Mar 16 2009

Be the Driver, Not the Driven

Don't let the inertia of day-to-day systems demands grind innovation by the IT team to a halt.

Photo: Hot Shots Imaging
Jim Shanks, Executive Vice President and former CIO of CDW

Wow. There’s a new president in the White House who’s as besotted by technology as I am and won’t part with his BlackBerry — no matter what.

If you’re a techie like me, it’s not too hard to get excited about what an Obama administration might portend for the evolution of technology in the United States. But while exciting opportunities and innovation loom on the horizon, the daily push and pull of managing business systems gives many IT managers a chronic case of tunnel vision.

That’s a truth for any IT shop in any organization — particularly when hit with budget cutbacks and the mantra to do more with fewer people, limited products and less-than-reasonable implementation timeframes. While many IT teams will operate with reduced budgets this year, there’s certainly no corresponding shortage of end-user support demands and business-driven initiatives.

Even though your teams might be tempted to dig in and just get it done, you’ve got to fight off that notion like the Conflicker virus before it infects your IT team members with a bad case of inertia. For those of you who aren’t sci-fiers, inertia is the tendency of a body to stay where it is — moving or at rest — resisting change. For an IT team, inertia can mean heroically putting out tech fires or hiding in the cube avoiding tough jobs. Whatever situation characterizes your team, now is the time to understand changing business dynamics and to make sure IT stays in lock-step as a strategic enabler of change. It boils down to stepping up or becoming irrelevant. So how do you become the driver, not the driven?

Go for It

First off, seize ownership of aligning tech projects with the key business challenges confronting your leadership team.

One way to do this is to have your staff directly interact more with project managers, sales teams and leaders in your company. Even in a small organization, it can be easy to wall off IT as a service bureau that responds only when called.

As IT manager, give your staff the chance to get tuned in and revved up about business goals. That’s why many people choose to work long hours in a startup or small business. They want to be part of the action. But here’s the question: Does your company reward everyone it employs for creativity and innovation?

If the answer is no, then that’s an opportunity you can exploit. If IT takes on and addresses business challenges by spearheading new initiatives that work, get out ahead of these projects and then reward your staff.

Another way to create momentum: Take a small element of a big idea and have IT develop pieces that the team can deliver on quickly, or offer a service to fulfill an interim need. So maybe you can’t roll out a new customer relationship management system tomorrow for users at multiple locations, but you could provide a portal to let them share information while you tackle the bigger infrastructure challenge. Look for game-changer ideas that will excite people and create buzz around IT as the organization’s problem solver in fat and lean times. It will motivate the staff and garner goodwill within the broader organization.

Finally, make sure you give back to your staff. It’s an obvious tool at your disposal, but one that you have to act on to make worthwhile. Giving back doesn’t mean you necessarily have to pay them more, but incentives and bonuses are nice if your bottom line will allow it. Mentoring, praising good work, training staff in cross-functional roles, encouraging staff members to improve or even inviting a star team member to shadow you at an executive meeting can reap benefits down the road. These steps will also ready your team to eventually take on more responsibilities within the business when new positions open up or when new projects get approved. It’s not just a job, after all; for most, it’s a calling. And, it’s your job to make sure the company calls on the IT team early and often.

Jim Shanks is executive vice president of CDW, a provider of technology solutions for business, government and education based in Vernon Hills, Ill.