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The Misaligned Middle: Getting IT Managers On Board with Change

Published By Dominica Degrandis

People are talking about the misaligned middle. How can it be that executives understand the value of emerging practices in IT Operations, such as Lean and DevOps, and individual contributors in the trenches get it, but the middle managers just don’t seem to? Are they unaware? Stubborn? Is it learned helplessness?

Sandwiched between leadership and individual contributors, middle management often seems out of step with the organization’s priorities and initiatives. Is it really a misaligned middle, or is it a lack of an enterprise champion? A bottom-up approach can only go so far if the next level of management doesn’t understand or support the change. So, what to do? Maybe it’s an unwillingness to change — or perhaps managers are stumbling around in a broken system.

IT Ops Example: Continuous Delivery

Let’s take continuous delivery as an example of an emerging IT Operations practice. It requires breaking down work into smaller bits, allowing for faster delivery, resulting in faster feedback. Site Reliability Engineers see the need for this improved practice because delivering smaller bits reduces their critical alert, red-eyed fix-it time. Executives see the need for Continuous Delivery because they watch revenue opportunities ebb and flow as the fastest competitors grab market share.

But middle managers may not see the need. They are floating in the middle, distant from the daily crud, responsible specifically for their team’s output. Even though IT Operations practices like Continuous Delivery have proved successful, some middle managers seem reluctant to change their habits.

Since progress hinges on the willingness and ability of managers to implement decisions from above, a lack of buy-in can mean a lack of progress toward business goals. This post addresses why IT managers are (or appear to be) misaligned with the rest of the organization, and describes two paths that IT shops are taking to gain alignment up and down the hierarchy.

Perspectives on Alignment Drift

Uninvested managers promote alignment drift through the ranks. Managers can drift away from company priorities and initiatives for several reasons. Two perspectives dominate.

Some say leadership is to blame: When executives announce the importance of transformation, but let other initiatives take priority, they signal a lack of investment — which slows down the effort. But when executives stick their necks out for Lean/DevOps initiatives, taking political risks to ensure their success, it speaks volumes. It gives middle management assurance that those initiatives, successfully implemented, will actually improve their career prospects. Without this assurance, they have no incentive to uproot their practices.

Others say it’s middle management: Middle managers are smart enough to know that they’re evaluated based on their team getting work done. They’re not interested in the buzzwords-du-jour, and invest only enough effort to be recognized as team players. They foresee another trendy initiative coming along next year, perhaps as a result of an executive turnover that will turn their world upside down — yet again. And for those biding their time until retirement, there’s still less incentive to change.

Both perspectives tend to blame, which sheds little light onto how some managers are digging themselves out of the mess, making progress regardless of where they are. Here are my observations on why middle managers might be misaligned:

  1. Managers behave based on how they’re measured. They’re just seeking respect within the field they work in, and fear being cast as unessential. If they’re measured solely on their team’s productivity, they will optimize locally (vs. globally). When there’s no incentive to consider the larger impact on other teams, or on external customers, the focus stays narrow and siloed.
  2. Executives battle over strategy and priorities, driving misalignment down through the ranks. Example: An international IT services company based in Chicago has a CTO for Development and a CIO for Operations. Each of them has VPs with conflicting views on how the organization should evolve. This lack of leadership cohesion spreads down the food chain, creating misaligned directors and managers.

Break Down Barriers

Constrained by how they’re measured, caught between executive disputes, some IT managers are nonetheless finding paths out of the misaligned middle. Charles Nelles, Director of IT Operational Support at Western Union, says digging out of the misalignment mess is all about lowering resistance. Investing in relationships — by casting off fiefdoms and discouraging office politics — helped his team collaborate on a solution. The key to lowering resistance was focusing on a small change curve. In his case, automating just a few things helped break down barriers and pave the way for increased alignment across departments.

Repairing misalignment may be time consuming, but the rewards are huge. Here, we look at two paths other enterprises have taken to improve alignment across their organizations.

Breathe Customer Oxygen

An eye-opening exercise to connect IT teams with business goals involves participating first-hand in the challenges facing your external customers.

For example, Ticketmaster sends their Product Development and Operations teams out to events to understand what it’s like to be a Ticketmaster customer. They serve in the box office. They scan tickets at the door. They attend events as fans.  Ticketmaster CTO Jody Mulkey calls this program, “Breathing customer oxygen.”

You could imagine the impact it would have on Ticketmaster’s teams if they were at the Rose Bowl and a malfunction happened to the entry scanners, with thousands of passionate fans waiting to get inside. The teams would gain a new understanding of the importance of the work they are doing, the importance of quality products, and the impact their work had on the customers. These kinds of experiences enable leaders, managers, and workers to rally around a strategy of, “One team, one mission, one goal,” — all based on customer outcomes and feedback.

Expose the Workflow

When the human eye fixates on a visual representation of a problem, it works to figure it out — like a puzzle. This is why mapping the entire end-to-end flow of work across the whole system is so effective — it helps everyone see the collective needs of the larger organization in relationship to their own departments.

Nordstrom’s leadership team participated in an end-to-end workflow exercise to test their assumption about where a problem lay with their internal sales team reports. They discovered that they were asking store managers for information that required salespeople to walk off the sales floor into a back room to search for information they couldn’t find.

An ineffective workflow was the overarching problem — not old technology, as leadership had assumed. This insight led to streamlining the flow of data between teams. Positive outcomes were numerous, including engaged leaders and improved team morale. Now, transparency rules at Nordstrom. Leadership teams get together once a month to look at the metrics and ask, “Why?”, when they see patterns that don’t make sense.

Sometimes it just takes a crisis to find a solution. At a federal government research organization, a fragile release process provoked an end-to-end workflow mapping event. It revealed how improvements in one functional area had created new problems downstream. While the development piece had been fully automated, it consumed just one small part of a lengthy release work stream — that took no less than 48 hours. By visualizing the whole system, the organization was able to facilitate constructive conversations on what was working — and what was not. This allowed them to reach an agreement that the approach in use did not make sense. The group collectively found a solution to the abstract data quality issues that they couldn’t see prior to the exercise.

Aligning the Middle

Emerging practices in IT Operations are creating pressure for change. This pressure can strand managers in the middle, measured against retrograde metrics, misguided by executive discord. Yet, through effective exercises for connecting with customer experience and for envisioning workflow, middle managers themselves can become motivated to eliminate resistance to change.

Whether resistance is upstream or downstream, it’s hard to find agreement if we lack understanding of customer experience, and how work flows cross-functionally on its way to the customer. When everyone can see how all the organization’s parts fit together and see what it takes to deliver customer value, alignment can be reached.

Special thanks to the following people for participating in conversations on this topic: Damon Edwards, Jez Humble, John Willis, Paula Thrasher, Scott Prugh, Aimee Bechtle, Bill Donaldson and Eric Passmore.

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Written by Dominica Degrandis

Dominica teaches Kanban to DevOps enthusiasts. As an Executive Consultant at LeanKit, Dominica combines experience, practice and theory to help organizations level up their capability. She is keen on providing visibility and transparency across teams to reveal mutually critical information. Follow her on Twitter at @dominicad.