Process Pantomime

Process Pantomime

The central issue here has nothing to do with advice-resistant clients and everything to do with pantomime cultures of perfunctory processes

When form substitutes for substance, you have an IT leadership problem

This column is about strategic frustration: mine, not yours. It stems from complaints IT leaders and managers make over lunch, in workshops and conferences. They need their problems solved - Now! - and want to vent.

So I listen, ask questions and pay close attention to what they say and how they say it. They're not happy.

On occasion, I make suggestions. More often than not, their most eloquent response is a dismissive shrug. "We do that already," they say.

Intriguingly, they don't say: "We tried that and it doesn't work", or "Yeah, we have trouble doing that well", or "We never thought about it quite that way"; they claim they're already doing it. That's odd. If they were really doing it, they wouldn't have the problem they're complaining about. But let's take people at their word.

Since you're doing what I suggest already, why do you think the process isn't working? The answers I hear invariably sound fake. The truth - which always comes out - is, they don't really "do that already". They've never done "that" in any meaningful way. My IT complainers aren't being dishonest; they're just not being honest. More precisely, they're not serious. This is my great frustration.

Of course, my frustration reflects their strategic failure, which is the pathology of the perfunctory process. That is, IT literally goes through the motions without doing the work. The organization is living a process pantomime that may lead to a box being ticked but no meaningful work being done. I've lost track of the number of times an e-mail, conversation or onsite visit reveals that IT isn't doing anything remotely near what its leadership says it's doing. On the contrary, time, money, talent and credibility are being squandered.

Empty Gestures

A classic example: A financial services firm asked me to examine why its Indian outsourcer did such an awful job of responding to requirements change orders. This was a $200 million-plus outsourcing deal for a self-described mission-critical app for a Fortune 200 firm. The project was already late and well past the point of no return on busting the budget.

The team presented its case. I reviewed the requests and saw the kinds of questions and code coming back. My simple suggestion: Change orders should go out with a three-paragraph brief explaining the technical rationale, the business rationale and the likely testing schema for the change.

The team leader looked at me. "We do that already," he said.

Great. Show me. He sent me a dozen sample change requests. The explanatory briefs for each one of them were unintelligible. They were filled with jargon, acronyms and references to previous change orders. The idea that someone for whom English is a second language would understand the brief defies belief.

I politely point this out. The unfazed team leader says: "Yeah, that's why we have the telecons: to make sure they understand the changes we've sent them."

He thinks that's healthy. I ask if any notes are taken at these intercontinental phone meetings. "Not necessary," he says. "[The outsourcers] send an e-mail afterwards confirming that they understand the change order."

He's serious. Worse yet, this change order "process management" template for the outsourcer was also supposed to be IT's system documentation platform. The truth was that this team had a change order process in name only. The reality was a multimillion-dollar mess, facilitated by a senior leadership that treated "We do that already" as a sign of good management rather than a warning that a corrupt process was making things worse.

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