‘Tough love’ in five steps to get your infrastructure up to scratch!

Browsing through an airport bookstore can be a disheartening adventure looking at all the titles beaming at you: “Happiness is a journey”, “Self-help for a new start”, “Mindfulness for greater performance”. Apparently we should all learn to lead fulfilling lives and be top performers at home and at work.

As a more cognitively driven person this all sounded very tiresome to me so I continued my search for some literature on hard core infrastructure and IT management. A little voice whispered in my ear: “take a step back to take one forward, open your mind”, so off I went with a magazine focusing on “Mentoring Performance”.

For a long time we considered the technology infrastructure of a large enterprise the domain of ‘techies’, people who were wired for finding the very best technical solution to an enterprise challenge. Recent years taught us however that the man-machine connection is the winning combination, the right people in a working team with the right technology and tools build infrastructures that form the heartbeat of a business, moving sometimes ahead but always in tandem with the operation. Yes, keep dreaming. That is how it should work, but as in real life, that is rarely the case.

I quickly recognised the parallels between underperformance in people and underperformance in IT infrastructures. A sense of unease, of not getting where you want to despite many efforts and trying and being unable to deliver what is required at the right moment are all indicators of underperformance. You might have a colleague or a boss who tells you that you are not up to scratch but more often than not, that does not happen and the – below par - delivery level becomes the norm you simply live with.

This ‘unconscious underperformance’ only knows one turning point: recognising it and owning up to it and this is no different for an underperforming infrastructure. As with people, addressing the situation calls for total honesty combined with clarity, compassion and a level of sensitivity.

So have a read of ‘Tough Love’ in five steps to cure your enterprise from unconscious underperformance in your IT domain:

  1. Acknowledge, accept, understand

    In hindsight there are always thousands of reasons why things or people do not function the way they should. We are all prone to blaming it all on the external environment (“the crisis and increasing compliance”), the fact that our situation is more complicated than that of others (“they could start building from scratch, whilst I inherited tens of systems through our recent acquisitions”), poor management (“my boss is only interested in his career, not in our daily challenges”), etc. Stop being defensive constantly looking in the rear view mirror and put your energy into solutions rather than a guild and blame trip. Be brutal in self-assessment, accept the facts for what they are and try to find solid facts and concrete data to underpin your instinct and early findings, even if they might seem damaging to you and your team. Next, accept the facts and try to understand them better by segmenting them into things you can change and things you cannot.

  2. Open up and ask for help

    Remember your childhood days: excuses in hindsight never went down very well, whereas a call for help was seen as a sign of trust in the family and a helping hand easily extended. So stop rationalising and go clean, knowing full well that it might be a difficult discussion with your own team (“thank you, we built this software under pressure”), your boss (“you recommended going with that vendor”) and the wider business stakeholders (“this department eats money and what does it do for us”). Ask for feedback on your factual findings and speak with a wider audience than the regular ‘direct line’. Taking this position not only shows that you take responsibility, that you are working on the issue rather than glossing over it all and just ploughing on. Surely this openness will buy you credit in assessing your future plans and team performance.

  3. Focus, focus, did I say focus?

    Now the cards are on the table attack the situation with focus along three axes: effort & energy, smart strategy and talent. Or easier said: do we as an IT team put enough effort and energy into the work of offering an optimal working environment for the entire company? Are we willing to recode ourselves and get out of routine and work smarter? And finally, do we have the right skills, capabilities and technology tools to run an agile infra? At every point, look one step further and dare to debate with the business. A recent visit to a production plant showed me how a particular type of solar panel went from a production time of 8 days to 8 hours to 4 minutes. A technical person would never have come up with the crazy idea that it could be done in 4 minutes, yet the business person pulled the wool off their eyes by saying that the entire undertaking would never be financially feasible if it could not be driven back to four minutes. Out of the box, the team set to work, found different techniques from other industries to rig up a production line and it is now a fact. Think beyond the curve.

  4. Trust the expert

    Once you have defined the new level of zest and energy the job requires, have a clear focus on how to work smarter and the required technology and skills, you have to open the doors – and your mind - to the outside world. There is no way you and your team can know it all, still worse, you will be a risk of falling back into routine, and lose the drive for smarter working. After step three you will have a clear picture of what you can achieve with the current set-up and team and you will realise that there are elements missing. Draw a road map and mark the elements you can only sunset over time, the elements you can now change internally, the elements (very important) you can switch off and eliminate and the areas where you need help. Overlay this with expert vendors and solutions that, scanning those is a very enriching job for your own team or rely on the insights of industry vendors such as Celent or Gartner. Driving transformation will be simply impossible without clear orchestration at the mid office, to either act on behalf of the front and mid office or to connect those if they are already in place. Your front office must be customer facing and is aimed at servicing customers, your back office is aimed at executing the core business operations. The orchestration in the mid office will determine the success and your response to the enterprise requests and any implementation can start with simply doing just that, connecting more internal and external systems over time through a smart set of APIs. As the enterprise starts to experience the benefits of this approach, they will also develop a sense of the wide range of possibilities, whether this is cutting cost, increasing (regulatory and business data) insight or bringing new products faster to market.

  5. Reputation is everything

    As much as your company’s reputation keeps the business alive, the same counts for you and your IT department. Coming from the back or a heavily debated and expensive starting point you do not only need to perform better, you must be seen to perform better. At relevant levels of progress, share your success with the team and others in the company. Try and make it tangible and measurable and ask for feedback in face-to-face meetings: “Did you notice we upgraded our response times from x to x?” or “is there anything else you might want to see”. “Have you started working with the data we share with you or do you want it in a different format?” Do not easily give up; here too, reputation goes by horseback and comes on foot – be patient and persistent.

From unconscious underperformance to conscious performance

Start to look at your IT infrastructure as a living and breathing human being and you will become aware of its short comings. Shake yourself out of defensive ignorance, face the music, improve and do not assume that simply because you do, others will see that too. Stick to the new path, open up your mind, trust your partners and embark on this journey with your team on deck and regular guest visits from the business. And most of all rely on a fat middle to turn your company into a slim, smart and nimble enterprise.

Jan Bakker

Written by Jan Bakker

CEO of Roundcube. With over twelve years’ experience in delivering payment hubs around the globe, solid business & technical knowledge Jan Bakker builds strong organisations ready for delivering challenging transformational projects in complex environments. As a seasoned top exec sparring partner he is equally comfortable with the CEO as well as a CTO in large financial services firms. Being a people person with a mission, he builds teams that follow him on this mission.