Managing In The Winter Of Our Discontent

Three simple rules can help you get more from your IT staff. They're so simple that you're likely to brush them off.

InformationWeek Staff, Contributor

August 6, 2001

4 Min Read

Alas, the computer industry is cutting back on spending money, and that tired cliché, "you have to do more with less," is the order of the day. Because people costs are half or more of IT budgets, it makes sense for you to optimize your available staff, while still treating your employees decently.

The key is to make sure that everyone understands the department's key objectives and priorities. After that very difficult job is done (it does require continual communication), the next task is to measure results and provide feedback to those who do the work in the shop.

But, as simple as that sounds, it's very difficult to decide what metrics are appropriate and to make sure that the fabled law of unintended consequences doesn't raise its ugly head. So, here are a few pointers I've learned (the hard way) from my years in the IT industry.

  • People perform based on what is measured.

  • I've had more than one manager look at me blankly when I made this statement. They respond, "Of course, everyone knows that," and then blithely go along motivating the staff to continue doing the wrong thing.

    Let me give you an example. If you want your help desk to clear issues quickly, then use as your key measure the number of user resolutions an analyst can complete in a day. On the other hand, don't be surprised if your group develops a reputation for a curt and hurried attitude toward the people they're supposed to be helping. That's the law of unintended consequences at work. After all, the metric by which you are measuring the staff is the number of these users who can be entered in the "problem resolved" column, rather than the users' satisfaction level.

  • People concentrate on what affects their pay.

  • Regardless of your words about how much you value certain behavior, people are smart enough to concern themselves more with what you reward than with the performance you claim to treasure.

    Are you the type of manager who talks about wanting people to use their own initiative, but you remember an individual's mistakes more than her good calls when it comes time for raises? If so, you can guarantee that your people will not break any more rules to get the job done. If you reward conformity, people are intelligent enough to know it.

    The same situation is prevalent in other parts of your company outside IT, so don't feel as though you're all alone. At one place where I worked, the head of a business unit bemoaned that his salespeople were cutting special deals to move products, even if it wasn't profitable to do so. When I asked him how the salespeople were compensated, he replied, "By the revenue they bring in, of course." Duh!

  • Metrics have to be clear, measurable, and unequivocal.

  • It's amazing how many high-level executives will complain about their employees' lack of motivation when the poor worker in the trenches doesn't have a clue what the boss wants or how he intends to measure it. As a result, the staff spins its wheels, racing from crisis to crisis. They wind up feeling that they were treated unfairly because praise, raises, bonuses, and perks seem to be handed out capriciously.

    A good manager explains what has to be done and then communicates what measurements will be used. Clear and measurable are straightforward concepts. Unequivocal means that if different people are the ones doing the evaluation, they will all come up with the same result. For example, one of the several reasons it makes sense to break a big project into small pieces is that it's easier to agree that a small module has been completed than to reach an accurate consensus as to what percentage of the project is actually done.

As simple as it sounds to follow these three rules, it takes time and effort to make sure they permeate a company. They're not the only things that must be done in order to survive and prosper in the "Do more with less" economy, but they're a good start.

Robert M. Rubin is CEO of Valley Management Consultants, a firm specializing in E-business and information technology strategy, organizational design, and evaluation. Prior to joining VMC, he was senior vice president and CIO for Elf Atochem North America, a $2 billion diversified chemical company. The recipient of multiple industry awards, he is a contributing editor to InformationWeek and a member of its advisory board. He can be reached at [email protected].

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