In praise of laziness

Recently, I gave a keynote address entitled “The Future of IT Management” at a software user conference, and one of the primary topics was the qualities of an effective IT department. The list included items you wouldn’t necessarily think about. Responsive? No. Hard working? Well, not exactly. Humble? Not really. My unlikely list included laziness, impatience and hubris.

Up front, I will admit that this list is not my own. Randall Schwartz, the man behind the Perl programming language, originally listed these attributes as qualities you should look for in a top programmer. Applied to an entire IT department, these qualities hold equally and surprisingly true when you dig beneath their superficial meanings.

Why laziness? Schwartz defined laziness as “the quality that makes you go to great effort to reduce overall energy expenditure.” He goes on to say that laziness “makes you build stable, labour-saving systems that other people will find useful, and document what you did so you don’t have to answer so many questions about it.” In my experience, the worst IT departments are those where the staff are running around breathlessly solving a rapid-fire list of problems. Even the best IT departments have bad days, but if your staff regularly sprint through the office from issue to issue, they probably need to take a lazier, more long-term approach.

If your staff is lazy, they only want to solve problems once (hey, it is less work in the end), so they will feel motivated to systematically determine the source of a problem, solve it, document it, and put it to rest for good. If necessity is the mother of invention, then laziness is the mother of innovation. Granted, if problems abound in your IT operation and your staff will not lift a finger to solve them, they are engaged in the most base form of laziness. But within the proper context, laziness should be encouraged and even rewarded.

Schwartz defined impatience as the anger you feel when the computer is being lazy, a quality that “makes you build systems that don’t just react to your needs, but actually anticipate them.” This type of impatience is closely related to laziness in that the impatient IT staffer is not only too lazy to want to fix the same problem multiple times, he or she also builds systems that predict future problems before they happen. For some, this kind of impatience is known as “vision,” a nagging sense that there has to be a better way to do something than the current way it is being done. The entire computing industry is predicated on this kind of impatience, as Moore’s Law indicates.

Hubris, or excessive pride, the third quality of a top-performing IT department, is “the quality that makes you build – and maintain – systems that other people won’t want to say bad things about.” Considered in this context, this level of internal pride is really more about a sense of ownership and accountability than arrogance. The prideful IT staffer implementing a new CRM system for the sales department doesn’t want the sales team to think he or she is incompetent or unskilled, so the staffer puts in the extra effort and thought to make sure all aspects of the system will function as intended.

Ultimately, the lazy, impatient, and prideful IT department will lead your company to the kind of IT efficiency and service that a blindly hard-working, patient, and unconfident department cannot bring you. Although these qualities are never mentioned in typical management how-to books, I think Randall Schwartz has it right.

Chad Dickerson ([email protected]) is InfoWorld (US)’s CTO.

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