Ineffective IT: the curse of courtesy

“This is the only organization I’ve ever seen where a direct order from the executive is interpreted by the staff as a recommendation, to be accepted or not…” – A frustrated CIO I know.

And in so far as we consulting types have feelings at all, I felt for him. For this CIO led an IT shop in an organization that was all about consensus, agreement and the empowerment of the individual.

All sounds great for the United Nations, but painful for a CIO – this guy had a heck of a time getting his people to stop chasing their own ideas and focus on the explicit priorities of the department, even when they were explicitly told to do so. “Explicitly told to do so” was not a concept that was recognized by the don’t tell-me-what-to-do and, by the way, we-all-get-a-vote types who worked for him.

And how did we get into this type of situation? I’m beginning to think it has to do with us Canadians carrying the whole polite/inclusive/believing that every situation should be a win-win thing way too far.

Don’t get me wrong here. I’m all in favour of seeking broad input, of looking at things from everyone’s perspective. In fact, an inability or unwillingness to do this is an IT project killer. But let’s be clear: only so much input and consultation, and only for so long.

At some point, someone’s got to make a decision, popular or not, and then everyone else in the shop has move quickly on that decision, whether they like it or not. And if they can’t live with the impacts of such decisions, they should be prepared to leave.

But living with the hard-nosed implications of decisions we don’t like is so, well, un-Canadian – in the land of multiple levels of legal appeals, of public consultations, of traveling public forums, of politicians driven by poll numbers, we labour under the misconception that the democratic principles we value so much as a nation should also apply to our businesses. Not so.

This consultative model we value as citizens seems to me a far-too-slow and painful model for business, and we’re hampering ourselves by pretending it’ll work.

Let’s face it: in the IT business there will be winners and there will be losers. Someone will get a contract and someone will not, we will choose one technology direction over another, we will buy off the shelf or we will build custom.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard people make the assumption that something or some decision is, in their view, still open for discussion even after it should have been closed days or even weeks before.

If you’re like me, you’ve got a lot to do and not much time to do it in – imagine if you will (I do imagine when I’m going to my “happy place”) a fearless CIO leading a discussion on the strategic choice of a technology/vendor/piece of hardware:

“OK, now that I’ve heard everyone’s input, I’m going to make a decision, because that’s my job as CIO. The decision is option A. The decision is not option B. Does everyone here understand that I’ve decided on A and not B? Please nod your head that you understand. Let me say this again. Not B, but A. If you voted for B, sorry, you lost. Let me be clear: no work should be done on B, I don’t want to hear about B any more, the discussion is now closed – all of us are now working on A. Got it? A not B. Not B but A.”

He or she might also add that anyone who wants to chew over the decision again is welcome to. In some other organization.

Unfortunately, we’re never that direct, and that leaves far too much latitude for people to slow down, undermine and question.

Slow down, undernine and question – don’t really have time for any of those things in the IT shops I’m working in, do you?

Hanley is an IS professional in Calgary. He can be reached at

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