I recommended The Phoenix Project to one of my friends and she read it recently. She had a few very insightful questions that got me thinking. One was, “Why did they wait until towards the end of the book to start asking the business what their goals and objectives were? Why didn’t they do that sooner?”

The short answer is that they were too busy with their own problems. They did not have the bandwidth to even start considering how they could help others. It got me thinking about how there are phases of maturity in an IT organization. I want to attempt to break it down into phases and give guides on how to move from one to the next.

The other reason I wanted to write this is to show to business owners and executive decision makers what the IT department does, and what they’re capable of. Too often, you see IT departments acting and treated like a maintenance department. The IT department is stripped of it’s ability to act strategically and plan ahead for the organization. That technology planning gap needs to be filled, and unfortunately, it’s often filled by outside salespeople pushing their product, or by technology hype, such as Cryptocurrencies, AR, and now AI.

I’ve broken it down into two different perspectives for each phase: one that is the perspective of the IT department specifically, and one that is the perspective of the organization as a whole. This will let you see the two different trains of thoughts and can help you try to arrange the best ways to progress forward through these phases.

Phase 0 – Technology Adoption

IT Perspective

During this phase, things are just “figured out” and the most technical person in the organization will do what they can to make things work. Since they’re not technical by profession, they’ll get things working, but things such as scalability, reliability, security, etc. are usually not considered.

Organizational Perspective

While things are not being built to the best standards, technology is still being leveraged to help the business move forward. Those benefits drive further adoption of more and more technologies.

I’m calling this one the zero phase because all of this happens before an IT person shows up. The organization exits this phase when they hire their first dedicated IT staff.

Phase 1 – Computer Maintenance Department

IT Perspective

Phase 1 starts when the organization hires its first IT person. By this point, they’ve probably suffered enough technical issues or have identified enough future technical needs that they’ve decided to hire an entire person dedicated to working on this.

A lot of organizations get stuck here. In this phase, the IT department spends most of it’s time with “keeping the lights on” activities. When things break, they react and fix them. There may be a decent amount of projects in the pipeline, but priorities always feel crazy because all it takes is one outage before the team is overwhelmed and they’re playing catch up or pushing back their project timelines.

The way organizations break out of this phase is by allocating what extra time they have to doing preventative work so that they eventually spend less and less time reacting to problems constantly presenting themselves.

I’ve shown how to do this in How to Tune a Network Monitoring System, but that post could definitely use an update.

Organizational Perspective

During this phase, the IT department provide values in 2 ways.

The first way they bring value is by performing maintenance. This includes activities to bring the system back online after a failure, or preventative measures that increase reliability and security.

Since the IT department is too busy reacting to things to plan ahead for their own situation, they rarely, if ever can get the time to plan for the future needs of the business. This means creating value is not possible. Instead of adding value, they can only minimize how much value they subtract.

This, in turn means that the only other way they can bring value is by reducing their cost. In other words, they can only improve their contribution by keeping the lights on, but at a lower cost than they were previously.

To help pull the IT department out of this mentality, organizations need to look for ways technology can help, and work with their IT departments to make that a reality. Of course, the department needs the extra bandwidth to dig themselves out of the hole. Otherwise, they’ll be too buried under maintenance work to consider anything else.

Phase 2 – Technology Construction Contractors

Breaking out of phase 2 → improving IT optics by focusing on help desk first. Explain why improving the help desk experience is a huge importance to the organization. Once you gain the respect of the organization, start learning other departments.

IT Perspective

At this point, the IT organization is no longer primarily focused on operational work. It’s hard to draw a hard line on paper between the end of Phase 1 and the beginning of Phase 2, but you’ll know it when you see it.

None (or few) of the projects are aimed at improving business objectives or helping other departments. Most of the time is consumed by completing projects for the IT department itself. It may sound selfish, but this is what enabled the team to get out of Phase 1 in the first place.

There’s a ton in the IT project backlog that can keep the IT department in this phase for a long time: security and resiliency improvements, replacing aging hardware proactively, and improving user experience among other things.

To pull yourself out of this phase, you need to make sure that all the projects you’re taking on either increase your department’s capabilities, free up time, or help your greater organization. If it’s not helping with any of those, you need to do what you can to avoid those tasks in favor of ones with greater ROI.

You’ll also need respect from the rest of the organization. That starts with giving respect to your peers and ensuring that the user experience is a good one. Make sure your help desk team is doing well and that tickets are being handled well. It doesn’t matter how well engineered your IT infrastructure is, if the users are having a bad time dealing with the help desk team, they’re going to think poorly of the IT organization as a whole.

You can also give respect to more easily gain respect. I start by taking the time to learn about the roles, responsibilities, and problems of your peers. This will also help you build tools that are better aimed at your organization’s needs.

Organizational Perspective

Need to express that from a business perspective, the IT department is starting to have extra bandwidth to deliver projects, but for the most part they’re project order takers. Express that there’s a lot of negotiation on time and features, because we’re still breaking out of the computer maintenance department mentality.

From an organizational perspective, this is where IT is adding value for the first time rather than avoiding subtracting value. They’re starting to have enough extra bandwidth to deliver projects. Unfortunately, since they’ve been focused in their own world, isolated from the rest of the organization, they don’t always have the context for what’s valuable versus what’s a waste of time and energy.

As a result, the IT department starts off as project order takers. The organization makes a list of requirements or needs, and the IT department will try to deliver them. In a lot of cases, the relationship can feel like dealing with an outside contractor: You need to create a list of requirements, they provide a cost and budget, and you do a bit of haggling before settling on an agreed list of terms and starting the project. Changes to the project after starting are discouraged, because that will increase time and cost for the project.

This arms-length negotiation can make the IT department feel like an outsider. It’s not uncommon for organizations to even prefer negotiating with external organizations for their technology needs. While this resourcefulness is good for the company in the short-term, there’s a huge opportunity cost of developing technology competency in-house that’s lost.

To help the IT department move into the next phase, we need to start building relationships and developing a mutual understanding for each others work. The IT department needs to learn how the organization works to generate revenue, and the rest of the organization needs to take the time to understand the basics of how technology works so that they can better leverage them.

Phase 3 – Technology Enablement Partnership

IT Perspective

This phase begins once you’ve completed enough internal project work that you have enough extra bandwidth to start considering the business’ needs. Same as the line between Phase 1 and 2, the line between phase 2 and 3 is hazy, but you’ll know when you’ve crossed it.

You’re now partnering with other departments and helping them succeed. This requires a lot of ground work to achieve. You, or your IT organization’s leaders are spending time with other departments, learning how they function, what their issues are, and providing technical advice on how to better leverage technology for their jobs.

Technology is considered as part of strategic planning, and representatives of the IT department are included in these discussions.

Organizational Perspective

This is where your IT department is actively helping deliver technology that helps your organization win. They’re looking into problems each department has, and seeking technology solutions to either ease the pain of those problems, or eliminate them completely.

Rather than chasing trends and hoping for the best based off of a few success stories in the industry, your company will have the capability to identify opportunities for leveraging technology for improvement, then test and implement them in an effective, cost-efficient way.

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