How to end an IT turf war

There was nothing sportsmanlike about the behavior of Sports Authority’s IT team when Rob Meilen joined the Denver-based retailer in 2004. Rather than function as a cohesive department, rampant “finger-pointing and backbiting got in the way of any constructive collaboration among teams,” says Meilen, the company’s former CIO. (He left Sports Authority in early May for a position at another company.) As a result, programmers were tweaking code in mid-production, computer operators were catching the blame for system failures, and systems administrators were barely able to keep tabs on quality assurance.

Welcome to your average IT shop, where competing goals, opposing priorities and language barriers can cause strife even among seasoned administrators, developers and IT bigwigs. In fact, today’s dysfunctional techie families can easily threaten IT implementations, throttle productivity, increase attrition and damage employee morale.

“Different stakeholder groups inside companies have different goals and different measures of success, and that’s what ultimately drives most of these turf wars,” says Michael Krigsman, CEO of Asuret, a consultancy focused on the prevention of technology implementation failures.

To curb the infighting and encourage cross-collaboration, Meilen developed a set of standards for team building in much the same way a CIO would create policies for implementing new software. For starters, Meilen overhauled the department’s definition of success. “The message that I was persistent about was that we succeed or fail together,” he says. “Everything we do involves multiple sets of teams, so discard the illusion that your team could be doing great but the team that sits next to you is messing everything up.”

Another way Meilen tempered Sports Authority’s warring factions was to inject fresh talent. “I brought in some new senior managers from outside the company that didn’t have any baggage,” he says. “They weren’t already beholden to a constituency of staff, and that sent a very clear message that we were going to have a clean start.”

A tougher challenge for Meilen was poor communication between staff and management. A common complaint in many organizations is that IT doesn’t speak the same language as departments such as finance, which can cause problems when IT requests high-priced items such as faster servers, more broadband capacity and better storage capabilities.

Chris Stephenson is no stranger to such language barriers. The co-founder of Arryve, a Seattle-based strategy consultancy, has witnessed “big multimillion-dollar projects fail from start to finish” as a result of poor communication.

“To get all these specialized folks to talk in a common language is a gap I’ve seen in many projects,” he says. To close that gap, Stephenson recommends IT departments employ a traceability matrix. “The matrix is exactly what it sounds like: a way to take the business requirements and trace them through all of the technical documentation the project requires,” he says. “I’ve seen it resolve conflict in a development project that exceeded $60 million.”

Fancy spreadsheets aside, Meilen says a little bit of tension can actually be a good thing for an IT team. “It’s like a two-party system in Congress,” he says. “There are competing priorities, but through competition, you end up with a better whole, if [it’s] handled constructively.”

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