Tuesday, January 27, 2009

The bread and butter of any methodology. This is NOT unique to Information Technology regardless of how many articles and geek speakers you have been informed by. This is as old as time. The Romans whom were the architects of modern, yes modern project management, knew the inter-relationship of People, Process and Tools (Technology).

Whether you are building a home or just implementing a function in a program your balanced approach needs to be considered.

When this triangle is out of balance to the needs of the organization then problems arise. All elements of the Information Technology value chain (Network, Technology, applications and business drivers) must be audited to ensure the organizational goal are met.

People are the cornerstone to any successful approach. People must have the proper training, desire, capacity and spirit to succeed. You as the leader have to let your people do their job. Give them the environment to succeed and at times fail. All too often we want to step in to fix the situation and this can cause longer term issues for the team. Team members must have the confidence to proceed as they see fit within the larger context and in a respectful way.

I have worked many sides of the Information Technology arena. Generally speaking infrastructure groups gravitate to processes and development groups gravitate to the creative open ended side. I have found the best developers are those that explore their creative side and the best infrastructure people adhere to defined processes and are focused trouble shooters. This latter group are your bush wise survivors and the former tend to be the tortured artists. Embrace both and provide an environment that is conducive to their unique styles.

Some of the key areas that fall within the people element are;
  • Training -- This should not be a reward or vacation but an investment for the organization and the individual.
  • Administrative support -- Do your paper work on time and with pride
  • Mentoring -- Educate as you communicate
  • Performance reviews -- This is critical to all parties
  • Supervision -- Who is running the mad house
  • Discipline and corrective action -- Be firm but fair. Focus on the message to those watching
  • Motivation -- Let them know when they are doing a great job, support them in dark times and provide a vision for their efforts

If you are ones of those recently promoted from within the ranks or from within the craft it can be very difficult to make the adjustment to management. One of my first realizations after knowing I was now paid for what I was able to get done was that the members of my team were now a tool within my larger kit bag. This is by no way meant to convey arrogance or maltreatment but rather the opposite. It was a very humbling realization. You now have the responsibility of this new tool and you have to effectively use it without breaking or damaging it. This new tool which you have no previous knowledge or comprehension of is not the inanimate tools (hardware and software) you used in learning your craft. This tool also did not come with any user manual and has a tendency, at times, not to work as expected. For this the axiom, people tend to do what is inspected and not expected.

You as their leader are now faced with much more responsibilities then just what happens at the job site. Your team will look to you for guidance, direction and to set the baseline. I encourage new managers to imprint their mark on their teams. This is not a simple task in this craft we call Information Technology. Most of us, were attracted to the purity of the technology and our ability to manipulate it impersonally. Now as a wielder of this human tool, our caviler attitude or iterative approach to tool learning will work against us. We must take a much more pragmatic and exterior view of the group and how they inter-relate.

Some sound advice in this arena given to me when I became an infantry officer from my grandfather who was a highly decorated Sargent in the Canadian Army during the second world war was this. Lead from the front, be the last to bed, last to eat and first to rise...... Take care of the men behind you and they will protect you from the enemy in front of you. Very sound advice to anyone who has a team under their care.

There are several other factors in the people element that I try to remember when working at my craft. Most of us, will be technology dealers with humans at the other end. Either as users or consumers of the craft. Be respectful. Would you want to use your technology every day. Does it take into account the normal dealings of your intended and sometimes unintended users. Put yourself on the other side of the screen or interface before you roll out your solutions. When users and some times abusers call us for help remember regardless of what mood they are in or for that matter what mood you are in, help was asked for...... How about providing some without the drama. As a manager you need to be respectful to the group of individuals you report to. Are you meeting their needs with your what your team is responsible for? Do you understand the vision? Are you moving the overall agenda forward? Are you part of the solution or the problem? These are the questions you need to reflect on when your team engages.

Process is for some, me included, one of the coolest elements of the approach triangle. When I am in an engaged business meeting discussing business challenges I become hyper sensitive to the processes being discussed. Established, effective process allows the machine to run smoothly. A simple effective process for time and attendance reporting has way more "acceptance" value to your team then an overburdened software development life cycle process. Again, remember it is people who use processes and that a good solid process take the human element into account and is people centric.

All the process you come into contact with both as a user and as a developer must be thoroughly considered for its relevance to your organization. There are now very mature Information Technology processes for you to draw on. But anything else in this craft, you must learn to harness it and apply it with proper care and use. You must assess the capacity maturity level of your team and organization before you delve too deep into a process. I find it best to walk before you run. I have also implemented processes that I call transitional processes. That is I introduce the base elements of a mature process to educate the team or organization before going after the larger more complex implementations. A good example of this is a ticketing system for work requests. If your organization has no formal method of asking for work to be completed then you need to implement a simple trouble ticketing systems before you go after a full service desk implementation of an ITIL best practices approach.

