Saturday, September 19, 2020
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We’ve Always Done It This Way​

Rear Admiral Grace Hopper was a rarity and one of the leading computer scientists of her time. A time when women weren’t really seen as computer scientists. A designer of some of the earliest computers, including the famous Mark 1, she was one of the first proponents that computer programs should be written in a language similar to English that people could understand, not in machine language. She is often referred to as “Grandma COBOL.”

Yep, she is that important to the tech that surrounds us today. But, where I personally think she really shined, was as a mentor and inspiration to the young people she taught and trained. Illuminating the dangers of the phrase “we’ve always done it this way” was a huge cultural contribution of hers that is sometimes overshadowed by her brilliant technical work.

I’ve taken those words to heart in my own professional career. I’ve posted her quote prominently outside my office door everywhere I’ve worked. Those words should be burned into the foundational principals of every IT Department…and really all departments and companies.

Departments that are able to embrace this quote and harness it help propel their organizations forward.

In short, they lead.

However, many IT Departments still “do what we’ve always done,” even in this age of virtualization, cloud computing, AI, and the multitude of amazing ways we can now interface with data. Perhaps they had a project or rollout that went south on them or they don’t have an inspiring manager. Perhaps they are ignored by the executive team since they “don’t really contribute to the bottom line.” Maybe they’re even trying to just fly under the radar. As a result, their aversion to risk is sometimes extremely high.

If we continue to view our place in the organization this way, eventually we will be the department that’s holding the entire company back. Heck, some might be at that stage now!

If this sounds like the case for your team, how can we get past that as a department, as technology leaders?

Step One – You need to be a manager that inspires. 

You need to be someone willing to take the training wheels off and run with a vision. If you’re not that person, can you be? If you want to inspire but don’t know how, start by stepping outside your comfort zone. Come out from behind the curtain to interact with and listen to your team…and do it often. (Oh, the horror!) Talk to your staff, rallying them behind a common cause. Say, “We’re smart and we know what we’re doing. So, let’s lead!”

Step Two – Get your house in order. 

Stop what you are doing right now! Do not pass Go. Is your house on fire? What’s that smoke in the corner over there? Make sure that your department is operating fairly smoothly and systems are running well or as well as they can be. Don’t strive for perfection. You’re never going to be perfect, so don’t waste time trying. You need to be a model for others if you want to be listened to. If there are still technical issues in your department, you need to have humility and own your department’s issues.

How about your team? Are they ready for this? Is your department full of naysayers or yeasayers? Take those naysayers and work with them. If you can encourage them to have a new outlook, fantastic…you’re inspiring them already! If not, assign them to tasks that won’t impact your goal and make sure their voice outside of the department is more muted than the can-doers. Eventually, they’ll hopefully come around to the fact that the train is leaving the station without them. If they don’t? Well, that’s probably the subject of another article.

Step Three – Identify what your organization needs. 

It’s intel gathering time! What has your team observed? What information do you have at your fingertips you could use? Hint – some of that intel is already documented in the tickets within your Help Desk software. Brainstorm with your team and come up with a list of observations or places to start looking outside of your department.

If you don’t have any good observations or ideas, that means your team doesn’t know what your organization actually does. If that’s the case, push the pause button and send some of them, including you, out on “field trips” to other departments/units. Embed them with an Operations unit, or maybe Finance, or anywhere you think there could be something you can latch onto. The only way to help an organization be better is to understand it…now go learn!

Step Four – Find your path to change. 

Based on the intel you gathered in Step Three, come up with projects to fill the gaps in your company’s needs. Start small to build both internal and external confidence. Maybe it’s something as simple as converting a paper form in Finance to a fillable PDF or online form that has a little workflow attached after submission. You would be surprised how much credibility you can gain with a few simple paper form conversions. Streamlining forms is a low-hanging fruit that generally has big impacts relative to the amount of IT effort needed to complete them. As an added bonus, you’ll better understand workflows within departments which might create a feedback loop with Step Three.

Step Five – Question everything. 

Well, maybe not everything, but ask the question “why do we do things this way?” Or, look inward and question your own processes. Should that workflow really take twelve steps? Can we automate or eliminate anything? If not, how hard are the individual steps themselves? Can any of them be individually simplified? IT tends to be really good with processes since we don’t like doing more work than necessary and hate repetitive manual tasks. Put those skills to work here!

Step Six – Lather, Rinse, Repeat! 

But, make sure you never forget the importance of Step Two. If your house catches on fire again, you’ll have a harder time gaining traction around the organization. I’m not talking about small campfires. Those will always happen. I’m speaking of public, higher-profile issues. Keep them to a minimum as best you can…and inject some humble humor when things do go wrong.

IT doesn’t have to be the department that only “keeps the lights on.” We can inspire an organization to be better, do more, and move faster. It’s not hard, it just takes the will to move forward and push through.

Even better, all the tools you need are at your disposal and just waiting to be tapped. Seriously, have you seen all the cool tech and software out there? Have you seen how smart your staff is? What a time to be in IT!

Are these steps the only way to get out from under this “most dangerous phrase”?

Absolutely not. Far from it. Go chart your own path. Collaborate with your team. Find some external help or an ally in another department. You have to make the change you desire.

Now, get out front and lead by saying “we’ve always done it this way is not good enough!” …. and do what Rear Admiral Hopper would want you to do.

Brian Smith, TNCR Contributing Author
Brian Smith, TNCR Contributing Author
Brian is a hands-on IT Director, with 25+ years of experience, who understands where business / IT intersect & how to make both better.
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