How to make IT work in a dysfunctional company

I had given myself 75 minutes to drive the 45 miles from Napa to Oakland. I could barely see the taillights of the car in front of me as rain pummeled the windshield.

I was on my way to Mills College, where I was to be a guest lecturer speaking about best practices of IT governance. After clearing security and getting lost twice on the beautiful but sprawling campus filled with beige stucco buildings from the 1920s, I finally found the right classroom. I parked and ran up the hill through the misty end of the rain showers. Then, looking out at my audience of bright and eager MBA students, I told them how they, as future business leaders, should engage IT to make their businesses more competitive.

After I'd offered what I thought were very practical suggestions, a young woman who was in sales sat up, looking disgusted. She remarked, "This all sounds fine and good, but I don't see it working at my company." Two of her company's senior managers didn't get along, she explained, and they were unable to agree on a business strategy. And it's true that without a clear business strategy, IT has nothing to align with. A dysfunctional company can't do great IT.

That brings us to some different topics:

1. How can IT function in a dysfunctional company? Early in my career, I was one of two survivors of an IT department of more than 40 people when the new CEO decided to replace IT systems. In the beginning, I was proud to be a survivor; in the end, it was so painful that I decided not to stay until the conversion was finished. But what if you work in a dysfunctional company and want to keep your job?

Your first challenge is to accept what you can't change. Too many IT middle managers burn out trying to fix other managers' problems. You should certainly try to influence a bad situation, at least once. But if you've done that and see no hope of success, then it's time to develop a different plan.

At that point, I recommend finding the functional team. Even the most dysfunctional companies have teams that work. It could be Maria and her sales team or Floyd and the gang in finance or old Ed's group on the shop floor -- somebody somewhere is doing something right. Find that team, and then solve its immediate IT needs.

In some cases, you will need to start small, working on things that may seem unimportant to you or beneath your skill set. Solve these, and you'll look like a hero. Use these small victories to build trust. Ask the functional team's management to help you acquire the resources you need to help them solve their bigger problems. Very soon, you'll be working on some very cool projects that add meaningful value to the company.

2. How does an application team cope when it's blamed for an implementation that failed because of what, in hindsight, were unclear requirements? When a company is dysfunctional, IT can end up being blamed for problems that aren't of its making. I have seen companies waste millions of dollars on new systems that didn't meet their needs.

Was IT at fault? No, the real issue was that the senior managers couldn't decide what they really needed. It's the old story of unclear requirements, but from the perspective of executive management, it's another case where the guys in IT failed the company.

The first thing to do in these situations is to fix what isn't working, championing whatever investments are required to make your systems operational.

Second, you need to have an open conversation with your business unit, preferably face to face. Does the business unit agree that you've fixed the problem? Can you find better ways to work together to ensure that this situation won't be repeated? How can you earn their trust? If you know you can't afford to do what the business unit asks, you must be very clear about that and ask what else can be done. Eventually, either you'll agree, or you'll agree to disagree.

Finally, deliver, deliver and deliver. If you have ended up agreeing to disagree, ask what you can do to help -- after all, you all work for the same company. If a commercially available software system is better for your business owner, then do what you need to do to make the transition as smooth as possible.

3. How can business managers take full advantage of IT in a dysfunctional company? You still engage IT. Invite the IT manager to your group's meetings. Ask what your group can do to be a better customer of IT, and explain what your group needs from IT to do its job well.

Eventually, all dysfunctional companies stop being dysfunctional. Some simply stop being, dying painful deaths. Some get bought. Many get new CEOs. If you are part the functional team within a dysfunctional company, you'll have far greater opportunities when the dysfunctions get sorted out.

Virginia Robbins is a former CIO and is now chief operations officer at North Bay Bancorp in Napa, Calif. Contact her at vrobbins@