This blog will endeavour with future posts to explain and elaborate on formal Information Technology processes. Below is a list of processes that I believe are essential to leading in an Information Technology profession.

Each of these has many books and reference points and I encourage anyone looking to hone their skills to read and understand these processes and their effective implementations.

The Tools element of the approach triangle is where I get my most enjoyment. I am such a tool junkie that at times I embarrass myself. This is when the true inner geek in me lets go. I do not care if this is a new wood working tool in my vast collection or a some wicked free network monitoring tool. I get all goose pimply and child like. When I get caught in the gaze of one of these tools I become 5 years old again. What fun......

However, in our chosen profession we have way too many tools now at our disposal. My grey hair is a constant reminder of the best of times was when we built our own tools to achieve our end goals. The older I get the better I was. One of the main poignant reasons for this, in my belief, is that to make a tool, the crafts person needs to understand the "why" a tool is being made. A tool user is only fixated on the "how" it works. A very important difference. I find a great deal of my colleagues have become so obsessed with tools that they forget why the tool was needed in the first case.

Network monitoring tools for me is one area that causes me the greatest concern with younger shops. The tools today are so rich and powerful that the user of the tool becomes an observer and not the crafts person. Times like this the saying "a fool with a tool is still a fool". It may seem harsh but we have all been witness to it. We also see this in our user community when we come across a super user from the Excel warrior camp who can dazzle the bosses with great ease. Only to find out that his tool of choice is using stale data and is out of sync with the full body of knowledge. But it is impressive to watch even in a sick sinister way.

Be careful when your team is constantly coming to you to buy or implement a tool to better their lives when they have not convinced you it will help the overall team and/or organization. This is usually a sign of lack of team focus or lack of confidence in themselves. Make sure the tools being acquired are being used and that value is being returned back to the organization.

Visual tools are very powerful, whether they be in the development arena or the monitoring arena. All users of these visual tools must be reminded of the underlining work that is being performed by these tools. Failure to do so, makes you the leader of the fools with all the cool tools.

One of my favourite tools in my leadership possession is the employee evaluation. I choose to use this tool to educate my team on what is expected and more important to reward efforts and behaviours. I was born with the greatest tools of all and that is two eyes, two ears and one mouth and I attempt to use them wisely and in the correct order.

In conclusion, when your approach is balanced with engaged people, relevant processes and effective tools then you can be assured your team will have what it takes to be successful. When you feel or witness stress in the team, ensure all elements of this approach are in balance.

Monday, January 19, 2009

The culture needed

If the core of a team are its values then the mode of its execution must its culture.  The culture becomes the predictor of the end result.  For example, in most instances it is safe to say the culture of government is "oversight" and "bureaucracy" and that this culture is also not one of innovation.  When you think of Apple you might come to the conclusion of "innovation".  In many of my past lives I have had the fortune and misfortune of being inside an organizational culture.  

When I am given the helm of a team, a department or a division, I spend a great deal of time orienting myself into their existing culture.  The process I use to do this will be written about at another time for it is quite involved.  This is where I find out if the team is focused on problem solving or problem identification --  is the team focused on solutions or just "order taking".  These discoveries led to actions that allow me to imprint a different vision if needed.  Sometimes the culture is fine and it is me who has to adjust.  This latter part is very important.  You must always ask yourself if you are part of the problem or the solution.  Self reflection is paramount.

The purpose of this post, like the other, is to aid the individual who is new to the management role and comes from the technical background.  One of the largest leaps that is required is to go from "being paid for what you do" to "being paid for what you get done".  This may sound easy but it is tough to step away from the technology and deal with the people and process issues to get the team motivated to complete projects and tasks.  Your personal currency is all you now have to complete these things.

What does all this have to do with "Culture"?  Well, in a nutshell, everything.  If your users/clients/stakeholders know how you and your team will come up with solutions and you adhere to your values then there is an expected outcome.  If you build a culture of "get it done" with respectful values then good things happen.  If you build a culture of oversight, governance, process and your values are self serving and protective you will find the user environment has found very creative ways around your team.  This is quickly identified in those organizations that have "death by spreadsheet and/or MS access".  A typical red flag that the IT Culture is not working for the larger context.

So what does the above graphic say of the culture I embrace?  I will attempt to explain.


