocks, usually saving the beer from an untimely rock death.
The lesson is learned when they realize that all of these objects are organized to fit only if you put the big rocks in first and work down from there — with the idea that there is always room for a beer in the end. As obvious and overused as this exercise is, it applies to almost any situation, whether business, technology or personal.
However, in a highly reactive IT department, it becomes almost impossible to discern the big rocks from the sand. Focused on solving immediate problems, and driven by an insatiable need to service everyone, it’s easy for IT folks to get mired down in the undiluted torrent of service requests. It’s therefore up to management teams to lay out the big rocks for the whole team.
They need to identify and maintain a singular long term focus, and remind individual teams of the focus for the week. The most successful IT departments value prioritization and actually teach employees how to say no. Ultimately, this empowers the whole IT department to meet its most valued commitments, and reconcile the rest of the efforts with their ability to deliver effectively.
Javier Soltero is CEO of Hyperic, an open source systems management software provider.