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IT Hostage

IT hostage is a term for management, where the company where growth is blocked by an IT expert.
IT Hostage, Leadership Dilemma

One of the biggest blockers to business growth is the IT Department or IT Support vendor. At first, this seems counter-intuitive. Technology is mission-critical when it comes to modern businesses. How could the IT department be a blocker?

Well, every 18 months, there are significant changes and innovations in every technology for every industry. Each change carries the potential for industry competitive advantage. Naturally, you probably talk to leaders in your IT department about recommendations for these new technologies. The problem is that technicians are incentivized to fix failures with the organization’s current technology. When there is an “incident,” the first troubleshooting question is always, “What’s changed?” The technology department is incentivized to avoid incident failures by preventing change. As a result, IT experts often block positive business changes and potential innovations. This is how IT Departments stand in the way of business progress.

Mid-market CEOs, Feeling like an IT Hostage

This leads to a common problem where the CEO and top-level managers feel like “IT Hostages.” Top executives often ask me, “Should I go back to school to learn how to communicate with the IT department? Is this the only way to hold my IT Teams accountable?

It is at this point in the conversation that I ask, “Do you feel like an IT Hostage?

All too often, there is a predictable set of reactions. When I ask this, it sounds like I’m joking. The first reaction is an uncomfortable and ironic laugh. That ends with a sigh of frustration.

I imagine it’s the same shaming feeling I get when the head of the accounting department teases me with that joke. The one Implying that If I don’t prioritize their department, “…there might be a problem with my paycheck.” It’s a manipulative and shaming challenge. I’ve been on the receiving end when speaking with more than one or two CFOs in my career. It’s frustrating and shaming. My reply comment usually goes like this, “I think I can probably go longer without my paycheck than you can legally go without your payroll system.

While this bluff by the head of the accounting and parole department is shaming. The IT department’s behavior can be much worse. In the worst cases, the IT department becomes a blocker to the mission and vision of the organization.

IT Hostage Example

Let me share with you a typical real-world example.

One of my clients was a small custom cabinetry shop. I was brought in to solve a technical problem plaguing them for about 18 months. Fortunately, It only took about four billable hours to fix the problem. Two hours to troubleshoot. Then two more hours over the weekend to fix it. As an IT expert, I lived to solve these types of problems. Solving technical issues made me feel like a superhero.

CPA surprise

This story does not end with a simple technical fix, however. The CPA pulled me over six weeks later. She reported that since I had made the change, the company was making 30,000 dollars more per month. I was surprised. She further explained that this was compared to the previous month or the same month a year earlier. She had calculated that because of the change, there was a 33% percent improvement in employee productivity, which was a $30,000.00 positive net income increase, with no additional cost or expense to the company.

This is when my life as a “superhero technician” changed. I had never realized the “why” or “how” important technology was to my clients. Up until then, my focus was just on technology. After this experience, I began to narrow in on how I could make my client’s businesses grow. Today I focus specifically on growth, equity, and business value. All to support my client’s exit plan. When I talk about this with my clients, I get a lot of strange looks. Then a comment like, “I’ve never heard an IT guy talk like this before.

IT Technician Perspective Change

Rethinking Perspective, Am I just…

I think what happened was that my business perspective changed. The organization was not only to the technology. I began to see the business objectives of each department and employee. I could also see how everything contributed to an organization’s mission and vision. This was an epiphany for me. This meant, for me anyway, I couldn’t go back to the myth that I was just an IT superhero. Kind of like the story of the three brick masons building a new church. Each was asked, “…what are you doing?” The story goes that their replies varied,

  • I’m Just laying down bricks and mortar.”
  • The second said, “I’m building the perfect wall.”
  • The third said, “I’m building a house for the lord.”

These responses are analogous to what IT experts say. I find, though, that all employees can be broken down this way. Some are focused on performing their craft. The next type of employee is spending a lifetime perfecting their craft. The third (and most rare) are, attracted not by the money or the opportunity but instead to the vision. (In the brick layer’s vision, “building a house for the lord.”)

Too often, business leaders are intimidated by IT experts and are afraid to lead the IT department. I have heard the excuse that because they are not an IT expert, their ignorance may cause a technical failure. If you have ever worried about this, remember.

Technical failure is always a breakdown in leadership, not a technological failure.

Should technicians be the organization managers?

When leaving technicians in charge of technology, there is always technology failure. The top technicians admit their mistakes and will work with you to fix the process so that the same thing doesn’t happen twice. All other technicians avoid blame by pointing at someone or something else. I’ve seen technicians blame customers, users, and vendors. Once I saw a technical sales person try to avoid refunding a $10,000 printer. Despite the reality of how electrons flow, he blamed the problem on the customer. Suggesting that the problem was a cable placed too close to a sunny window. The good news is that Leading the IT department uses the same principles as leading any other team, department, or organization. As a leader, you can do this by teaching leadership to an IT department.