This is the starting point for me and the team.  We do not live in a lab were everything is controlled and we have unlimited funds.  When a problem or what I call an opportunity presents itself, look to other options.  This is how technology gets used in places that it was NOT designed for.  It is 2am and a critical printer is down and there is another slower printer somewhere else.  Then move the job there, do not get hung up on the drama of the user complaining about the speed.  Slow is better then stopped.  In the programming world, use alternate techniques that exploit your environment to the fullest and stop chasing the latest and greatest.  That only leads to confusion and distraction.  Yes, the computer science guys cringe at this one but lest be real.  Boiling the ocean of the possible for a report or query that gets run once a year is not the best use of your human and technical resources.  Improvise is used for that resourceful group that can get creative in a pragmatic way.  This is not to support not standards thinking but rather thinking on your feet.  This goes hand in hand with Courage to act.  For those of us old enough the phase "MacGyver it" resonates as a key element of improvise.  To the younger crowd the phrase "duct tape and binder twine" resonates.  

The element of Improvise promotes creative thinking, solutions centric thinking and a "can do" attitude when improvisation is supported and more importantly promoted.   The message being received by your stakeholders will be one that is positive and collaborative.  Even with our standards, oversight and process we can still be nimble and relevant to the organization.

Honestly, this is the one that I find the Information Technology group struggles with the most.  For a group of individuals that inflict as much change (read pain) as we do, we are the worst at adaptation.  Once we find something that works or has given us success we become the immovable force.  We have more baggage and hangups then the dysfunctional celebrities we mock.  

The adaptation step is one where you assess you role, position and meaning to the larger organization.  Information Technology by its very nature is a service industry.  So who are you servicing.?  If you are in a technology company with lots of engineers then go nuts with the acronym soup.  They will love ya.  However, the vast majority of our members work for real businesses with real issues and little to no appreciation of what Technology can do for them.  Get over yourself and start to educate as you communicate.  If your company is capital constrained then look to operational solutions.  If cash is easy to find but human resources are low then look to those solutions that make your department self sufficient and outsource those elements you do not need to know or do not have the hands for.  Never outsource your competitive  advantage or business knowledge.  This becomes a dangerous game.  Other posts will speak directly to Outsourcing for it is quite involved and has many real positives.  If your team is not very creative then you need to draw outside help to get those things done.  You need to appreciate the stripes on the zebras that are your team.  You are the leader of a group inside a larger group.  You will need to adapt to both internal (your team) and external forces.  Resistance and steadfast has their place.  Observe and act accordingly.  I was once told by a mentor, "you have two eyes, two ears and one mouth ----- use them accordingly".  By listening to this advice the level, and depth of adaption will be known.

If you believe the above two elements then the third element of Overcome is a natural outcome.  This means, do not lead your team through the rear view mirror.  Look forward and put in solutions reflective of what is NOT what was.  I have found, regardless of how bad a system or infrastructure is, people believed it was the right thing to do at that time.  It may have been done out of ignorance or arrogance but rarely I have found it was done out of malice.  This is important to understand.  Sometimes, you have to come forward and say redo it.

By looking at what is and adapting to the reality of what you have at your disposal and being creative in your solutions you will be able to solve (overcome) the real issues and provide real value back to the organization.

Another way of looking at this is "do you want to be right or do what is right".  Doing the right things now, for the right reasons is overcoming the obstacle and not being stopped by it.  Do not buy into "the sky is failing" syndrome.  Deal with it, respectfully, get all the facts, come up with options and implement the solutions and you would be amazed at how blue the sky really is. 

We work in an industry that rarely informs us the good things we do.  We are inundated with negative issues all day.  It is our job and our primary goal to deal with these issues and provide solutions, interfaces, experiences and infrastructure that solves the real issues and not the symptoms.  Always ask yourself, would you use the solution provided?  If it is not a resonating "YES" then why did you implement it or why are you implementing it?  

Monday, January 12, 2009

Team Values

Values are the core of any team. It is even more important for Information Technology Teams. The problem with most IT groups today is that they hide behind lingo and processes. The goal of IT is to leverage the technology to move the organization forward. To do this your solutions must be values based. This is a tall order in a society that rewards the "passive aggressive" and the "techno weenies".

