Building confidence in tough times

A few years of downsizing, belt-tightening and fanatical attention to ROI have tested IT professionals' patience and confidence. Many have been through tough economic times before, and they're coping reasonably well. But they're not dealing as well with fears of terrorism and concern about the Iraq war.

How much can an employer help? A lot, it turns out. Our analysis of successful IT management practices, and a glance backward reveals a treasure trove of practical strategies and ideas ripe for today. They needn't be anchored in altruism; they're all profitable business practices within the grasp of any employer.

The power of process. You may think that the recent attention to project management practices is being driven strictly by budget controls, risk aversion and a desire to reduce complexity. But think again. Doing things in a routine, predictable manner builds familiarity and confidence, which IT workers are craving right now. What better antidote for stress than working within a system of well-defined beginnings and endings, systematic approaches to managing portfolios of concurrent projects, and stringent attention to communication and collaboration issues, especially when problems arise?

Organizations should be investing in project management as a key strategy (as well as corporate cultural beacon) to become more adaptive, responsive and profitable in a rapidly changing business environment. Best practice: Organize project management offices, staffed by both business and IT workers, and make them responsible for training workers. These offices would find ways to incorporate project management into daily routines and serve as project management information repositories.

Focus on transition issues. Business leaders are notorious for undermining change initiatives by failing to anticipate who will have to let go of what and for not adequately preparing their workers for the psychological and emotional adjustments needed in new situations. Look no further than recent heavy-handed workforce reductions and the deep resentment still palpable among those workers who kept their jobs.

The management challenge is to get people to stop doing things the old way, which requires attending to extremely unsettling personal stuff in projects, workload, pay and careers. That can't be accomplished impersonally. Required road map: Managing Transitions: Making the Most of Change, by William Bridges.

Pay attention to retention. Lack of commitment is the major reason you lose good people, or at least see their productivity decline. Among the top 20 percent of your best performers (the ones you can't afford to lose), some are bound to leave, even in a rotten economy. Everything that binds them to their jobs and to their employer needs to be unearthed and deftly managed, especially now that they are frustrated by increased workloads. Build their loyalty with thoughtful, well-executed retention strategies and a willingness to listen and continually recalibrate. What you do with the other 80 percent is arguably less important.

Character and ethics matter. How we handle ourselves and treat others is even more important in unsettled times, because perceptions are more emotionally charged. Ethical issues aren't simply about right and wrong; they're about making tough choices in a brutal world. Your superiors, customers and peers take character and ethics into account far more than you realize. Required reading: Daniel Goleman's books about emotional intelligence and the writings on ethical issues in engineering by Hiram College ethics professor Kenneth Alpern.

Confident people perform at higher levels. That's the kind of ROI you can't ignore.

David Foote is president and chief research officer at Foote Partners LLC, a management consultancy and IT workforce research firm in New Canaan, Conn. Contact him at dfoote@footepartners.com.

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