Mature IT organizations rightfully resist labels that separate them from the businesses they serve.  Any discussion of “IT” as distinct from “business” is anathema – a position I wholeheartedly support.  “Us and Them” made a fine title for a progressive rock tune back in 1973 but is an unhealthy perspective when the “them” is the business where profits are generated, and the “us” is essentially a support function.

Be that as it may, while the intent to resist separating IT and the business is worthy, there is a reality that in most enterprises the business generates revenues and profits while the support functions generate costs (necessary as those costs might be).  So when times are tough (or when a senior executive comes across some anecdote about the wonders of outsourcing IT to Timbuktu) the IT organization comes under pressure to take out costs.  Sooner or later, this comes down to reducing headcount, whether by natural attrition (IT managers represent a significant population ripe for retirement, and many have taken ‘packages’ to do so early) or by downsizing.

Let the Vicious Cycle Begin

And so begins the cycle – IT steps up to the plate and costs are reduced.  Early on, many of the reductions come from increased efficiency – improved Body Mass Index, if you will.  But muscle and bone are also lost, so delivered value is reduced, services are cut back and quality suffers.  The next time cost savings are needed, IT is again a worthy target – why not – they came through last time!  This time, more bone and muscle are lost.  At the risk of pushing the analogy too far, so is the proverbial membership to the gym (e.g., training, productivity and quality improvement programs) where some level of health was being maintained.  Healthy eating gives way to fast food and cola.  Nobody has the bandwidth to deal with the ‘essentials’ of keeping the lights on and trains running on time, let alone break new ground with the consumerization of IT or the move into Enterprise 2.0. Employee engagement suffers and IT performance degrades.

The cycle continues, and sooner or later top management becomes dysfunctional – not sure whether fight or flight are the best response – whether to embark on a full-blown transformation or simply to nibble at the edges with posters celebrating “Team IT” or the new “Agile” method to embrace.  Middle management is too busy to help with a fix – there’s hardly time to do annual performance reviews and budgets, let alone embark on major change programs. And the troops are, for the most part, disengaged – satisfied in accepting a reasonable wage to show up for work, but loath to give of any discretionary effort, or to put passion into their work.  Over time cynicism becomes so deep and wide, it is accepted as the ‘new normal.’  Discussion of organizational problems is all but banned by the IT leadership team – denial is best way to get through the week without the need for anti-depressant medications.

Forget Common Courtesy

In the downward spiral of belt tightening, age old protocols about responding to requests, answering emails, turning up at meetings on time or meeting commitments fall by the wayside.  As the leadership team slides into dysfunctional behavior, middle management follows by example and the troops aren’t far behind.  It’s a slippery slope, and one that’s tough to reverse!

Getting Back On Track

So, what can be done to reverse the slide – to turn the vicious cycle into one that drives increasing performance and leads to higher recognized business value from IT investments, assets and capabilities?  In practice, the catalyst for change is often a new CIO.  It’s not just that the new CIO brings in fresh ideas – it’s more about the energy and optimism they bring to the table.  If they are worthy of being hired into a turnaround position, they know they have a short ‘honeymoon’ period in which to create some visible signs that the slide is being reversed.  They probably negotiated some freedom to make change happen – reminding the executives that hired them that “businesses get the IT they deserve!”

Absent the new CIO, with the energy for change they embody and the breathing space they buy, my prognosis, I’m afraid, is not optimistic.  Einstein said, “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.”  I think it’s a legitimate stretch to say, “We can’t solve problems with the same leadership that was in place when we created them!”

Image courtesy of Dysfunctional Psychology / Depression

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