Monday, 8 February 2016

Frightened? Be brave!

Why do we fail? More specifically, what drives professional people to inactivity and a failure to deliver? A valid question when one considers how many times projects fail or are late, or when projected benefits fail to materialise. Perhaps this is most noticeable / measurable in an IT environment, but it is obviously a wider issue than in that one discipline or in a formal project context. 
In most cases where failure occurs, these are the kinds of reasons quoted: lack of time; lack of resource (people, money, equipment); lack of direction or clear objectives; lack of skills or knowledge…though the last one can be a little risky to own up to in the modern working world..!
But what if there were another unspoken but legitimate reason? How about fear? What people will rarely say is “I didn’t do it / say it / deliver it because I was afraid”. If we are scared of something, what do we do? Make excuses; avoid making decisions; abdicate responsibility; delegate upwards; blame others… How many of us have succumbed to one of these whilst knowing in our heart-of-hearts what needed to be done or said, or what the answer was?!
Kids can be great illustrations of this: “I couldn’t do PE because my knee hurt”, instead of: “I didn’t want to do PE because we were having a competition and a) I was going to come last, b) I hate rugby, c) the other boys were going to kick me”.
In our professional world, hopefully no-one is going to kick us or make us do press-ups, but there are scenarios where we might - not unreasonably - be afraid:
Fear of failure - We will try but, in spite of our best efforts, we will not succeed.
Fear of ridicule - We will do something that might make us look silly in others’ or our own eyes.
Fear of rejection - We find an idea, proposal or suggestion rejected.
Fear of making decisions - We are nervous that we will actually be held to account for what we decide.
Fear of going out on a limb - We do not like taking risks, especially when this marks us out from others as ‘different’, as we know ‘different’ can be interpreted in all sorts of negative ways. 
All of these 'fears’ can lead to inactivity and thus a failure to achieve at some level or another. The fears listed above are either bad for our self-esteem and how we feel, or bad for our career. There’s an element of self-preservation behind them.
Of course, the other key component in all of this - and that which gives any fear context - is the culture in which we work. If the culture is nurturing, encouraging, forgiving etc. then we are more likely to feel protected and supported by it, and thus more likely to be less fearful. If, however, the culture is aggressive, blame-ridden, bullying etc., then this can only increase any degree of fear we might feel.
How can we overcome such fears? Clearly there is no single answer, because ultimately any fear that exists is our own, unique to us, and intimately bound with our experience and the situations in which we find ourselves. It would be very simple to tell ourselves to “pull up our socks” and to articulate a list of things to which we should aspire: to make a difference; to stand out from the crowd; to embrace risk and change; to communicate better… But, however wise such self-instructions might be, they are of little practical value. 
Two things we could try though… Firstly, look out for those fearless people who find it easier than you to go out on a limb, try new things, make suggestions. See how they do it. Do they do it well? Are they effective? If so, try and learn from them. Are they approachable? Might they be able to coach or mentor you a little? (And watch out for the people who do these things badly, too. There are lessons there as well!)
Secondly; take five minutes to think about a situation from your past where you have wanted to do / say / suggest something but have failed to do so because you were nervous or fearful. Then try and replay the scenario in your mind but with what could have happened had you made that suggestion, or comment, or commitment. How might that have gone - both good and bad. Are there more good than bad scenarios? And for the good ones, how might that have felt? Exciting, perhaps? Exhilarating? Rewarding? Might where you / your company be now a better place as a result?.

If the result of this little exercise gives you just a modicum of comfort or confidence, then watch out for the next time you might find yourself in a similar situation and facing a degree of fear - and perhaps try it out for real! Challenge yourself. You could start with something really small, perhaps insignificant to others and which would be meaningful only to you. But if you can triumph over that fear and do something that makes a difference, then the eventual rewards could be great…

Save up to 10% of your total IT costs - for sure!

I know, I know. Been there, done that… You had a project to trim IT costs last year, didn’t you? And your company took off 8.9% or 12.6% or something. There was a lot of clapping afterwards. Targets hit! Success! But how are things now? Better or worse? I’d hazard a guess, but then it depends how you want to measure success.
Whether you did or did not have an IT cost-saving initiative in the recent past, there are very few companies world-wide where it would be impossible to save up to 10% on like-for-like IT costs. Very few.
How so? Because total IT costs are probably greater than you realise. Because we never consider 'the whole'. And because we tackle IT cost-saving initiatives in a 'traditional' way. Actually in the wrong way. In the standard approach we tend to apply Neanderthal methods - and this after we have set our shaky foundations by asking the wrong questions in the first place. Like "What is the IT budget?". That’s not the totality of where you should start.
So where do people typically go wrong? What are the common mistakes? How about these:
  • Let’s start with the "What is the IT budget?" question. The IT budget is NOT the total cost of your IT. It’s just a convenient sub-set with a suitable label. It ignores the 'non-IT' IT costs: the cost of guerrilla IT, the financial benefits IT can bring, the impact elsewhere of poor processes, the opportunity costs missed through doing IT badly… So, Fundamental Mistake Number 1 => the IT budget is $x, therefore 'Success' = 90% of $x.
  • People - and Fundamental Mistake Number 2. You have 100 people in IT; if we’re saving 10% of cost, then we need to lose 10% of the staff. QED = Redundancy programme. As a default position, complete rubbish. It ignores what people do - and what people could do, and the value they could bring. It ignores the impacts of morale, productivity, organisation etc.
  • Closely allied to FM1 comes Fundamental Mistake Number 3: we’ll go to all our Suppliers and tell them we want 10% off their bills - or else! Simple. And being tough makes us feel good too! Against playground bully threats, why should they be inclined to help us?
  • A fourth common thread to a cost-saving initiative is to cancel stuff, typically Investments, Programmes and Projects. Never mind if these will eventually deliver financial benefits to the business overall, they are labelled as 'IT costs' not business costs, and therefore are fair game. Fundamental Mistake Number 4: throwing the baby (and potential benefits) out with the proverbial bathwater.
Underlying all of these are a couple of additional core failings. 
The first relates to measurement. A bit like the "What is the IT budget?" question, unless we get the measurement parameters correct up front, then we cannot possibly hope to get an accurate answer out of the back-end. We get an answer, yes - and one that we can probably manipulate to paint whatever picture we choose - but almost certainly not the whole truth.
And the second relates to duration. More often than not cost-savings initiatives are undertaken in too short a timeframe. This is because it is believed an impact is needed now; evidence is needed now; success is needed now; someone needs to look good now. Even if it really isn’t success at all…
Thus, Fundamental Mistakes Numbers 5 and 6.
At the end of the day it doesn’t take a genius to come up with an IT cost savings plan. Just write the first four fundamental mistakes as bullets on a single PowerPoint slide, give it to the IT Director or a Programme Manager, and tell them they’ve got six months to deliver. In fact it definitely doesn’t take a genius to do that.
And the impact of all this slash and burn? Probably two years later when IT is in an even worse mess, when service is dreadful, when nothing is being delivered, when business people outside of 'formal IT' are going off and doing their own thing even more than before - and when, to put it right, costs twice as much as was 'saved' in the first place.

There is a different approach. And it’s an approach that involves asking more questions up-front than just "What is the IT budget?". It demands a different way of thinking about IT costs and IT benefits. It needs all Execs and functions in a business to engage collaboratively and to avoid the traditional 'IT is the Bad Guy' approach. And it requires acceptance that you can cut like-for-like total IT costs in ways that might actually increase the 'formal' IT budget or the IT headcount; that you can potentially save money overall by paying a few suppliers more, or by increasing investment and not cutting projects…