There are two types of productivity killers in the modern workplace: small distractions that sap your focus and big productivity killers that push you into applying time and effort in all the wrong places. Like it or not, weak IT management practices are what cause the more significant productivity killers.
Following is a look at eight such practices that are derailing your IT department — and how to adjust for success.
1. Neglecting to prioritize strategic projects
IT has to put out fires on occasion. When the online banking servers go down, it’s an emergency. But panic situations tend to be rare. Instead, the steady stream of ad hoc questions and change requests from users are the more significant problem. Making users happy is a worthy goal, but you can easily fall victim to short-term thinking.
“The biggest productivity killing mistake that most IT managers and leaders make is failing to prioritize. Many IT organizations are overwhelmed with important things that need to be done, from maintaining their applications and infrastructure to responding to outages and problems, to responding to changing business needs,” says Alan Zucker, founding principal at Project Management Essentials. “Rather than prioritizing the work, the organization keeps on taking on more and more projects. By continually expanding the number of projects being worked on, the number of things getting completed declines. Quality suffers. Highly-skilled and motivated professionals become frustrated.”
As an IT manager you need to set the example by focusing on high-value projects. Otherwise, your company is never going to make progress on its strategic goals. To achieve those goals, sharpen your project management skills.
2. Retaining the contributor mind-set when transitioning to management
When IT pros move into management, they face a difficult change, as the rewards and expectations they face as a manager are substantially different. Gary Davenport, past president of the CIO Association of Canada, has seen new IT managers kill productivity when they fail to adjust to management.
“IT managers who come up through the technical ranks are used to being rewarded for their ability to work at a detailed level before they were promoted into management. Of course, what is required at more senior levels is very different than from being an individual contributor. It is not surprising that IT managers might have a challenge in making the transition. Warning signs include an inability to let go of the technical details and at the same time an inability to fulfill the true role of being the leader,” Davenport says. “A relevant analogy is worrying about arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic while missing the bigger picture of what is important. Don’t be a ‘chair arranger.’”
CIO and IT executives need to help support staff through this transition before the “rearranging deck chairs” failure to occur. Recognize new IT managers face a difficult transition and help them by sharing some of your lessons learned along the way.
3. Neglecting to grow your network
Meetings at work are like a diet: too few or too many hurt your department’s success. As a manager, you have significant influence over the meetings you attend. On the other hand, some meetings are critical to your success. If you work for yourself or run an IT company, take a page from Denis Zhirovetskiy’s approach:
“We live in a very fast-paced world, and you are only a conversation away from a new client, new vendor, new employee. I dedicate much time to talking to people, going to meetings, events, and reading. I try to meet with 20-30 people every week,” says Zhirovetskiy, president of Adeptcore.
As a corporate IT manager, adjust that philosophy to meet your situation. Regularly meeting new potential employees and stakeholders from other parts of the company will pay dividends in the long run.
4. Acting as an order taker for the business
As an IT manager, how should you respond when a manager or executive from another unit asks for new technology? The way you handle these requests will shape your success.
For Davenport, IT managers need to make business outcomes their focus rather than taking orders. “IT managers need to always focus on adding business value and not merely being an order-taker. This means being able to truly understand the business strategy and also being able to successfully translate that strategy into meaningful results. In other words, focus on the business outcomes and not the IT-detailed activities and tasks to make it happen. While those are important, it is not your primary role any longer and can lead to a lack of success and ultimately a failure,” he explains.
For years, IT leaders have sought to move beyond their perception as order takers. Why is taking orders from the business a problem? If a sales VP assumes “we need a new app,” and IT simply builds it, company resources may be wasted because IT managers did not search for other alternatives.
5. Failing to set an example of weekly wins
In technology, we ship projects that often take weeks or months to develop. The timeline is even longer when working with legacy systems. These large projects can be demotivating in the short term because the finish line is far away. Part of the answer would lie in defining parameters for a productive week, even if a significant project has not yet been completed.
“I keep a Kanban board in my office,” says Project Management Essentials’ Zucker. “I measure the number of items that I complete each week and measure my productivity based on the number of items that end the week in the done column. By using the Kanban and limiting the number of items that I work on, I am more productive. By visualizing the work and the items that are blocked or pending input from someone else, I keep track of everything that is in progress.”
The key to Zucker’s approach is “limiting the number of items that I work on.” That is easier said than done because you will have to say no to people. The key lies in having a portfolio of short-term and long-term wins.
6. Failing to strike a balance between short-term and long-term productivity
At work, your staff wants the satisfaction of winning. Left to their own devices, developers and other professionals may focus on short-term urgent tasks. Those provide a sense of quick win satisfaction, but they may not move the needle on your strategy.
“When I worked on a new technology implementation for a client, two client employees were trained on the implemented tool. One was completely ramped up and engaged within a couple of months, performing daily configuration changes where the other after a year or so, had barely been able to do so. Regarding previous experience and role were the same, but here is where motivation, context, and skills come into play,” explains Felix Acosta, senior manager at KPMH Canada’s CIO advisory group.
7. Failing to adjust project estimates
Knowing when to challenge the work estimates of your team is a critical IT management skill. Challenge too often, and your team may feel that you do not trust them. Fail to challenge them at all, and you may make unrealistic promises to your senior leadership. Jason Swett, an engineering consultant and creator of CodeWithJason.com, learned this lesson the hard way:
“In 2015, I worked at an agency where we were building a sales training platform for a well-known technology company. Before my involvement, the agency had tasked junior engineers with critical pieces of work. Six months had gone by, and the agency had no working product to show their client. A few weeks before the deadline, we discussed if we could make the deadline. I was the only one who pointed out we had months, not weeks, of work to do. Despite my warning, the agency decided to go for it. They failed. Not only did the client fire the agency but the client was left high and dry on an important project,” explains Swett.
Avoiding this problem takes a combination of confidence and knowing the right questions to ask. Swett suggests using the following questions: Are we estimating too much at once? If a task is estimated to take a week or more, that is a sign that the work needs to be broken down into smaller tasks, each of which should be determined separately. Are we too optimistic? The answer is usually yes, he explains.
8. Focusing on the wrong metrics
Completing a large number of tasks is all that matters, right? If that effort is applied to the wrong metrics, the so-called productivity does not lead anywhere useful.
“In IT, it is important to ask yourself how do you measure productivity?” says Acosta. “Some of the possibilities include shipping new code, infrastructure availability, the number of hours worked by your staff per ticket. The problem with all these metrics is that they are very poorly aligned with things like revenue or profitability, so there is an art to managing IT in any organization.”
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