Beware of the IT death spiral

Bad things happen when an IT department can no longer meet expectations.

My heart was pounding as I entered the small meeting room. It was going to be just two of us today. I, the CIO, was meeting with the head of one of our largest and most important internal business clients. Luckily my fellow director was running late so I had a few minutes to prepare for what was going to be a very tough meeting. I sat, alone, considering my situation.

The truth was we were way behind schedule on an automation project that was very important to my fellow director and her team. We had barely even started the project. All good CIOs have a plan to bring a delayed project back on track, but I didn’t this time. I didn’t because I simply didn’t have sufficient resources to assign to the project. The project was straight-forward enough, but our workload was growing and our budget was set. I had no way to resource it. All my requests for additional resources for other projects in the past were denied, so certainly any budget requests for this project were futile.

To make things even more frustrating, I saw true value in completing the project, and was excited by the possibilities. The project would improve a business process that would increase productivity for many of her team members and would undoubtedly increase the quality of their work as well. If only I had some way of funding the project, I was certain that the savings would far outweigh the costs. But that wasn’t going to happen.

As I heard her footsteps approaching the meeting room, I took a deep breath and exhaled.

We exchanged pleasantries. Her daughter was doing well at school. My kids were all fine. I genuinely liked her and respected her. It helped to lower my stress. Preparing for the worst, I described the situation. I also described my disappointment and my wish that something could be done.

What she said next just floored me.

“Don’t worry” she said, “I’ve got this covered.” She described how she realized that my department didn’t have the resources to help her. So she asked around and found a colleague in another business unit that had a developer that he could spare to complete the project.

She said she was glad to be lightening my team’s load. She genuinely felt she was helping my department. Our meeting ended.

As I walked back to my office, I was fuming. I was incredulous. I didn’t have enough resources to meet our clients’ needs, but another department had extra resources? We were supposed to be the IT department doing all the IT work for the organization, but I wasn’t able to get the resources to do it, while others were able to. What was going on?

I realized right then that we were in an IT Death Spiral.

We had been weathering budget cuts for a couple of years, and we were down to a bare minimum. We had decreasing resources against increasing demands. We were forced to spend a greater proportion of our time and resources on operations, and less time and resources on true business improvements or innovations.

Since there were no big business improvements and no major innovations coming from the IT department, the organization began believing it could cut the budget on this large “cost center”. Lower budgets meant lower capabilities. Lower capabilities meant even lower budgets. Even lower budgets meant even lower capabilities. On and on it goes. Spiraling downward.

The major crash of the IT Death Spiral comes when there aren’t even enough resources to operate effectively. Then, usually triggered by a high profile failure or avoidable security breach, the CIO is replaced and a major restructuring occurs. This is not good for the business, the department or the CIO.

Here are some things to consider to avoid the IT Death Spiral:

1. Communicate, in simple terms, the successes of your organization, and the true value your department brings. If you can’t see where your department is bringing true business value, it is time to reconsider where you are placing your focus and resources. Make sure your messages clearly describe business outcomes — not IT outcomes. “We improved customer service by providing more timely information to client service representatives” is much better than “We upgraded to a new version of Oracle.” If a business unit communicates your team’s value and successes for you, the message is much more powerful.

2. Ensure you have a good handle on your team’s capabilities. And, ensure you have a great understanding of your internal clients’ needs, frustrations, and goals. Do you have the right team to support your clients? If not, you need to consider making the necessary changes so you can. Even if those are tough decisions.

3. Get your priorities right. Consider reading my post “When everything is priority, nothing is.”

4. Don’t over-commit. Do what you say you will do. But don’t under-commit either. Make sure you are taking advantage of your team’s full capabilities.

5. Innovations. You MUST find time to innovate. It is very easy to, as they say, “pave the cow path” by incrementally improving your operations and service. But, you will be rewarded if you can “fly over the field” and make much greater improvements. Make sure you are always considering how you can take advantage of new approaches including cloud, big data, mobile, rapid development etc. to leapfrog business issues and grasp opportunities. Make sure your colleagues know you are thinking about their problems and considering ways of using new technologies to help them.

6. When you have gained enough trust with your business unit directors, make sure they are aware of your plans and approach. You may be surprised by having a business unit director send some additional resources your way, if they think you can and will help them.

It is difficult to do, but you are always trying to ensure that you have the right resources to bring true IT value to your organization. You are in the best position to know what the resource levels are. And, it is your job to work toward getting those resources for your organization and your department. And when you get your resourcing right, you will not have to worry about the IT Death Spiral (for now at least).

Fortunately, for me, the colleague was not able to deliver the project, so I was given a reprieve (at least temporarily) from the IT Death Spiral. Although I count my blessings, I am ever vigilant and aware of signs of a future spiral.

Thanks for reading my post. If you have any ideas for avoiding the IT Death Spiral, please share them in comment section below.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada
Stephen Abraham
Stephen Abraham
Stephen Abraham is the CIO and IT Director for the Medical Council of Canada, the organization that issues Licenciates for Physicians practicing medicine in Canada. Mr. Abraham has been a CIO for a decade. He has made many mistakes during his 30 years in IT, and has learned a few things along the way.

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