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Managing for consistency vs. managing for innovation

Published on: 2014-10-12

This is the sixth in a series of eight posts that examines the relationship between business and IT. Based on an article examining manufacturing by Steven Wheelright and Robert Hayes, I have talked about four different levels (or stages) at which IT can interact with the rest of the business:

  • Stage 1: Internally Neutral (Minimize IT's Negative Potential)
  • Stage 2: Externally Neutral (Parity with Competitors or IT as a Service Provider)
  • Stage 3: Internally Supportive (Provides Credible Support to the Business Strategy)
  • Stage 4: Externally Supportive (Provides an Important Contribution to the Competitive Success of the Organization)

In this month's continuation of this series, I'll talk about how management practices differ among the environments that are worth talking about. (Followers of this series will recall that Stage 1 is not worth pursuing and that Stage 3 is unsustainable.)

IT as a Service Provider

The primary goal of IT in a Stage 2 environment is to be the technical resource that can successfully bring to life the ideas of the business leaders. As such, the goals of any Stage 2 IT manager should be centered around maximizing consistency and reliability. To achieve this, such a manager would:

  • Create processes that maximize predictability and reliability
  • Vet new ideas thoroughly before trying them out in live-fire situations
  • Focus investment time on incremental improvements that reduce costs
  • Be intolerant of "wasted" costs inherent in innovation-related activities
  • Focus training time on learning tried-and-true technologies that solve a specific business need

IT as a Business Partner

The primary goal of IT in a Stage 4 environment is to be a full partner to help the business achieve its large-scale, strategic goals. In the 21st century, this means creating a competitive advantage by using technology, though this means that both business and technology personnel need to have a solid understanding of both worlds. To achieve this, a manager would:

  • Automate as many menial tasks as possible in order to maximize time spent on innovation
  • Encourage employees to implement new ideas that may improve a process, efficiency, etc.
  • Focus investment time on game-changing ideas that could provide a competitive advantage for the company
  • Manage "wasted" costs due to innovation by replacing dying projects early with others that have more potential
  • Encourage a wide range of training from cross-functional assignments to new technologies to industry-related degrees/certifications

If you don't match performance to expectations...

Most IT folks I've worked with naturally gravitate to either a Stage 2 or a Stage 4 mindset. It is extremely important, though, that the manager focuses on meeting the expectations of the company. If a Stage 4 IT manager tries to impose his/her will upon a Stage 2 company, the manager would likely feel frustrated at the lack of cooperation and vision among his/her colleagues, and that manager would be seen as a non-conformist maverick to be avoided rather than encouraged. Likewise, if a Stage 2 IT manager tries to exist in a Stage 4 company, he/she would likely be seen as an incompetent roadblock to progress, and would be in danger of being micromanaged to a Stage 1 environment. Unless you're actively trying to achieve a culture change, you are more likely to succeed working within your peers' expectations than working around them.

Other posts in this series:

May: Levels of function (and dysfunction) IT can have with business
June: Why Stages 1 and 3 are not viable long-term stages
July: What a Stage 2 organization might look like
August: What a Stage 4 organization might look like
September: How IT professionals can be their own worst enemy in achieving Stage 4
October: How your Stage would affect your management practices
November: How your Stage would affect your hiring practices
December: How can an organization reach Stage 4?

This article was originally posted here and may have been edited for clarity.