Run IT Like a Business: What it Really Means
Really, he needed to run IT like a business.
You see, Bob was a personable, energetic, intelligent, and empathetic leader. He deeply understood his business and the value IT delivered to it. He positioned his people for success in their career development. In many ways, he appeared to be a model IT leader, and his staff raved about him.
But whenever he hosted virtual team meetings, he “heard crickets.” His people were never prepared with their topics for review, and they didn’t ask any questions.
To fix this, he wanted to beef up his communications program, and he asked me to help. But when I came onsite to his IT offices, it became clear the communications problem he saw was just the tip of the iceberg.
Bob’s Problem Wasn’t What It Seemed
His organization was a turnstile of chaotic activity.
All day, people came in and out of his office with minor requests—invoices to sign, open positions to sign off on, and other non-emergency items. Each of these items should have taken five minutes to handle, but they always required 30 minutes to resolve.
Interviews with his direct reports revealed that Bob handled most of his day-to-day organizational management himself, with this same chaotic approach:
- Group meetings were often cancelled at the last minute.
- Agendas were not sent in advance of meetings so his people could prepare.
- One-on-one meetings occurred randomly, on an as-needed basis.
- There was zero ongoing collaboration across borders, creating gaps and redundancies.
- While Bob had communicated the big picture of the organization, his people were unsure how they were supposed to deliver to stakeholders day-to-day.
The net of it: Bob’s IT organization was unpredictable, and his people never knew what to expect…or what was expected of them. They didn’t speak up during his team meetings because they didn’t know what they were supposed to say, what was appropriate to ask in that venue, and—often—why they were on the phone in the first place.
Bob thought his communications program was the problem. But his communications program was just an area of activity that shone a spotlight on the deeper underlying issues within his organization.
He didn’t need a stronger communications program—he needed a stronger organization.
A Not-So-Obvious Problem for Even the Best IT Leaders
But in my experience, these fundamental principles of running an organization aren’t very well understood by IT leaders. Even great IT leaders—like Bob—just never receive an education in the fundamentals of running IT like a business.
Now, “running IT like a business” is a loaded term. It brings to mind countless articles telling IT departments to spin off from the larger business and start acting like internal service providers. But don’t worry—that’s not what I mean here when I say “running IT like a business.”
IT is a unique part of the larger business. It has many particular characteristics that make it look, feel, and manage itself differently than, say, marketing or finance. This is necessary, and an expression of IT’s DNA. And whenever IT tries to monkey with these qualities to run itself in a more generic manner, it often encounters significant problems.
But there are certain elements of the IT department’s structure that tend to work best when they work just like the structure of every other department of the business. Namely, the principles for effectively managing people within a business stay the same regardless of whether those people work in marketing, finance, or, yes, even IT.
In any activity directly related to people, IT needs to run like a business. IT needs to implement order, process, and structure around these people-focused activities to help those people succeed. Very few IT leaders are taught how to do this, so they rarely see these underlying problems for what they are. Bob didn’t.
But lucky for Bob, and lucky for most other IT leaders, these fundamentals of running IT like a business are easy to put in place.
Bob Started to Run IT Like a Business
Setting aside his communications program for the moment, Bob and I set to work fixing the underlying issues that made his people feel uncertain about how to act within his IT organization.
Over a small period of time, we defined a series of management activities and reports to put in place. Here are some examples:
- We set up a weekly meeting with finance to review all invoices and POs that required approval. Any one-off requests were funneled to this meeting. It quickly became known that the VP was approving invoices on Tuesdays at 4 pm, no exceptions. Immediately, a good portion of the day-to-day turnstile subsided.
- In parallel, twice-monthly leadership team meetings were scheduled with a set agenda—including a round-robin update from each member and minimum speaking from the VP. Yes, he missed some of these—but the team continued to meet without him, enjoying this new forum to engage with each other.
- Quarterly town halls were scheduled, with the leadership team owning most the fixed agenda. By simply putting the structure in place, Bob was freed from owning every detail of every meeting—his people were happy to participate.
These new predictable processes—and many more like them—created a sense of structure previously lacking within the organization.
Most importantly, these new structures created a much clearer set of expectations for his people. They now understand the purpose, and the expectations, of each element of how his organization runs, and when they are called on to participate, they speak up.
Now when Bob holds his meetings, the silence is gone, and his people are engaged—all because we strengthened the foundations of his organization, and not because we strengthened the communications program itself.
Take Bob’s Example to Heart: The Problem You See Is Rarely the Real Problem
Bob was a great IT leader with a blind spot when it came to the fundamentals of running his IT organization like a business.
He’s not alone in this. If you’re an IT leader who rose through the ranks based on the merit of your technical skills, you never had the chance to pick up the fundamental professional and business skills needed to run your organization optimally. (And for you individual contributors eyeing management positions, don’t expect to learn the ropes as you climb.)
The net of it: chances are, you—like Bob—also have a blind spot or two in this area.