Creating An IT Culture of Excellence
Information Technology leaders often join a new organization to find a vastly heterogeneous mixing bowl of cultures, which covers both personal and professional diversity. While a common culture typically suggests shared practices, beliefs and expectations, oftentimes there is significant misalignment in these foundational bonds within an IT department, which can lead to sub-
par team performance and a less than ideal working environment for team members. And, while diversity is typically an extremely positive ingredient for strong team dynamics, it can also be a recipe for divisiveness and performance erosion.
Attempting to reconcile all the different cultural cross-currents that can be found in the workplace would lead to a lowest common denominator of extremely poor connection and utility. Therefore, I have found that focusing on excellence --measured, clearly defined, team-dependent performance excellence-- becomes a strongest and most impactful unifier of disparate perspectives and approaches.
The Elements of a Work Culture
Culture may have more valid definitions than any other word in English (or any other) language. All of the above is valid and could stand on its own as a foundational definition. And in a typical grouping of professionals in a reasonably metropolitan area, you can expect tremendous diversity of cultural influence. Both professional and personal cultural diversity often creates a level of heterogeneity that can seem to be near impossible to align.
As the focus here is on cultural alignment within an IT support and delivery team, there are a few aspects of overall IT governance that can be extremely sensitive to cultural differences.
◻ Inclusion or Top Down
◻ Roadmap or constant reassessment
Capability Delivery Model
◻ Agile vs. Waterfall
◻ Parallel operations or hard cut-over
Incident Triage Model
◻ Integrated or segregated
◻ Sequential or Parallel
Human Resourcing Model
◻ Talent Search Criteria
◻ Internal vs. Hybrid
◻ On-Shore vs. Off Shore vs. Hybrid
But some of the most severe cultural divisions in the work environment can arise from disparate decision-making approaches.
Aspects of IT Organizational Governance Most Sensitive to Culture
There is also oftentimes vertical misalignment within an organization. As IT investment often generates an organization’s largest, and most visible costs to stakeholders (e.g., shareholders, PE partners, executives), there is often a disparity of views on investment timing between the organizational strata’s (quarterly or PE Cycle views vs. a built to the last approach).
Vertical MisAlignment on Investment Timing
So how does an IT Leader reconcile all of these cultural divergences in order to establish an aligned foundation for decision making, governance, and driving top performance? How do we overcome vast personal, professional and organizational differences of perspective (all of which are valid) to align an IT workforce and achieve the desired results that can only come from cohesion?
By selecting the cultural lowest common denominator which is always as valid as any other: the pursuit of excellence!
Regardless of the experience, and the context of the professional paths that bring your team together, there can be no dissent from clearly identified, measurable outcomes to serve as performance beacons. System and service availability, on-time project delivery, software solution quality, and product completeness are all highly measurable IT work outcomes, and not open to interpretation based on cultural differences.
Elements of a culture of excellence typically include a high degree of transparency (which comes with clearly defined and openly shared performance metrics). A quest for continuous improvement of those performance indicators. Decision making (regardless where it comes from organizationally) which is audit-able to data and data-driven, rather than based on inspiration and mood. And profiled hiring based on characteristics which typically align well with a collaborative, high-performance culture of excellence, rather than focusing on the smartest, most experienced IT practitioner you can find.
A Culture of Excellence
Metrics and Continuous Improvement
The establishment of clear, generally recognized and relevant key performance indicators (KPIs) is a critical step in working towards a culture of excellence. The transparency of the performance levels achieved (through a generally available report or dashboard distribution at the highest levels of the organization) creates an inherent call to action. Often times, when KPI definition and associated reporting is initially established, the numbers can look less than impressive. This first wave of a new measured reality often serves to achieve two outcomes, both positive. Some contributors will be challenged by the poor performance indicators and take it personally. Other contributors will be wholly uncomfortable with the highly transparent measurement of their work and will choose to move on to other opportunities more aligned with their professional comfort.
Full transparency provides a unique avenue for building trust and confidence in stakeholders and peers, another element of a culture of excellence. When exceptions to performance targets take place as in the example above, an opportunity is created for demonstrating tenacity and commitment. Here, we are able to communicate what the root cause of a service interruption, and what preventative measures have subsequently been put in place to preclude the same incident from taking place going forward. So, in essence, the incident includes the outcome of making the organization stronger and more resilient, which is a sign of a culture of excellence.
Likewise, with software development metrics, when there is an exception in achieved quality targets (for example), clearly stating the results of the cause analysis and remediation steps demonstrate a commitment to continuous improvement. The result is usually increasingly optimized development investment, which is part of an IT culture of excellence.
