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IT Governance is Like Pushing a Rope

IT governance has been getting a lot of attention lately in the press. Frankly, it bothers me, since I think that a focus on IT governance is misguided. Four years ago I wrote an article about the difference between management and leadership. In the article I said that:

“… management is like pushing a rope; it works only if you make continuous small adjustments to keep the rope in line. Leadership is like pulling a rope; the parts of the rope that are out of line will automatically align themselves with the direction of motion. When you push a rope you have to focus on the rope; when you pull a rope you focus on the direction in which it’s being pulled.”

In my opinion, the focus on IT governance is a focus on management at the expense of leadership. A lot of IT governance is concerned with project decisions: trying to figure out the best way to allocate scarce IT resource. There are many ways to do this. You can use steering committees, you can use review boards, and you can come up with complex “impartial” formulas for project benefit evaluation (see my July, 2004 article to find out why I put “impartial” in quotation marks). But all of these different approaches are pushing the rope — they’re ways of forcing certain projects ahead of other projects without really looking at what’s most important strategically for the business. The optimum benefit for the business shouldn’t be determined by a vote. It shouldn’t be determined by some complicated formula. It should be determined by “pulling the rope” — by setting a strategic direction for the business and then figuring out what IT projects provide the most benefit and support for that strategic direction.

I made the comment in a meeting a few weeks ago that all of the companies who are focused on IT governance instead of strategy are in deep trouble (actually I used another word other than “trouble” but the meaning is the same). Some of the people at the meeting understood what I meant, but I suspect a large number of the attendees were clueless.  We tend to become absorbed by current projects — not strategy.  And we’re too busy fighting day-to-day battles to recognize our omission.

Allocation of a scarce resource in a business is a political issue, and the larger and more complicated the business, the more political it is. Politics is about optimizing the personal agendas of many different people. And that’s what IT governance is all about — it’s a way of choosing the “least bad” set of solutions from a minefield of conflicting personal agendas. IT governance is like a multi-dimensional traffic light: some projects get the green light, and some projects get the red light until it’s their turn to go. But projects that are more strategic aren’t typically given higher priority, and in fact there’s often no consensus on which projects are considered to be strategic.

In many of my articles I’ve talked about focus — the need to put your scarce resources to work on the most important things. It’s my experience that strategy can provide focus, but IT governance cannot. Instead, IT governance just forces various projects through IT for all of the wrong reasons.

Is your business “pushing the rope” and managing your IT workload? Or are you “pulling the rope” and leading the business and IT to its strategic objectives? In the long run we’ll all know because of your business success or lack thereof. Pushing the rope is the best approach for business mediocrity. Pulling the rope can give you superb IT and an outstanding business.

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