In my case, I’ve learned to first look at the mission and vision of the organization before looking at the technology. To begin taking control of an IT hostage situation seems impossible, but it’s not that difficult. As a leader, you have built a business leadership culture. The problem is that you have not invited the IT leadership into that culture. When you do, technology problems will stabilize, and technical failure will magically disappear.

For example, with the cabinetry shop. The company and staff had been IT hostages for 18 months. In those 18 months, an estimated employee productivity loss was $540,000.

Why these types of technical team evolution matter

Then for the next 12 months, the unblocked and natural productivity of the team meant a bottom-line improvement of $360,000. With this extra $360,000, the owner had plenty of resources for raises, productivity bonuses, and capital budget funding. This was much more satisfying than just being the individual technology superhero. Even years later, I was recommending my old client whenever I had a chance. Giving any employee the opportunity to lead in this way develops much more loyalty, business scalability and industry competitive advantage.

Who coined the term IT Hostage

In my career, hostage situations have not been rare. Technology departments are trying to do what they think is right. Statistically, less than 50% of the time, IT departments get it wrong. A friend of mine, Russ Johnson, Chief Strategy officer of NavigatorSVRS and the former president of Fuse Networks, introduced the “IT Hostage” concept into one of our conversations. To counter the problem, he taught me how developing a leadership culture can tie the organization, including the IT Department, into a team. The problem is that IT experts relate well to machines and ideas more than people. That is where a mission and vision tie diverse groups into close-knit teams focused on the business vision.

Travis Thorn, the present president and owner of Fuse networks, takes this idea even further. He is using the Information Technology Infrastructure Library (ITIL) business practices to create leaders. Organizing his managed services company using ITIL, he has created a leadership culture for his technical Experts. This leadership culture allows them to support a client’s technology without forcing management to become IT Hostages. As his client company grows, ITIL provides the management practices to develop the technology to support that growth. The ITIL fabric also allows technicians with a lower technology glass ceiling to team with technical and business teams that exponentially grow the technical and business objectives of their clients.

Melding business and technology leadership cultures

IT hostage means not part of the leadership culture
Bringing IT into the Leadership culture

Without this type of leadership culture, technology moves and expands too fast. Even the brightest technical expert needs a team to catch up. This is also a lesson Microsoft and Disney have learned. Even the most brilliant technicians have a “technology Glass Ceiling.” Depending on a single technician will make even multi-billion-dollar software companies become “IT Hostages” if they don’t integrate the IT Department into their leadership culture.

What happens is that all technicians eventually hit that ceiling. When they do, they don’t want to admit it. Instead, they secretly create a shortcut to resolve the issue. A shortcut is just a temporary work-a-round. A work-a-round is like a time bomb for the business. Ignoring it until it blows up, is devastating. In fact,

“…most technical problems are caused when a technician (not end-users) does something they’ve never done before.”

Understanding the risk if the work-a-round fails is not the traditional role of the support technician. ITIL understands this and addresses how management can mitigate the risk. Even when management and the IT departments are unaware of secret work-a-rounds. This is how successful IT-managed services companies (vs. IT support companies) and IT departments in companies like Disney and Microsoft avoid becoming “IT Hostages.”

IT Pitfalls are solved through Risk Mitigation

Here’s the good news. As a manager, you already understand the principles and practices of risk management and mitigation. (You don’t need to learn ITIL or to get a degree in technology) Whether you are a technical expert or not, you are already an expert in risk mitigation. To reduce risk is first to quantify and measure risk. Then track the Key Performance Indicators (PKI) for the risk. Next, compare these metrics against a baseline of past vital metric measurements to understand that risk is developing.

In technology, there are two key metrics we assess during IT Due diligence before a business transition. 

  1. Employee productivity
  2. System availability

These PKI are a standard when measuring IT departments. In our example of the Cabinetry shop IT hostage situation, system availability was frequently down. Which meant employee productivity was frequently down. When employee productivity is down, costs grow, and Net Income (Income – Expenses) goes down.

There is a direct relationship between Net Income, Employee Productivity, and System Availability.

For the cabinetry shop, A simple four-hour fix improved system availability. As availability went up, employee productivity improved. Which also meant expenses went down while net income went up. The benefit for the business is that even a small change can see results as quickly as six weeks later. This is why in our IT Due Diligence; we assess employee productivity and technology available when analyzing IT departments. This is also the way management can promptly evaluate the IT department. You don’t need to be a technical expert to consider these two metrics. These two metrics allow the CEO and management to avoid becoming IT Hostages.

IT Hostage Summary and Introduction

This booklet is meant to provide a business manager the same comfort and confidence when managing an IT department as any other department. Continuous improvement means building baselines today to compare with tomorrow. In the technology department assessment, two simple strategic KPI metrics are employee productivity and system availability.

When reading the content, I tried to include real-world examples and language that both a business expert and a technician would understand. At the beginning of the chapter, I asked, “Are you an IT hostage?

Any CEO may feel like a hostage of some department. In this case, the IT Department or IT vendor is the easiest to take back control. In the next chapter, the question is asked, “Why Technology Fails?” The answer is counter-intuitive and can also be best controlled by management.

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