Overcoming the culture of fear which paralyses IT

Initiatives such as BizDevOps and Agile are designed to eliminate silos and improve the effectiveness and relevance of business technology delivered.  But they will only succeed if leaders remove a critical barrier: fear. 

Fear is dangerously prevalent within business IT world.  IT professionals fear change because it threatens the carefully constructed order that they have built for themselves.  IT professionals fear security breaches and recent high-profile cyber attacks have heightened this paranoia, solidifying an already protectionist attitude.  IT professionals also fear customer feedback because it highlights weaknesses.  Addressing these weaknesses invariably demands change which in turn threatens the technological status quo.

Bowing to these fears is why IT is often accused of being reactionary and outdated.  Because IT has a safety-first mindset, it is unable to provide the kind of nimble and flexible IT that will offer the business competitive differentiation.  It is also why initiatives such as BizDevOps struggle to gain traction because IT puts stability ahead of improvements.

For your business to truly take advantage of technology, this fear needs to be overcome.  IT today must be innovative and responsive to changing conditions inside and outside the business, not choked by fear.

Why is IT stifled by fear?
Changing this culture of fear is an imperative for IT leaders who want their business to unlock the full potential of technology.  To understand how to diminish fear, first you need to understand where it comes from.

In biological terms, fear is based on personal threat. It is a safety barrier that helps sentient beings react to and avoid physical threats.  This clearly doesn’t apply in business, unless your HR departments have very draconian attitudes to employee discipline.

So why is fear so prevalent? After all, if the majority of employees state they don’t like an IT service, lives are not in danger.  Even a major security incident, which can have huge cost and legal implications, doesn’t literally harm an individual.  Yes, people take pride in their work, but this isn’t enough to explain the crippling impact of fear on the IT department. 

The real reason that IT professionals bow to fear rather than prioritise improvements is because they are tasked to do exactly that.  Business leaders may make grand statements about the need to evolve IT, but they continue to reward and incentivise based on the principle of protecting the IT already in place.

You get what you ask for
If you look at a metrics measured by the typical IT function, the majority will be based on efficiency.  Uptime, meantime to resolve problems, the speed of implementation – the list goes on.  IT is judged by its ability to keep IT working.  These metrics are not only everywhere within IT, they are culturally ingrained. 

If you incentivise reliability and efficiency, this is what you receive.  You must incentivise different behaviours to change behaviour.  Therefore, if your business wants to see innovation and experimentation, you must target and reward your employees based on this.  Almost every IT professional has a list of tasks that they know could benefit the organisation if acted upon.  But they remain filed under the header “I’ll do that when I get time”. Unless that individual is encouraged to take action, allocated time to do so and rewarded for any positive outcomes, these potential transformative activities will remain forever untapped. 

This negative culture is a huge problem when trying to encourage BizDevOps or allow strategic Business Relationship Managers to explore new opportunities to apply technology to business challenges.  A central tenet of BizDevOps is creating a feedback loop. In the BizDevOps feedback model, multiple parties: developers; IT service creators; business practitioners and strategists, collaborate to hone business technology.  It’s a brilliant principle and exactly what IT must do to begin delivering true value to the business.  But unless you remove the fear of failure and encourage people to take risks, the benefits of BizDevOps will never be realised.

Japanese companies offer an interesting model to reference at this point.  The culture in Japan encourages employees to engineer themselves out of a job.  In other words, if the individual can discover ways to either automate or make some or all of their work activities unnecessary by re-engineering the process, they do so.  But here is the crucial point.  Rather than facing unemployment as a consequence of succeeding at this task, employees are given a new role within the organisation.  By rewarding employees who make themselves redundant, Japanese organisations have removed the fear of experimentation and change. (It’s no surprise that the principles of BizDevOps originate from Japanese manufacturing companies because the conditions already exist to ensure it works).

Unless fear of failure is removed from IT, very little will change.  IT leaders must ascertain their strategic priorities and find ways to incorporate these priorities into how professionals are rewarded.  Because unless they do any effort such as BizDevOps to change working practices will fall foul of fear.

If you would like to find out more about BizDevOps, download our Beginners Guide here.

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Simon Kent
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