The value element of Courage is the one I encourage the most. Courage means many things to many people. One of my favourite quotes regarding courage is from Ambrose Redmoon and it reads like this "Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the judgment that something else is more important". Within our Team "Courage" refers to the courage to ACT. Do something. Analysis paralysis is not an option. The action must have been thought out and must be sensitive to what problem is being solved. Once the action is done, you must review and followup your assumptions t0 ensure your action had the desired affect. Failure to do so, creates havoc. My team will be given great latitude for a thoughtful and purposeful action. Inaction must be weeded out and people's tendency to stay safe must be discouraged. I make reference to the "hero" syndrome created by the engineer who wrote one email on the POTENTIAL of the O-rings failing on the space shuttle. After the crash investigation this person was given hero status for his ability to highlight the problem. The sad part is upon further investigation it is found out the email does not provide options or even a detailed occurrences of solutions. Just the basic, its broke, and I have covered my position. This is not helpful. We as a human race have never accomplished anything from the comfort zone. People must act to progress. Staying safe and looking for the "OUT" instead of "How can we" is not the recipe for success. This comes with a great burden though, for the action comes with risk and is fraught with naysayers. Place your compass on doing the right things for the right reasons and look beyond your department for what is really needed. Action to move forward, in the end will always be the better approach than, sitting back and letting the inaction take on a life of its own.

HONOUR to be accountable is the next value statement. This means, in our Team's context to stand up and be counted for the decision that was made and/or the action taken. Facing the music as it were. Not just for ones action but for the actions of the team. Accountable to self and to team is just as important. The good news in this regard is that if you are person who not only takes accountability but encourages it, your team will be known as people of Honour and your word is golden. This is proved by the actions taken and the commitment to see it through. By being accountable you open your team up to public failures, however, this is offset by being openly invited to those decision making tables. This gives you and your team personal currency and places you at the decision table. Without this, your team will just be "order takers" and not solution providers. Always being accountable is hard work and sometimes it is perceived as witch hunting. When done consistently and promoted effectively it will become an organic continuously improvement exercise. Your team will also become the benchmark for other departments to emulate. I quickly weed out those individuals whom look outside themselves in time of crisis and internally in times of success. A good leader corrects an issue internally and quietly. Along with this, a Good Leader compliments his team externally and internally to promote good behaviour. This latter part is not trite or a facade but rather an acknowledgment the team succeeds and the individuals within the team must be recognized according.

Integrity is the last element of our value proposition. It is also, I find, the most difficult for our industry to live up to. In our team context, it refers to Integrity to work with others. To some degree we, in the technology arena, have become snobbish and arrogant. This is not how to become a trusted adviser to the organization. Information Technology cannot be successful by working in isolation or in silos. They must work cohesively within the team and more importantly with the organization as a whole.

The next part of this is the part some IT group will hail as blasphemy. Within the larger business context, the IT department does NOT, yes NOT make decisions we make recommendations. Information Technology should be looking at all solutions from the business/ organizational context. They should not be making decisions from an engineering or techno gissmo perspective. Come on, we have all done this in our personal lives. The shiny pots and beeds, the flashing lights, we can't help ourselves. This is the technology trap. Having said this, I am not recommending you let the business run information technology cart blanche. For I also have another saying. "those who think they know, really annoy the ones who do". To counterveil the latter from the former, it is imperative the solutions provided must solve the business problem. You have to bring all elements to the table, not just the shiny ones with all the lights or from the vendor that keeps you nice and comfy in your Management chair.

Search deeply, look into the organization. Get out of your office, walk the floor, know what your organization does from all aspects, not just how they interface into your technology. I pride myself at providing solutions that take the other side of the glass into consideration. If you had to do the job all day would the solution be something that helped or hindered. To know this answer you MUST work with them and be a leader to them. It is a tough balancing act but one that is worth the effort.

In conclusion our teams values are the Courage to Act, the Honour to be accountable, and the Integrity to work with others. Don't just say it or put it on your screen saver. Live it for deeds speak.

Friday, January 2, 2009

My first post

Well bare with me as I stumble through this new adventure. I would like to use this forum to aid those individuals whom are trying to climb the organizational chart by way of the Information Technology latter. Yes this can be done and with much success.

The Rule of engagement for this adventure is not different than any other group but most things IT we tend to over complicate and forget the trip has already been done by others, some wiser but none the less others.

The concept of this blog was derived by a book proposal I have been playing with. The title of this book is/was "Making !T Work". You will notice the "i" is inverted and is in fact an exclamation point. Both are relevant.

I would like to share for that is what I do with anyone who will listen and in this case read. The title of the blog is Design principals for I strongly believe every project/undertaking should have a purpose and it should stay focued on it. So with this I will end my first post and commit to bringing some points forward.

I will be discussing Portals, Project Management, framework design, my three triangles (come on you want to know about that) and many more items. I will tell you what I will bring forward is not new for I truly believe we stand on the shoulders of giants.

I am really looking forward to your comments and suggestions on topics.

Have a great 2009.