Resolve the tension between rigid rules and empathetic welcoming of user requests
One of the fascinating things about IT is that, if you dig into any issue that is more than trivially simple, you quickly find that technology is only one aspect – and sometimes not even the most important. Most problems can be conceptualised as a three-legged stool, where one leg represents technology, and people and process make up the other two. This insight originates outside IT, from Toyota, but its implications are fully applicable to IT.
Extending the view of IT beyond technology opens up a whole can of worms, because many IT people are inclined by both nature and training to disregard or at least discount anything apart from hard technical questions. This can cause all kinds of problems when interacting with other functions and departments within the wider organization.
There is a whole field of studies called Restorative Practices that deals with the fall-out from these situations. It is generally used in situations that are far more high-stakes than the typical enterprise architecture review – think bullying, criminal justice, and migration conflict – but some of the findings and models can also be applied usefully in less extreme situations.
In particular, what caught my attention was a classic 2×2 matrix, showing the impact of social environments on the brain. The horizontal axis is the level of support, while the vertical one is the strength of boundaries or limits.
Many IT organisations are in the bottom-left quadrant, which can be described with adjectives like “unresponsive”, “reactive”, and “defensive”. Does that sound like an enterprise IT department you’ve had to deal with? Or if you’re inside an enterprise IT department, do you think your users might have some justification for using similar terms? (Be honest!)
Most people would agree that this is not a particularly positive state, but on the other hand it is a predictable default. IT reacts when stimulated, whether by a reported incident or by a requested change – and may well get defensive or be criticised as unresponsive in the process. If you’re reacting, by definition you are behind the curve, whereas ideally you want to be ahead of it.
Where this situation gets dangerous is if you move along only one of the two axes, as both outcomes are actually substantially worse than the default. In one case limits and boundaries harden, and IT becomes the authoritarian “Department of No”, turning down all user requests – even the reasonable ones. In the other, IT abdicates its responsibility and becomes a passive, permissive enabler of users – instead of counselling, advising, and guiding them.
These two states are the mirror image of each other, and many IT organisations can get trapped in a sort of pendulum between one and the other. Excessive rigidity leads to an abandonment of all structure, whose consequences force the introduction of a new set of strictures. IT is prone to these hotly contested debates between proponents of rigid adherence to a particular methodology (ITIL is the usual suspect here, but there are many others) and those who with some justification ask how even complete compliance to the methodology du jour will help achieve the organisation’s wider goals. In the other direction, a more laissez-faire attitude to IT risks overspending, duplication of effort, and major pain when the next legal or security policy compliance audit comes around – if not sooner.
The bottom line is that chasing either axis – boundaries or support – to its extreme end is very unhealthy, whether for the IT department or for the wider organisation. What is interesting is that by combining the two traits, we can get to somewhere much more positive. Instead of being authoritarian, by adding empathy and flexibility, IT can become consultative and authoritative. In the other axis, instead of being purely permissive, IT can become trusting, secure in the knowledge that boundaries have been correctly set, mutually agreed, and clearly communicated.
Now we are getting somewhere! The state associated with this top-right quadrant is relaxed alertness. In IT terms, we are talking about an IT department that is not constantly over-stretched by having to fight fires in every direction, but rather one that is always fully aware of the performance and availability of the services that it has contracted with the business to deliver. It is able to support routine tasks in a relaxed manner, safeguarding its ability to respond to situations that are genuinely unexpected and out of the ordinary.
Too many IT organisations run in permanent crisis mode, and this can even be perversely rewarding for participants, enabling a “hero culture”. Let’s be clear, being a hero is a good thing, but it’s not healthy if heroics are required every day just to keep the system ticking over. An IT department that can focus its heroics on activities that deliver genuinely epic results is one that is much more accountable to its end users.
Working in this way also frees up IT professionals to be reflective, to think beyond the technology leg of the stool and to how technology decisions will influence and be influenced by people and process aspects. Thinking about these topics will free IT from the perpetual need to defend itself against criticism, and enable a more proactive engagement between IT and the line-of-business functions that it supports and enables.
The question then becomes, how to enable this transition to an authoritative, trusted role for IT within the wider organisation? Old models will not work, as they tend to focus on one axis at a time.
The emergent model that can address both axes at once is Gartner’s AIOps. Because this new approach to IT Ops emphases agile collaboration and algorithmic flexibility, it does not have excessive rigidity, enabling changes to be made at the pace that business imperatives require. Meanwhile, it also gives the visibility and structure for IT to be able to advise its business counterparts proactively – not reacting to problems, but proposing solutions that enable the goals of the wider organisation.
And ultimately, isn’t that what we are all here to do?
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