The Virtues of a Living Conversation Vs. One Frozen in Stone
April 18, 2011

Dennis Drogseth

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EMA consulting once did an analysis of why strategic service management initiatives fail. These ranged from cross-domain performance management initiatives, to configuration management initiatives with CMDB/CMS enabling foundations, to company-wide asset management initiatives to name a few. Of the top ten reasons for failure, only the bottom two (Integration and Discovery) were technology-related. Three of the top eight were specifically communication-related: Staff Buy-In, Managing Expectations, and Overcoming Resistance to Change. And in fact Staff Buy-In was number one!

To be complete, the rest were Staffing and Budget, Detailed Requirements, Executive Support, Follow Through, and Process. However you might observe that all of these require effective dialogs.

On the other hand, IT professionals are, if anything, notorious for their lack of communication skills—a la Dilbert. And historically, many IT professionals have prided themselves on addressing technical issues in the silence of a literal or virtual cubicle, inspiring an often talked about “hero culture” of incommunicative super techs who save the world on weekends in a manner understood only by themselves.

I think it’s safe to say that with the growing awareness of best practices such as those in the IT Infrastructure Library, and the advent of a technological mosaic that includes ecosystems of partners and service providers – there is at least a common awareness that the IT Heroic Age is about to be a thing of the past.

However, sometimes problems in communication arise from the very sources who are supposedly out to fix them. Well-meaning ITIL experts or enthusiastic executives seeking to mandate change by force of will, legislated process definitions and one-way direction giving that, as they accumulates, tend to resemble SPAM. Artful two-way dialog and decision making derived from it – especially when it’s combined with strong executive endorsement – is a better indicator of IT service management success than anything else I’ve seen. And of course this means listening as well as coming up with good creative solutions. It also means effective advocacy when a new direction seems to be the right one after the many dialogs are reasonably considered. (And of course this is where strong executive support really helps.)

But there are other factors that contribute to dialogs “frozen in stone” – and so crystallized before they’re even begun. And these are frankly more pervasive, more difficult to contain, and fundamentally cultural in nature. In other words, IT is hardly the only culprit here – even giving Dilbert his due. The American political scene is ripe with examples (a non-partisan observation) of these issues, as is media as it’s evolved. The few salient attributes here in my hit list are:

* Fear of complexity
* Fear of individuality in search of generic, one-size-fits all answers
* Fear of self examination
* Short attention spans with constant interruptions as an “endorsed way of life”
* Fear of change that’s often hidden by the impression of constant movement (in which every moment becomes an isolated, disconnected, event)

EMA often gets requests to help IT organizations chart their course by giving them examples of what other IT organizations are doing—often with numerical answers (e.g. number of servers per administrator) so they can apply these cookie cutter guidelines to themselves. This is of course is a way of avoiding living, flesh-and-blood dialog s altogether and seems to come with a pedigree of logic and convenience that, on the surface, is difficult to argue with. It is also a sure way to fail. And as I pointed out in my last blog– this also applies to generically legislating ITIL. The mistake is confusing potentially good frames of reference with endgames.

IT organizations and individuals should, in my opinion, relish in how fully individualized they are and recognize the uniqueness of their situations. Good IT leadership takes this into account and promotes a common awareness and common identity built on its own individual DNA and not some other group’s. Good “living dialog” cannot occur between two “generic” ears – even if they’ve reached the point of mapping themselves to ITIL-defined roles.

There is plenty of information, and plenty of well-meaning (and not-so-well-meaning) consultants available to provide broader context for the dialogs and soul searching needed to truly progress as an organization. But don’t let them crystallize your dialog before it’s even begun.

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Dennis Drogseth's EMA Blog

Dennis Drogseth is VP at Enterprise Management Associates (EMA)
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