Hunch On IT

Careful what you ask for…

Posted in Behavior, Business, Human Behavior, Information Technology, IT, Organizational Behavior by carlkessler on January 20, 2010

Setting goals for a large corporate IT department is an activity where the pitfalls have pitfalls. The two scenarios that I repeatedly experienced were:

  • Confusing the “what” with the “how”
  • The “No child left behind” Syndrome

The “What” and the “How”

There’s a big difference between strategy and goals.  A strategy describes how one will achieve one or more goals.  Strategy is how and the goals are what.  Allow me to use a low level technical example here.  Part of our “strategy” might be to “Implement an Oracle database”.  This is a “how” statement, so we need to backtrack to why we decided to implement Oracle.  There is likely a goal that describes “what” our application needs to do that will require a relational database and there may be an enterprise goal that we want to leverage our investment in Oracle.  Now the “but”, but our enterprise goal for leveraging Oracle may be for “mission critical” systems.  That strategic goal may have become divorced from its context and now all systems are leveraging Oracle with a potential multi-million dollar licensing implication.  Now we’re squarely in the nightmare that is “goal setting” for the CIO/CTO.

The good news is that the solution to ensuring that goals are properly interpreted is not a mystery.  This can be accomplished with a combination of three things (you pick based on your needs):

  1. Establish linkage from high-level goals to lower-level goals to actions.
  2. Provide context in the form of rationale and implications
  3. Establish an IT governance mechanism

In order to establish linkages, get on a white board and begin building a hierarchy from your top level goals on down.  This will help your teams to understand your intent as they create the appropriate action plans in their areas.  Be careful not to force your goals and activities into a single-threaded model.  What I mean is this, a lower-level goal or action may easily support multiple high-level goals.  Certain graphical tools like PowerPoint may not permit you to create linkages up to multiple goals from a single lower-level goal.  For example, adopting a standard database product may help you reduce support costs, increase service up-time and streamline FTE skill sets.  Make sure you draw those linkages.

Context is similar, but more explicit.  Linkages imply a relationship.  Context makes it clear.  For each goal, state a rationale (a “why”) and then state an implication (what it means in a relevant context).  This is very, very effective in communicating intent.

Finally, establish a governance process to review progress toward goals at a regular interval.  Lots of fodder here for the blog-o-sphere, but I will hold that off for now.

No child left behind

Egad!  Where could this possibly be going?  If you got the education reference, you get a cookie.  We always have folks that can take an order and get it done.  In fact, this is an admirable trait for project leads and soldiers.  It’s my opinion, though, as generations exit their formal education having been groomed on the notion that if they can regurgitate facts on tests they are successful, we are entering a perilous time.  Students are being taught “what” to think, not “how” to think (that darn what and how stuff again).  The corollary in the workplace is “give me my goals (aka ‘the test’), tell me what to do and I’m good to go”.

The reality is that any goal, no matter how well written, can have unintended implications.  Example time!  Let’s set a goal to reduce the average hourly rate for our development and support costs, that’s a common IT goal.  Some folks, when given such a goal, will hamstring the organization by eliminating their current knowledgeable “high-priced” talent and replace them with “low-cost” contractors.  The only slightly hidden cost here is the impact to service levels.    And, yes, this misinterpretation can be fixed by following the three suggestions above, but that’s not the point.

The point is, do you think that the average person today is likely to think critically about that goal and raise concerns OR are they likely to simply take the obvious actions to “make it so” (as Picard would say)?  My experience is that the latter scenario plays out much more than I care for.  Finding and promoting the “horizontal” and “long-term” thinkers should be a key strategy in trying to remedy this.  This may also be an offshoot of short-term thinking, like delivering quarterly profits versus stable, long-term returns.  I guess we’ll leave it to the sociologists to determine the why.

One can address this issue in several ways.  Certainly providing context for your goals will help.  Knowing your staff and their personality and behavior patterns (how they’ve implemented goals in the past) is critical.  There is also training available for how to effectively set and interpret goals.  The number one thing to do though is to screen for leadership traits during hiring that show an openness to question management, the ability to assimilate new ideas and the ability to accurately assess impacts across diverse teams.  Look into “behavioral interviewing” techniques to buoy your interviewing skills.

Setting solid goals is essential to steering the ship, but there’s more to it than 3-5 PowerPoint bullets.  What’s your experience?