Telltale signs of IT dysfunction — and how to fix it

April 1, 2020

Originally published on CIO

Transformational success can be derailed by a dysfunctional IT culture, the roots of which often can be traced to silos, org structures and little desire or incentive to collaborate.

The role of IT is evolving, and digital transformation has brought with it a new set of responsibilities and assumptions that can lead to IT dysfunction. An explosion of new initiatives, the need to produce more quickly, constant interaction with the business, managing third-party cloud environments instead of traditional data centers — with so much coming at IT these days, it’s little wonder that organizational tensions and challenges are rising.

Despite the focus on technology, some industry analysts say the root of today’s dysfunction can be traced to lingering silos in the business, organizational structures that measure performance vertically instead of horizontally, and an unwillingness to collaborate, which is fundamental to a corporate-wide, shared digital strategy. Many organizations choose to simply cooperate, says Troy DuMoulin, vice president of research and development at Pink Elephant, a global IT change management training and consulting firm.

“Collaborate means that you and I have shared goals, shared values, methods and measures for which we hold each other accountable. To cooperate doesn’t mean any of those things,” DuMoulin says. “Our culture of siloed thinking really focuses on cooperating as the best scenario. Collaboration is not in the distance. Our structures, our incentives, our performance management structures — they orient people to take care of their own teams.”

CIOs and industry analysts weigh in on these and other telltale signs of IT dysfunction, and offer advice on how to fix these issues before they derail transformative initiatives.

Projects don’t move fast enough

In this scenario, IT organizations want to move quickly, but they’re hopping from one project to the next — and those are often not the projects on the company’s digital strategy priority list, or the one with the best ROI or that will strengthen the organization. Direction comes from the department with the loudest voice.

“You’ve got this pressure for speed, we can’t achieve fast unless we’re all going fast in the same direction. They all have a different sense of prioritization,” DuMoulin says. Agile teams are iterating quickly with business units, closing the gap between IT and the business with short feedback loops and iterations. But when it’s time to scale across the enterprise, that small-group collaboration isn’t enough.  

DevOps was created to help solve this problem by bringing all parts of the process together with its focus on collaboration, culture and teaming. “But many organizations that are actually using DevOps don’t focus on culture and organizational issues they have picked up on, but rather take a laser focus on the automation elements of continuous integration, testing and deployment,” DuMoulin says. This concept of a cross-functional team is just “a Band-Aid to vertical silo thinking,” he adds.

Business managers have a low opinion of IT

After years of leading Colliers International through its digital transformation and dealing with the pressure to create new business solutions quickly, CIO Mihai Strusievici faced some unfair criticism. Business leaders had grown frustrated with what they consider to be half-cooked ideas. “Our business partners may have expectations that if you [create applications] fast, that you also got it right on the first attempt,” Strusievici says. In reality, a successful app requires many iterations before it can go live. 

It’s just one example of how business managers might develop a low opinion of IT, which if left unresolved can result in IT’s disengagement from business operations.

In a low-confidence scenario, “The other managers in the organization have no interest in partnering with IT when they feel the IT department has little to offer them,” says Ted Ross, CIO, City of Los Angeles Information Technology Agency (ITA). Not only does it lead to an influx of shadow IT, but it also creates a lack of visibility that causes security issues.

“The results of this dysfunction are dramatic,” Ross says. “IT departments are seen as providing low value to the company, at a time when technology is the largest differentiator for most organizations. Now, business managers can easily access a set of configurable, online solutions without really engaging the IT department.  Without a concerted engagement effort by the IT department, they can become seen as obsolete in favor of third-party solutions.”

The business divides and conquers IT

If the business has a low opinion of the IT organization, then they feel like they can manipulate it. A classic sign of dysfunction appears when the business hearing “no” from one team member often continues to pursue things with other teammates until they get a “yes.” 

“It’s the old adage of divide and conquer,” says Nimesh Mehta, CIO at financial services company National Life Group. “A dysfunctional team doesn’t have a sense of vision or priorities to guide them that leads to ineffective and disjointed decision-making. It ends up in execution failure at the core.”

Low morale, high stress or infighting on the team

These obviously big issues usually start with subtle cues — missed deadlines, sloppy execution, subpar projects. “But these relatively minor problems can quickly manifest into more significant challenges from which it can be much harder to recover,” such as continued turnover or a major IT outage, says Steve Haindl, executive vice president of technology and innovation at Holman Enterprises.

This low morale could be attributed to the many roles that IT must assume, but it can also come from performance structures that aren’t aligned with their many responsibilities, DuMoulin says.

IT staff usually assume three roles: They perform the functional task of IT, the project tasks assigned to them, and they participate in cross-functional teams with other areas of the organization. Their performance, however, is based primarily, “and sometimes solely, on only the functional tasks, where they only spend a third of their time,” he says.

Meanwhile, middle managers struggle to meet their own performance goals as they keep lending out IT staff to other teams. “They’re distributing their capacity, but we don’t change how we’re measuring them, yet still hold them accountable to their own P&L and the projects that they have” to complete. “Job descriptions, functions and roles are not aligned with this sense of collaboration. Performance management structures contradict these goals,” he says.

How to fix it

Fixing IT dysfunction starts by making sure that everyone — not only the IT department but the entire organization — is aligned with the business’ objectives. It all begins with leadership, Haindl says. “There needs to be a clear vision, a clear understanding of your company’s key strategic priorities.”

In the IT department, alignment continues by setting a clear, concise vision and performance strategy for the team. “If your vision has an elevator speech for the Empire State building, then you will have a dysfunctional team that is navigating in the fog,” Mehta says. “Have a teachable point of view that is concise and simple.”

With those fundamental principles in place, you can begin to hone in on your IT department and determine how your IT resources will support and execute those objectives, Haindl says. To take it a step further, look to foster an office environment that nurtures seamless collaboration, Haindl adds. “An IT department that embraces trust, transparency and open communication will be well-positioned to overcome virtually any challenge and deliver truly meaningful results for your business.”

CIO’s play a unique role in translating the value of an IT department to their business counterparts, Ross says. To fix the dysfunction of IT department disengagement from the business, the CIO must engage their business counterparts and learn their operations, key objectives and help start the dialogue on how technology can advance their goals. Second, the CIO must work to build a culture of engagement within their IT department. There must be clear connections between IT projects and business outcomes. The IT staff must see their role as serving their customers and not simply maintaining apps and infrastructure. 

Third, IT staff must be developed with the non-technical skills expected in the modern IT department, Ross says. This would include public speaking, interpersonal communications and customer service.  “While many IT staff chose this field because of their interest in tech, they will need to expand their toolkit to include effective customer interactions,” Ross says.

And when it comes to lowering stress and infighting over shared resources, “We have to re-align our management and organizational structures to more horizontal perspectives,” DuMoulin says.

Quoting Conway’s Law, DuMoulin still believes that “structure dictates architecture,” as first told by computer programmer Melvin Conway in the 1960s.

“We are the environment we create” he says. The key to solving IT dysfunction starts with shifting to horizontal structures that take into account — and reward — the shifting role of IT.

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