Thursday, March 21, 2013

The Empowerment Ratio

It's really hard to be a grunt in IT. It's even hard to be a manager or leader in IT. At least, it is if you care and really want to do more for your users and clients and your teams. As this industry advances you'd think we'd collectively improve based on lessons learned applied institutionally. It doesn't really happen like that though.

Yes, we do see some improvements. Since I started working in IT, several things are better than they've ever been: user interfaces, databases, source control, languages, tools, and some processes. And of course the hardware is amazing now and just getting faster and smaller and sometimes practically invisible: virtualization is a very useful tool. But even with all those trappings of the software development space getting better, the people parts of the industry continue to exhibit tremendous and appalling flaws contrary to the ideals of such intellectual pursuits.

One of the things that has most frustrated me, and I'm betting it also dogs many of my industry brethren, is a concept I call the power-responsibility ratio, or the empowerment ratio. I mention it in this post because it's a concept that will be used in a future post. It's a problem not just in IT, but in all industries. The power-responsibility ratio is the rating of power a person has to effect change relative to the amount of responsibility they have over a particular process or domain.

Example: the typical IT support team has responsibility for an application's operation. This includes being the first point of contact for anything that can go wrong: network infrastructure, hardware, software defects, user error, process error, data error, interfaces, cross-system discrepancies and reconciliation, bug fixes, new features, project management, data fixes, source control, documentation, and probably a dozen other things I've forgotten to mention.

Now that's a lot of responsibility. But if any one of those factors in the system ecology isn't efficient, it can affect the total productivity of the team. So if there's a problem, the team just changes it right? Not exactly. IT grunts are increasingly beholden to productivity sapping cruft and dense processes invented by people that don't have to suffer the consequences of these process deficiencies:
  • Want to change to faster hardware? Get permission from someone else.
  • Want to move to a more efficient document system? Get permission from someone else.
  • Is there a particular user that's proving intransigent about using the system correctly and doesn't want to learn, but continues to create problems? Good luck replacing him.
  • Someone on your own team proving unwilling to follow the best practices everyone else is? Didn't you hear corporations don't fire people that are incompetent anymore, they only fire people that are politically incorrect.
  • Want to upgrade the software to the latest version of a framework? No can do, the project manager thinks that effort is wasted because it's not part of the business needs.
  • Think you found a way to reduce the overhead in those data fixes that are killing the team's capacity for more strategic work? After filling out forms in triplicate, you find out it was denied because the powers that be just don't feel it's that important; powers of course who don't have to suffer with processing the repeated data fixes.
I'm being a little facetious here because not all management says "no" to everything, just most. But the point I'm making here is not about the having to ask, though that's part of the inefficiency of it all. It's more that IT workers may be the least empowered people in modern organizations. Accounting has a lot of power because it manages finances and in the case of some controllers, accounting actually has to take managerial responsibility for some regions and therefore must understand the business. IT is similar in that it learns about the business and the data that flows through a company, but do IT people have the power of accountants? Not really. R&D, they're usually getting to do things that help the company and as they're seen as a part of the company's core business and its future, so they are deservedly respected and have some influence. HR certainly seems to have garnered a big part in organizations now. Sales and marketing? Please. But IT is expected to be on-call 24x7 and can't get approval for even simple changes.

That's an incredibly frustrating position to be in: You hold significant responsibility over a domain but have very little power to improve it.

What's really sad about this is that the solution has long been documented. In the military, effective leaders know they have to trust the boots on the ground to be able to manage their unique situations, and those boots need to be able to make changes efficiently, or at least as efficiently as possible in the behemoth military. [Note that I'm not saying the military is all good here, it's certainly had its share of gaffes, key leaders are often clueless, and it is hardly a universal exemplar of a properly applied empowerment ratio. But selected groups, like the Special Forces, have figured it out.] And in many management books the concept of empowerment has been a popular one. It's not like this is some secret that can only be implemented with excruciating pain or arcane spell casting. The solution is a simple thing, a single word: trust.

A lot of organizations have a long way to go before they will be able to take advantage of truly superior IT.

No comments: