Everyone working at a startup or small business has to deal with technology. Unfortunately, most of these organizations do not understand or respect the fact that they are a business and that they are working to support and enable business goals. Without more ado, here are five tips to recharge your IT organization and super-size its productivity.
1) Ensure that everyone understands your business goals
By this, I mean everyone – programmers, testers, marketing, sales, janitorial staff, copywriters … everyone. Too often in companies, people do not know exactly what business goal you are solving. Ensure that they do – ensure that you do. This is something that should come from the top – the absolute top – and should be repeated until not only are people bored of hearing it, they can recite word for word what it is. You must understand exactly what you are solving. This is the CEO’s or owner’s most important job and the amount of time that they spend on it should reflect this reality.
For example, at Amazon, the business goal that is being solved is not free shipping or ordering lots of books, it is to provide a wide selection of great merchandise at good prices, to make the customer happy by allowing them to shop in one place for all of their needs. It is a goal that is both in common with and different from a company like Walmart; the latter emphasizes the low price aspect by reducing choice and, to a certain degree, quality, whereas the former emphasizes quality and selection.
Everyone in your company makes dozens of decisions a day – ensuring that they know the exact business goal that your company is solving will ensure that they keep this in mind when making these decisions. Nothing is more important to improving the quality of decisions that your technology groups make – nothing.
2) Ensure that your technology group has its independence
There is a truism in management that you get the best results when you inspect the results and leave the people alone, and the worst results when you inspect the people and leave the results alone. Essentially, this boils down to trusting people to act like adults and professionals, and holding them accountable for the delivery and quality of their results.
The same is true of organizations as well. Too often, management or executives with little or no experience with technology or technology people attempt to dictate processes and procedures. These are rarely created with the input of the people most affected and will often lead to compliance at the cost of productivity (and morale, in more extreme cases). The technology group cannot be a collection of loose cannons, of course; however, micromanagement of the entire group is just as useless, demotivating and, to be frank, stupid as that of people.
The group should be held accountable to company goals but the processes, methods, and tools by which the technology group fulfills these goals should not be mandated. The only exceptions are based on budget – even there, the group should be provided latitude to determine how it can best do what it wants given the limitations. Ensure that these budget requirements are not explicitly and solely focused on the technology group alone in the company – there is no faster way to kill the critical esprit de corps of an organization than by treating it as a second-class citizen.
3) Ensure that your senior management understands the difference between cost center and input-driven productivity
Many times, the technology groups in a company are treated as massive cost centers – where budgets go to die and productivity is not a concern. Nothing could be farther from the truth – the technology produced by this group acts as a force multiplier, dramatically increasing the output of the sales and operations side.
If there are disconnects between what IT is spending and what it is providing, this is the responsibility of both the technology group and the overall senior leadership. It usually results from a lack of a clear understanding about exactly what business problem is being solved by the company. When your technology groups understand exactly what they are doing and how they can support the business, they will both be able to accelerate the growth of the company and improve their own efficiency. When this happens, the technology group will be an input-variable producer; by this, I mean that putting 1 resource into your technology organization will result in X output units. The goal of both the technology group and senior business management is and should be to get your technology group to this level.
4) Hold the technology group accountable for its goals, and encourage creativity in meeting them and in solving the business problem
For all that business often misunderstands the technology group, the latter must take responsibility for failing to meet the desired business goals. To this end, the company must hold both the technology group and the people therein accountable to the company business objectives. However, the best way to do this is hold them accountable for the actual goals but provide a great deal of latitude about how to meet them. This will often give the technology people sufficient incentive to think of creative ways to solve the business goals – technology personnel as a whole are often very creative but often stifled in organizations that insist on certain procedures and processes to address goals.
As mentioned before, the technology people should be encouraged to try many new things to address both the company goals and the business problems. Failure is often seen as something that is career limiting or embarrassing – the management needs to both get over this idea personally and help the company as whole dispel this. Companies that take educated, interesting risks do much better than those that do nothing – they certainly are better placed to respond to competition and new business environments if the culture of experimentation is nurtured.
Make no mistake – getting a real culture of experimentation is difficult and ongoing; however, it is what will keep a company going through poor business cycles and allow them to innovate even in industries that are mostly stagnant. It all starts by both holding technology responsible for outputs and for attempting creative solutions to get those outputs.
5) Make mistakes and learn from them
This was covered somewhat in point 4 above but it is so important that it must be brought out as a separate point. The technology organization and company will make mistakes – they will solve the wrong business problems, use the wrong technologies, or choose the wrong provider of technology services. At this point, companies can do one of two things – they can accept that they made a mistake and try again, or they can pretend that there is not mistake and enshrine the bad decision as policies and procedures.
A company that does the latter will not survive long against competitors that are either smarter than they or better able to learn; at the very least, they will not thrive and will begin a long decline into irrelevance. That is obviously not an enviable situation and should thus be avoided as strenuously as possible. The way to avoid this is to learn – to admit that it has made mistakes and try again.
Doing this latter step, however, takes a strong leader and management team. It takes people that are not so enslaved to their personal egos that they cannot learn. It takes people with vision, skill, confidence, and passion to say, “we screwed up and now are going to do better”. It is difficult but it is critical. You must ensure that your senior management understands this and also understands that making a mistake is not a sign of incompetence – failure to learn from a mistake is. It is often difficult to hire people at both the management and implementation level that can both understand and act on this, but it is critical. It might be the difference between success and failure for your technology organization and by extension, your company.
How about all of you? How does your company do on the suggestions above? Do you have any additional information?
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