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31 August 2010

Lighting up dark corners

By Andrew Clifford

Specialists have an important role lighting up the dark corners that management can not see.

There is a lot of truth in the phrase "You can not manage what you can not measure". You need to be able to discern good outcomes from bad.

Also, you can not measure what you can not define. You need to know where one thing ends and the next thing starts. You need a mental model to know what it is that is good, and what it is that is bad.

But in a self-referencing twist, how you define the world largely depends on how you manage it. Your approach to management imposes a structure on the world, which dictates how you define and measure it, which then impacts how you manage it.

To manage as best we can, we use structures that match the main needs of the work. In IT we tend to structure the world into development activities split by project, and service delivery activities split by role.

Whatever structure you use, though, there are always limits to what you can manage. Even the best managers have blind spots.

Often we use specialists to fill in the gaps that the main structure does not cover. For example, if most of the work is organised as projects, we will have specialists looking at different technical areas.

We generally think of specialists as supporting the main structure, for example providing technical expertise to projects. But a major value of specialists, and one that we should value, is that they take a different viewpoint from that of the main management structure and can see things that management can not.

Often this leads to conflict. In its mildest forms, specialists are seen as a bit over-zealous, for example a database administrator going on about database standards. In its more severe forms, specialists are seen as undermining management. When I worked as an enterprise architect, I would raise comments on projects' fit to the overall architecture, but these were incomprehensible to the dominant project management structure which only thought in terms of project delivery, and I was seen as unhelpful and working against management.

Whether you are working as a manager or a specialist you need to navigate this. One way is to superimpose an additional structure over the work to support a common viewpoint. This shared structure has to be very simple. You will not be able to get a common viewpoint if you use a consolidated work plan, or an enterprise architecture, or a set of ITIL processes.

I use a simple structure of "systems", where a system is a business application, and the software, hardware and human processes that support it. I embellish this with "qualities" that represent the valuable things we have to achieve. Most different IT viewpoints can be mapped to this structure, and it can be used to explain the issues that different viewpoints encounter.

Whatever simplified structure you use, it will always be thought of as inferior and less relevant than detailed management and specialist structures. But it is not there to replace other structures. It is there to provide a forum to combine multiple viewpoints, and let specialists light up the dark corners that management can not see.

Next: Machiavelli and the birthday question

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