Optimization and Continuous Improvement
A culture of excellence is not just evidenced by performance outcomes, but also by how those outcomes are achieved (as those processes suggest what future performance outcomes are likely to be). In the system/service availability grid, you will note that we list those platforms, applications, and services which are visible to end-users. As IT professionals, we know that in order to achieve 100% of application availability, the entire technology stack that the application depends on must be at or near 100% availability as well. So proactive monitoring of not just user-facing applications and platforms, but also of the components on which they depend is key to strong availability results and part of the tenacious pursuit of those results. Tracking the availability of these non-visible core components of the technology stack allows for more timely technology replacement and investment evaluation, not just incident prevention monitoring.
Another aspect of achieving strong availability metrics is the process used to triage and resolve service incidents. At the declaration of a service incident (either performance degradation or a full-service outage), most IT support teams will begin at the top of the application stack and triage sequentially until the incident’s culprit is found.
There is however another approach to this, based on taking the standard RACI (Responsible, Accountable, Consulted and Informed) incident triage matrix and “flattening” it to define a parallel triage effort. In this synchronous model, the responsible technical support designee for each component of the stack on which the troubled service is dependent upon are deployed for triage in parallel, rather than sequentially as is more commonly done. With this parallel RACI approach, the culprit is typically identified much more quickly, and therefore remediation starts more quickly and services can be restored to normal at an accelerated rate. Having named resource (and backups) tied to each component of the stack is critical to achieving true parallel triage.
Taking steps such as the above for incident triage acceleration sends a clear message to all stakeholders regarding the urgency around technology availability, and is a sign of a culture of excellence.
Building the Team
It’s universally accepted that the highest performing teams balance group dynamics with skill and experience, as opposed to just leaning on the individual technical competency of the practitioners. We have all at some point in our careers worked with the “competent jerk,” who on the one hand can answer specific questions quickly (when they are so moved) and accurately or deliver something faster than most. However, the impact on the team’s performance overall is often not helped by these types of contributors.
So how do you continuously improve the team on its trajectory towards a unified culture of excellence?
There are a few key ingredients. One organic contributor, which was mentioned above, is the natural select impact of creating a highly transparent and performance measured environment. Focusing on the continuous improvement of highly visible performance metrics sends a clear message about the target culture, and what types of contributors are likely to excel. A by-product is a culling of those for whom this type of culture is not a good fit. Of course, this needs to be accompanied by an on-boarding process with the same culling qualities. This is not at all to say that the addition of resources should filter diversity. Quite the opposite, talent augmentation should be additive to culture, not repetitive. However, the process should identify those that will be a quality fit for a culture of continuous improvement, striving for team excellence.
While the science of quality-of-fit hiring has evolved and greatly aids the process of building a strong and aligned team, every now and then there comes a unique perspective on how to do this which serves to accelerate and provide laser focus on the essentials of identifying strong team players.
In his most recent book, The Ideal Team Player, Patrick Lencioni lays out an effective method for assessing new and existing talent in the context of building strong teams. Lencioni’s Hungry, Humble and Smart delineation for assessing talent provides a fresh, simple perspective which is having a strong impact on team building and cultural alignment.
Looking beyond pure technical talent and being willing to invest in strong team player assessment as part of the talent augmentation process is part of establishing a culture of excellence in IT.
Putting It All Together
Being absolutely explicit and transparent about the IT organizational culture being targeted and committed to is the first step in the process towards creating a culture of excellence. Then, implementing the key building blocks of such a culture, which are working towards the development of a strong, aligned multi-disciplinary team; Information technology support and delivery processes which are transparently measured and clear; and recognition processes that rewards accountability, urgency and a commitment to that culture. The rewards for being part of a team with a shared culture of excellence become quickly recognized.
What I have learned about working towards aligning the work culture of excellence for a high-performance information technology team includes:
You Can’t Lose: A culture of excellence always fits and cannot be argued with
Leadership: Evidence must be created that excellence matters to you
Diversity: Essential, and helps establish the completeness of the culture
Be Explicit: Help candidates understand your culture so they can make a good choice (they know themselves best)
Infectious Results: Help colleagues and peers understand what the target culture is and help them make it a ubiquitous company culture
Authors Note: I wish to thank Subbu Murthy and Nicole McMackin for challenging me to capture a practice I have been employing for years without formalization, as part of their wonderful Woman in Leadership ( #womenleaders) program at #ITC.