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Have You “Pulled Your Goalie” in IT?

I lived in Boston during the height of the Bobby Orr days, and I got caught up in the enthusiasm that Boston felt for their Bruins. I had never seen ice hockey before I moved to Boston, and I learned the game by watching the Bruins win the Stanley Cup.

One of the intriguing tactics used in ice hockey (just called hockey in Boston — the ice is implied) is the practice of “pulling your goalie.” The game is played with six players per side on the ice at any point in time (minus any in the penalty box). Normally one of those six players is a goalie who stays in front of the goal net and stops any shots on goal from the opposing team. But in certain situations when a team is losing a game and desperate for a score, the team may “pull its goalie” and replace the goalie with an attacker to improve the team’s chances of getting a score on the opponent’s goal.

Pulling your goalie is trading a defensive player for an offensive player. It intensifies your attack but it can critically weaken your defense. Any random shot by the opposing team in the direction of your goal can score a goal for your opponent because of your open net. It’s a risk that you might take when you are sure that you’re going to lose the game without desperate measures. It’s a last ditch effort to win something that otherwise might be lost.

Why talk about hockey?
In our current economic situation, we have a lot of companies who are cutting back on expenses in extraordinary ways. Millions of people have lost their jobs, and thousands of companies have closed their doors. But not all businesses are equally desperate. Most companies have suffered losses in revenue, but many businesses have solid foundations that can withstand temporary losses and then recover when times get better.

The economic turndown has affected IT organizations along with the rest of the business, and we’ve had our share of layoffs, project cancellations and budget cuts. IT has been under extreme pressure to cut costs wherever we can, and some very difficult decisions have been made.

Some of those decisions are equivalent to the tactic of pulling the goalie. Many of us have cut the budget in areas that fundamentally weaken the IT and business infrastructure — cuts that expose our business to tremendous risk. We have “pulled the goalie” in IT, maybe without even thinking of the consequences, and in most cases without making business executives aware of the risk we’re taking.

Let’s take a few examples. In your IT organization, have you:

  • Stopped updating virus prevention software?
  • Fallen behind on implementing operating system and network software updates?
  • Cancelled offsite backup services or disaster recovery site contracts?
  • Discontinued contracts with “white hat” Internet security audit firms who look for Internet security vulnerabilities?
  • Postponed outside audits of business processes and systems?
  • Delayed replacement or upgrade of servers which offer inadequate response times to your customers?
  • Let your infrastructure deteriorate to the point where customers are complaining?
  • Laid-off the only people who really understand how to maintain and support some of your current custom systems?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, then you’ve pulled your goalie. You’ve taken resource away from a crucial defensive area, presumably with the intent of using the money for a more critical need.  You’ve acted out of desperation in a way that could cripple your business. And in most cases your CEO doesn’t even know. That’s because most CEOs don’t understand the implications of some of the technical decisions we make in IT, and business executives will never understand those implications unless you tell them.

In hockey, pulling the goalie is a last ditch effort — a team only does it when they know that they’re going to lose the game unless they take this drastic action. But in hockey there’s always another game and another season. The score resets with each new game, and so battles are fought on a game-by-game basis.

In business, it’s one continuous battle. We don’t restart each year with a fresh score and new equipment. In business, a pull-the-goalie decision is a bet-the-company decision. A loss can cost you the entire business. And pulling the goalie in IT is a hidden decision — the CEO and stockholders won’t know that you’re betting the company unless you tell them.

Pulling the goalie is an exciting part of hockey, and it’s great fun for the spectators. But pulling the goalie in business is a desperate move, and you shouldn’t do it unless you’re truly desperate, and unless your CEO agrees.

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