The can’t-do ethic can have serious consequences

I had an interesting conversation the other day that should strike fear in the hearts of IT workers. Be warned: the business people are becoming more than just a little miffed with us, and are going to take steps.

The call I received was from one business project leader who was wondering if she were on a suicide mission. After learning a little about the business needs, and where IT fits into them, the biggest risk she faced was the internal incumbent IT group. The system was moving from an internal one-at-a-time product release to an ASP format. As you might guess, this isn’t a trivial change to a system. It can’t be simple to switch all clients from many systems to one.

But, here’s the kicker, she didn’t say technology was the problem; she described the current IT managers as the problem. They had under-delivered and over-promised on many occasions and had the we-know-best and you-can’t-do-that attitude. She listed this group as her number one barrier to success.

When you are a project manager, it’s pointless – regardless of money – to run a project that can’t succeed. It is nuts to go into a situation where you know there are huge risks. Because to know a risk, is to want to remove a risk. The dangers you know about are simply distracting you from trying to find the ones you don’t know about.

My advice to her was to obtain “hire and fire” authority from her project sponsors and also to have an exit strategy (i.e. another job to go to). Because if her management said, “Go forth and die trying,” she would say, “Thanks, but today is a really sucky day to die.” Frankly I’m betting she is provided with the axe she needs to behead some people because the senior management hates the IT department too.

The other bit of advice I gave her was to give the IT people a specification for some work and tell them that she would fire their butts if they didn’t do it on time and to spec. If they aren’t reading the trade winds, they will interpret the specification, instead of clarifying it with her, and as a result deliver the wrong thing and be fired.

As an IT professional, this certainly isn’t nice advice I gave an axe-wielding client project manager. Someone out there – and they could be reading this right now – could be in for some bad days.

But it’s easy to avoid this. Here are some ideas to put in your head:

Assume the business people have the same size brain as you.

Think “how can I help?” not “that would be more work.”

Think that it’s possible that advancements in business practices and technology have occurred in the last few years since you started your current project.

Remember that, if you think she’s being political, it might be for valid reasons such as you’ve been an un-supportive back-stabbing weed for the last twelve months when she was requesting information from your team.

If you are afraid for your position in the company (e.g. you really need the title of director to feel fulfilled) it’s time to find a new job.

Asking people to document things just to cover your butt indicates it’s time to find a new job.

Remember she might fire you or, worse, make you do incredibly useless and marginal tasks until you need therapy, leave your job and go on medical leave.

Don’t think it won’t happen.

Robert Ford is a marginally sane consultant in Vancouver who thinks that being paranoid doesn’t mean that you are not being persecuted. Non spam can be sent to him at