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Achievement is Not the Absence of Failure

There are some jobs where achievement is the absence – or maybe the avoidance – of failure. Driving a bus is one of those jobs; if you make it through the day without an accident, without hurting or annoying anyone, and without falling behind your schedule, then you’re successful. There are other jobs where carrying out your duties and avoiding failure is more of a challenge; defending an army outpost against an enemy is an example.

In the IT world, much of our success with IT infrastructure is measured this way. Systems and network availability is determined by the absence of failure. IT security is similarly measured by the lack of security breaches.

In some companies (a declining number) where IT is not a critical part of the company’s products or services, the IT organization is invisible. In those companies, in fact, you can say that IT is measured by its invisibility. If business people can do their jobs without an IT problem, then IT is successful. This kind of thinking is at the heart of Nicholas Carr’s May, 2003 Harvard Business Review article, “IT Doesn’t Matter.” Carr’s main point in the article is that IT is increasingly being judged by its reliability and cost – not by its breakthrough contributions to the business.

I won’t go into an argument against some of Carr’s thoughts here (for more on that subject, see my June, 2003 newsletter post). But I want to point out that even when overall IT success is judged by the absence of failure, the success of individuals within the IT organization is still judged by their unique contributions – not their absence of failure. If you’re personally responsible for IT infrastructure, then you’ll be personally measured by improvements in infrastructure reliability and cost – not merely by a continued level of constant reliability and cost. Senior managers and executives are expected to make things better: to achieve something. If things around you stay the way they are then you will be regarded as a failure even while your organization may be regarded as a success.

There is only one exception to this rule, and that’s the case of an organization continuing at the same level of reliability and cost in the face of a dramatic increase in the issues facing the organization. If you’re defending an army outpost and you continue to hold off the enemy while the attacking force doubles, then surely you must be a success, and it’s the same way in business. But there’s a catch: the people measuring you must recognize the increase in the attacking force. That’s more difficult than you might think, since many IT organizations are not well understood by the business itself. How does the business know that you’re in a struggle to hold the line on reliability and cost in the face of an increasing number of problems? As an example, how many IT security management teams have been regarded as failures due to extraordinary increases in hacker attempts in the last few years?

The key to being recognized as an achiever is to clearly demonstrate your achievement, and to show that things are much better because you’re there and they would be much worse without your contribution. You have to prove your contribution to the business. And then when you’re done proving, go right back and prove some more, because you won’t be rewarded again for yesterday’s achievement.

Yes, in some jobs, achievement is the absence of failure. But if you want to be truly successful in life you have to do more. It’s not enough to avoid failure – you have to make things better.

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