Ready, aim, fire!

Whether in America, Europe or Asia, I’m constantly approached by IT managers and executives seeking free advice about a common problem.

The query goes something like this: “Michael, we really need to improve the quality and credibility of our IT implementations. Unfortunately, we have neither the money nor the resources to make the kind of investment we think is necessary. So, with that in mind, could you please suggest the least expensive way for us to give our implementations a boost?”

In fact, I’ve given this question a lot of thought. I’ve found an answer that I know works. The most cost-effective way to dramatically improve your IT organization’s implementation of a new system, app or upgrade is to make sure you fire the right person. Nothing boosts morale or heightens concentration quite like the public firing of an individual who everyone knows is a persistent obstacle to discipline, collaboration, quality and ethics during an implementation. That these individuals have been able to flourish in your organization is a reproof to all your posturing about IT excellence and professionalism.

Want to boost your reputation as IT manager or leader? Want to send an unambiguous signal throughout your organization about what values you really stand for? Want to achieve that without launching bold and expensive IT productivity initiatives? Then have the integrity to fire the right person and explain — coolly, clearly and crisply — why you did it.

This advice is neither heartless nor cruel. It represents the soul of respectful pragmatism. Whenever I offer this advice, I know within milliseconds whether the IT executive seeking my counsel is genuinely serious or a gutless poseur. Actions always speak louder than words. Always.

Virtually every executive I’ve given this advice to immediately knows exactly what I mean and exactly who in their organization I’m talking about. What’s fascinating — albeit pathetic — is the array of excuses they use to justify their nondecision: “We’ll be sued; she’s our best coder; he knows our legacy system better than anyone; my boss likes her; the client likes him; he would be too difficult to replace.” And so on.

Please! There’s always a “good” reason to keep them on. The problem, of course, is that the good reason never quite outweighs the ongoing damage these individuals inflict. I personally think that one of the worst organizational aspects of the wholesale layoffs during the post-bubble era was that it undermined the critical managerial importance of the strategic firing. The excellent were indiscriminately terminated along with the incompetent. That was — and is — a tragedy.

Which is all the more reason why, now more than ever, IT organizations can’t afford to fire the wrong people. I’m not talking about doing the Jack Welch/GE shtick, “culling the bottom 10 per cent of your workforce” every year. I’m talking about the courage to act upon the reality that employers know which coworker consistently undermines their ability to hit implementation deadlines on time, on budget and on spec. These people aren’t fools. They look to their leaders to lighten unnecessary and destructive burdens. They need your help. You need to neutralize or remove their internal obstacles to success.

No prima donnas needed

For example, one IT shop had a fellow who was, by 10 times, the best programmer/developer in the group. Unfortunately, the guy was a total jerk. He helped no one, criticized and insulted everyone, and behaved as if the organization couldn’t afford to lose him. He was, by far, its best-paid IT person. His designs and code were uniformly excellent and unusually well-documented. The cherry on top was that the CFO publicly described him as the company’s most productive employee.

He was fired. How and why? Knowing how “valuable” he was, the gentleman procured a job offer from a competitor and used it in an effort to jack up his already considerable compensation package. Management caved.

Then, the CFO (I’m reliably told) had an epiphany. The business was growing too dependent on the man’s undeniable skills. The group’s morale was miserable; everyone else’s productivity was flat; and the internal clients were exhausted by a prima donna who always delivered the goods but did so in the most condescending, “geez you’re a moron” manner.

Yes, he was offered counseling. He rejected it. He left in a huff of severance. And for a while, the team’s productivity suffered. They simply couldn’t do as much without him. But morale skyrocketed. Everyone else’s productivity improved. Problems are solved with less rancor. Reliability without volatility has become the new norm. The CIO and CFO no longer fear blackmail.

Closer to home, I was consulting to a Fortune 500 IT shop on improving collaboration between the technologists and the business units. The culture was very polite and nonconfrontational. Too polite. It frequently took weeks to get to the guts of a process design conflict. My professional opinion was that these delays were unhealthy and unproductive.

My client disagreed. He brought me into his office, closed the door and — very politely and nonconfrontationally — informed me that the company took great pride in its “consensus culture.” My persistent pushing, prodding and poking of the process managers was unacceptable behaviour. While my insights and contributions were invaluable, he didn’t want me dealing with his people anymore. Yes, I was fired.

Was this the right decision? Would I have preferred a chance to moderate my impatience? Perhaps. In the final analysis, one serves at the pleasure of the client. What’s more: My removal sent a clear signal to the organization about what was — and what wasn’t — acceptable behaviour in promoting interdepartmental collaboration.

Canning a consultant is surely less traumatic than sacking an employee. Which is precisely the reason why sacking the right employee has so much potential as a high-impact managerial tool. Yes, I know that personnel departments get nervous about canning the incompetent. Yes, firing people with families can be harsh. Yes, individuals should be given a fair shot at professional rehabilitation.

But when a CIO or a mission-critical IT manager is looking for an unambiguous way to let the troops know that she supports them — really, sincerely — pulling the trigger is the most ruthlessly cost-effective way to do so. If you don’t have the courage to get rid of those who undermine productivity and performance, then it’s painfully clear who really deserves to be fired.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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