Leading by letting go

People support best what they help build

My direct reports and I finally summed up the situation in 10 words: "Our clients are leaving us, and our employees don't care." Suboptimal indeed.

But we all believed we could fix both halves of that sentence.

We decided that we had to run the central IT function as a business. Our first step in the "commercialization" of IT was to form a business systems group, with members carefully chosen from each IT function for their excellent communication and interpersonal skills.

Given the history of mistrust, it's no surprise that things got off to a slow start. But the BSG team members began to test the waters by making suggestions. Why not benchmark the cost of our services against the alternatives? Shouldn't our clients have an IT services directory showing all that we offer and who to call? These were feelers sent out by the BSG team to determine our seriousness. When green lights were given all around, word got back to other IT staffers that we were serious after all. Many more suggestions surfaced. How about a business-oriented communication plan? Why don't we have a newsletter showing our successes and, more importantly, the successes of our clients? When they were green-lighted as well, momentum began to build.

As the service directory took shape, for example, IT service managers began to contact the BSG to ensure that their function was included and properly represented. Because of a small but growing sense of pride, no one wanted to be left out of this convenient, spiral-bound directory when it was printed in the thousands and distributed throughout all county government departments.

Various groups began describing desired performance outcomes with brief mantras. For computer operations, it was, "Lower than two seconds' response time, and no single point of failure." For applications development, it was, "As specified, on time and for the agreed price." We began to hear fewer complaints, a period we dubbed the "wait and see time." Then, instead of having to gauge our success on the basis of the relative silence, we started to receive actual kudos. With that, a spirit of competition among the various IT functions set in, and the trend was irreversible.

Meanwhile, we held a series of client agency meetings to demonstrate that we understood the agencies' various issues. About 10 months in, the county librarian called. She had heard some good things about what we were doing and was considering "recentralizing" her data processing operation. Decentralization had come with its own headaches -- IT staff was hard to retain, for example, because they had no career path in her department. She ended up signing back on with central IT, a move that we highlighted in our newsletter with her photo and the quote, "I don't know why I waited so long."

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