What Makes A Great IT Department?


Someone two weeks ago poised the question to me, “What makes a great IT Department?”  Awesome question – and having worked for some of the best IT departments on the planet, I am willing to offer my opinion on the topic.

A great IT Department…

…Has Customer Empathy and Focus.  Everything in IT begins and ends with the end-user experience.   To achieve success in understanding the end-user (customer) you need to empathize with them.  Moreover the organization requires a focus on this as a core competency…it needs to be the central focus for everyone in IT – not just those that interface with the customer.

…Controls cost management – managing your expenses end-to-end on its products and services.  Customers ask for a lot of things, and many of those cost money.  If you want to respond professionally you need to have a handle on the costs in IT so that when a request comes in, you can equate the costs associated with it.  If you are going to lead an IT organization, you have to know where the money is going and for what it is being spent on.

…Has the ability to prioritize.  If you have more than one priority-one project you’re failing here.  If everything is high priority, nothing is high priority.  It’s not enough for you to know what is high priority – the entire department needs to know and you need to convey that to your customers.

…Is aligned to business goals and objectives.  The only things IT should be doing on its own are infrastructure, core applications (like Office or eMail) and security.  Everything else should be tied to the business goals and objectives.  You need to understand what your customers need and create solutions to fill those gaps.

…Maintains rigor in terms of new projects.  You have to be able to manage the requests coming in – and I mean “manage.”  Customers request a lot of wacky stuff.  You need the processes in place to evaluate and prioritize incoming work – as well as accurately estimate it. You have to have the discipline to say, “no” when it counts.

…Has people that are empowered to satisfy the customer.  I’m sure IT managers around the world are saying, “I do that.”  Really?  Your people have the authority to do what it takes to resolve an issue – without your divine guidance, the input of a steering committee, etc.?  Tell the truth!  You need to move authority downward in IT so that IT staff have some free reign on taking care of end-users.

…Has strong people managers that comprehend technology.  IT people are often staffed into leadership roles because they have a technical competency.  Huge mistake.  In reality, leaders in IT are not that different than leaders in other organizations.  It’s all about managing people.  Yes, they need to know when someone is bullshitting them on technology issues, they have to be technologically savvy, but their core skills need to be around managing and leading high-impact teams.

…Keeps standards for Development.  Developers love to play with new tools and enhance their skills/resume’s in the process.  The result, after a few years, are applications that use a hodge-podge of standards and are a nightmare to support.  Standardize!

…Has an organizational commitment to quality.  Nothing is perfect and no IT Department is flawless.  A commitment to quality is a constant and persistent drive to minimize mistakes.  Mistakes, however, will happen.  This means that the organization must be committed to learn from them, and not repeat them.

…Fosters an attitude of teaming rather than competing.  IT staff are usually hired for technical skills – not for their ability to work and play well with others.  The reality is, the people that will go farthest in their career are those that team well and do the right level of stakeholder management within the IT Department.  IT Departments that master this do not have managers that build empires or silos – they break them down for the greater good of the entire department.

…Is built on discipline and principles.  Discipline is hard to come by.  Let’s face it, we’ve all seen project timelines “recast” or “rebaselined” so that someone can call the status “green.”  (Sidebar:  Whoever created the term “rebaselined” needs to be lined up against the wall and shot…there is no such thing as rebaseling…you’re throwing out the damned plan and replanning.)  This is pure BS.  Discipline and principles means there are rules about managing projects that are not subject to change or interpretation.  These rules need to be well known and understood.

…Promotes freely sharing information rather than hoarding it.  Those that hoard information as a means of controlling power need to be discouraged from this behavior.  Those that keep their colleagues and peers in the loop and informed need to be rewarded.   IT departments that are successful are those where information is transparent and shared at every level.

…Has sponsors who understand their roles and execute them.  Any team in any department suffers when sponsors treat their role inconsistently.  Sponsorship is not a complicated thing but getting any group of leaders to consistently agree what that role consists of and execute consistently is an incredible challenge.  When dealing with the introduction of new or enhance technologies, this role is all the more important.

…Can define success that is pertinent and measured.  “How do we know when we’re done?  More importantly, how will we know we did it right?  How will we determine success?  Where do these measures come from?”  Every IT project/initiative needs to tackle success criteria and measurement up-front or your efforts will eventually become mired down in the debate later on.

…Provides employees a reason to be there.  The days of employees finding their own motivations to come to work and do an outstanding job are over.  As an IT leader, you need to help qualify why they should way to be at work.  Are we going to give them fantastic training in new cutting edge stuff?  Is it that we are giving them career-expanding experiences?  If the reason is, “they have a job and should be thankful they do,” then you have failed to make the case for them to be in the office.  Back to the drawing board.

…Is where process takes a back seat to people understanding what is important and what they need to do.  Processes are designed to drive for consistency over time.  Unfortunately, unless leadership is strong, they become reasons to not work.  They can become ponderous and used to defend not working as opposed to enabling work.  If you want progress, drop the process and empower your people to do the right thing in satisfying the customer.  New processes will emerge over time, ones based on effectiveness and efficiency.

…Minimizes specialization of roles.  IT people have almost as much specialization as the medical industry.  Technology fosters niches and niches don’t make for great IT people.  What matters is not a unique specialty, but an understanding of how all of the technology works together and how it connects to the end-users.  That’s big picture stuff and that is where your people need to be long-term.

…Has leaders who are people oriented – not technology centered.  What make a great leader in IT is not their intricate knowledge about tech, it’s about being a great leader of people…motivating them, developing them, encouraging them.  Far too often leaders in IT advance up the ranks because of technical skill.  I call that “a big, juicy, dumb mistake.”  IT is only a small bit based on technology – it is more based on understanding how people work, what motivates teams, and how to manage work.

…Understands that recognition and advancement is to be based on quality and/or customer care.  I’d expand on this but seriously, is that necessary?  Naa.

…Comprehends that technology alone does not change the business – what changes it is changes to processes, strategies, etc. that are merely empowered by technology.  IT doesn’t transform – it enables transformation.   IT people like to delude themselves that they are in the driver’s seat when it comes to technology.  Sure, they have an important role to play, but ultimately it is the end-user community that takes the tool and makes it into something marvelous.

…Must have implementation is a core competency.  Planning, Strategizing, Engineering, Building – these are where traditional IT Departments hand their hat in terms of skill sets.  These are important, but the most important is implementation…the ability to successfully deliver and drive adoption of technology.  Implementation is the new core competency that business, and IT, is focusing on.  If you can’t make things happen, you’re role is less than useful.

…Measures success in terms of customer satisfaction.  Everyone in IT has some sort of role that impacts the end-users.  The best IT departments measure satisfaction and their staff understand what they contribute to that satisfaction.  In fact, that customer satisfaction becomes the prime motivator for actions and activities that drive the department.

The result of these efforts…an IT Department that is recognized by the business it supports as a cherished partner.

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