Bad IT Management Habits: Break Them Before They Break You

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Bad habit: Jumping to conclusions

Aaron Gabrielson, IT manager at mining company Redmond Inc. in Heber, Utah, says he often begins devising a solution before he thoroughly understands the problem at hand. "I tend to skip straight to the tech solution without hearing the business case," he says, admitting that this habit puts his department at risk of developing technology that doesn't fully address business needs.

In this, Gabrielson is hardly alone. The Corporate Executive Board (CEB), a research and advisory services firm, has studied the individual habits of highly effective CIOs, and in doing so has also determined areas of weakness.

While technology departments have gotten better overall at the nuts and bolts of performing IT tasks, many still don't communicate as effectively with the business side as they could, says Shvetank Shah, executive director of CEB's IT practice.

Some IT pros tend to only half-listen and then make quick decisions in a vacuum. "Research shows that the skills missing are communication and negotiation," Shah says.

Instead, tech managers should make sure they fully understand the drivers behind a project; that way, they can contribute the expertise needed to develop technology solutions that fit the company's needs, budget and existing infrastructure.

With that goal in mind, Redmond's Gabrielson recently put himself through a business-analyst certification course at the International Institute of Business Analysis, and is now in the process of sharing what he learned with Redmond's seven-person IT department.

He knew his department was weak in its ability to fully grasp the business side of a project. But "going to that class made me realize how weak," he explains.

For example, a business unit might come to him and say it wants a website. Now he has learned to ask "why" before he starts to think about design options. "What do they actually want to accomplish?" he says. "Building a website isn't a business objective. Gaining 30% market share in the Northeast region, that's a business objective."

This summer, Redmond will begin a program to ensure that both business unit leaders and project managers analyze the business case before projects start, and the company's project management approval process will require that business analysis is completed before capital is allocated to a project.

For his part, Gabrielson is paying more attention to documenting requirements before projects begin and working on communicating a project's business objectives with stakeholders at the start.

Bad habit: Fighting fires 24/7

Lorraine Spencer's worst work habit is her tendency to focus so much on day-to-day emergencies that she never has time to think strategically or make progress on long-term projects. "I tend to go from one fire to another," says Spencer, IT project manager at Johns Hopkins University Office of Continuing Medical Education in Baltimore.

"It's human nature" to prioritize emergencies -- as when a user loses data or can't connect to the network. "If [users] can't do their work, you have to solve the problem," says Spencer, who supports 40 users.

Still, she acknowledges that constantly putting out fires detracts from her ability to step back, look at IT systems as a whole and determine if IT resources are being spent optimally.

Spencer ends up working extended hours to reach her goals, but she worries that that sets up unreasonable expectations -- both for herself and for tech employees as a group.

"IT managers tend to be people who just grit their teeth and get it done, so the expectation is that you can pull off these kinds of miracles all the time," Spencer says. "But then you end up with fewer people" in IT.

Spencer believes if she had more time to better analyze her systems, she'd have fewer crises to attend to and more time to complete scheduled tasks, allowing her to cut down on overtime hours.

What's needed to make that happen is more end-user training so employees can better help themselves, newer hardware and software that runs more reliably, and more delegation on her part -- for example, she could appoint someone on staff to deal with urgent matters while others work on more strategic issues.

Spencer says her department is working on some of these solutions, such as providing end users with more training and offering them do-it-yourself tools. "We're also working with some small teams across function areas to do some data cleanup tasks that would [otherwise] have been on IT's plate, so we're making some baby steps in that direction."

Next page: one more bad habit and some good ones

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