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On Time at the Wrong Restaurant

A friend of mine struggled with bad weather and worse traffic to make his way across town, arriving just in time for a scheduled lunch meeting. Unfortunately, he had misunderstood his calendar, and he was at the wrong restaurant.

When he told me about it the next day, it struck me how his predicament is an appropriate metaphor for the way many of us do Information Technology. We work extremely hard, we struggle against all sorts of obstacles from the technology itself and from the people in our company, and yet, when it’s all done, we find that we’ve reached the wrong destination. We find that we misunderstood the business requirements, or maybe we pursued the solution to a symptom instead of digging deeper and finding the root problem.

I’ve seen this happen hundreds of times: work done on optimizing a system that was soon thrown out and replaced; effort expended on an application that the customers didn’t want; time wasted on improving the human interface of screens that are only viewed once in a while by system administrators. We get so focused on problem-solving and roadblock removal that we don’t stick our heads up once in a while and see if we’re still headed in the right direction. Forget the forest and trees analogy; we’re below the tree level down in the dirt.

Why does this happen? Sometimes it’s because we become focused on “resource utilization,” that magic phrase which means that it’s a crime to actually have an employee idle for a day. We find things for the people to do, even if the things are not really all that important, and before you know it, a minor task has escalated into something major.

But more often it’s because we do what we’re told, even if we don’t understand why, and even if we push back and try to put things into a broader context. Because in most cases the day-to-day success of a CIO isn’t measured by what he or she accomplishes; it’s measured by how what is accomplished is perceived by his or her superior. Hype, spin, and positioning can cover up a multitude of sins.

My job is to help companies think strategically about IT. But the two biggest issues I find are that either (a) the business isn’t thinking strategically about itself, or (b) that no one connects the IT strategy to the business strategy. When either of these things happens, the result is that IT direction setting becomes a process of prioritizing random requests rather than positioning those requests in the context of a broader strategy.

Without the strategy, it’s as if we turned our restaurant choice over to bunch of six-year-old kids. They don’t think about what’s the best nutrition for their bodies—they just want to go to the place that has the best kids’ meal toys. Similarly in the business world the people making random requests for IT help are often going after “fast food projects”: projects which provide a quick sugar rush in terms of visible short-term results (notice I used the word “results” – not “benefits”), but which probably don’t contribute much to the long-term needs of the business.

IT Strategy is a whole lot more than prioritizing projects. It’s knowing where the business wants to go, what’s holding it back, and what can be done to remove the limitations that are preventing the business from becoming bigger, better and more profitable. It’s like nutrition in the sense that you have to understand the whole body need, and then put together meals or snacks (smaller projects) which make the body stronger. And yes, you have to do some “glamour projects” once in a while to placate your boss and make your IT group look good, just like you probably ought to take your six-year-old to McDonald’s every now and then. But “glamour” is not a word that I’ve ever heard associated with being in the IT business.

Mostly, IT is “three steps forward, one step back.” It’s trying to keep focused on what’s important even when you’re being bombarded by short-term requests and broken technology. It’s trying very hard to nourish your company, with many of the exact same rewards that come from trying to nourish your family: “Oh ma, do we have to eat meatloaf again?!?”

And if we’re lucky and diligent, we’ll do what our company needs to have done, and we’ll end up on time at the right restaurant. Because you know what happens if you show up on time at the wrong restaurant? You have a nice lunch alone.

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