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7 Habits I&O Leaders Should Replace in 2021

Posted by on February 16, 2021

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As the digital-first operating world evolves, IT organizations are struggling to decide which practices to maintain and which to phase out. This transition from a “plan/build/run” lifecycle to a more agile, team-oriented structure has become the catalyst for organizational conflict, challenging the very foundation of how companies should operate. Split by generational and philosophical ideas of governance, organizations are challenged to evolve to a world that’s already demanding a change. 

For instance, in years past, the lifecycle of a product was managed in silos, with large gaps of time between deployment, testing, feedback, and correction. But with automation and software access on a 24-hour loop for end-users, that lifecycle is happening faster and its causal effects are closing the gap on such a long feedback loop. Technicians and specialists need to be at the ready and have the permission to respond, correct, deploy, and test products organically and without a level of bureaucracy that stymies response and maturity. 

Critical shifts in organizational structure and practices are necessary to address these opportunities that arise from modern technology in operations. In this massive phase of evolution, development and operations must be more collaborative than ever. Through today’s 24/7/365 nature of doing business, most companies have been merely adapting on the fly but now it’s time to establish the infrastructure operating model that will make tech modernization successful.

Here, seven habits infrastructure and operations (I&O) departments need to abandon—and what to do instead. 

Bad Habit #1: Separating R&D from Operations 

Historically, research and development (R&D) have been inextricably linked. Small teams worked in secret far away from operations, toiling over the creation of new technology and testing outcomes that would ultimately dictate its rollout. 

Operations, on the other hand, had to quickly inform themselves of the new technology but when met with issues by the customer, outside of a few troubleshooting actions, would have no way of rectifying the issue. 

Eventually, those concerns would get filtered back to R&D but any changes to the product led to a hard stop or months of reevaluating development and a phasing in of upgrades. R&D had little to no connection to those who would market, sell, and mitigate the concerns of users of those products. 

What to Do Instead: Shorten the Feedback Loop

This practice of development first, test last (with little variation) has hindered organizations from reaching their true potential in the marketplace. 

Businesses must consider that operations and those who interact most with end-users are invaluable to the development process. Because of their position on the frontline, they are the first to hear concerns, needs, problems, and positive feedback, too. 

Operations’ proximity to customers can surely shorten the feedback loop, allowing R&D to tweak products faster and more efficiently, optimizing rollout and testing, and ultimately, making it easier to meet the needs of users. Which segues to the next point.

Bad Habit #2: Relying on Specialty Silos 

With the onset of e-commerce and service management systems, companies are flooded with inquiries, complaints, and user issues. This information is valuable, yet companies lack the structure to reap the benefits. 

To be in the best position to respond to customers, your business model needs to reflect a more collaborative, cross-functional structure that encourages input from all specialties. Unlike the traditional waterfall model, where products advanced linearly through the plan, build, and delivery phases largely in vast silos led by specialists, today’s newer model must embrace agility. By implementing a product-centered model, businesses will be able to continuously tweak a product and respond quickly and intuitively to customer needs. 

What to Do Instead: Create Cross-Functional Product Teams

Organizationally, companies must also retire the closed method of having one class of specialist owning the product at a time. Because a product-centered model calls for adaptability and continuous evolution, products shouldn’t “complete”—they should be tweaked until they are ready to be retired. This process of improvement ahead of retiring a product must rely on constant collaboration and even overlap among specialties. 

One example of a product-centered organizational model is to distribute members of your I&O staff across multiple teams. Each team should focus on the full build and run of a product, providing production and development support. Based on multiple studies of human social organization, InfoTech research recommends forming cross-functional product teams of six to eight people. This more effective approach relies on persistent, cross-functional teams of high-performing individuals who are continuously learning and shaping the product. 

By foregoing traditional production models and embracing variation, your product and your team will become more innovative and functional. 

Bad Habit #3: Disregarding the Human Factor 

Although technology has made huge advances over the years, companies still rely on old ways of managing employees and defining or measuring efficiency. Some organizations also assume that because many systems are becoming automated, less human staff is needed. Contrary to this belief, humans are essential to computing. 

Chaos engineering and resilience engineering are an example of why the human factor is so paramount to the workplace. Resilience engineering examines the dynamics of humans, cognitive psychology, and ergonomics. Chaos engineering, pioneered by Netflix, assumes crashes and failures are inevitable and thus functions to stress test computer software in real-world scenarios. 

At their core, both philosophies acknowledge that humans plus computers cause complex systems and that this relationship creates innumerable paradoxes that reinforce the bond between the two. 

What to Do Instead: Adopt ‘Resilience Engineering’

Because companies typically automate processes that are easier and high volume, what’s left for humans are the more difficult tasks. The humans operating these systems are met with tremendous challenges to problem solve and mitigate failures that may arise. 

To keep humans most effective in the loop, companies should consider resilience engineering. This may mean you will have to forgo some automation opportunities to embrace a degree of redundancy in your teams. 

Yet the human factor in the workplace is deeper than problem-solving, it’s also about cultivating an environment of psychological safety—one where the employee experience is taken into account. This approach means pulling resources into things like ergonomics, employee sustainability, and considering cognitive psychology, like attention span and thought processes. 

With the focus on human operators, businesses should seek to bring teams together and push the envelope on digital-first practices like utilizing chat platforms and automated change and service request processes. Giving your employees access to tools like these and putting humans first ensures that they will have more resources to help them succeed. 

Bad Habit #4: Relying on Command-and-Control  Governance 

Corporations have largely held the belief that top-down leadership is the best way to manage any resource from workers to finance. To move forward with a project or make changes to resolve an issue, there’s a chain of command often leading several steps up the ladder for approval. Although this method has been deemed tried and true, this type of “helicopter governance” actually stalls implementation and hinders growth.

What to Do Instead: Provide a Principled Framework

If the goal is to become agile, teams will need greater resources and more autonomy. Leaders should give workers the room to address issues and make decisions based on their own judgment. 

Ultimately, this approach means moving away from a philosophy of “review and approve” and transitioning to one of “trust and verify.” 

Leadership should trust their team with this level of professional ownership and check in only to verify the goal was met. By removing the roadblocks and burdens of procedure-driven governance, teams can meet goals however they see fit within a framework of principles to guide them. If organizations are focused on being mission-based and product-centered, the values by which teams make decisions should fall right in line.

Bad Habit #5: Hiring Based Only on Skillset 

The philosophy behind who to hire and why has evolved substantially over the last few decades. With automation in the workplace and technical skills being in high demand, organizations need to evolve once again. Hiring based solely on expertise does not mean workers are ready to meet the challenge of an ever-changing, product-centered environment. 

What to Do Instead: Prioritize Learners and Collaborators

When hiring, companies should look for individuals who get  high marks as collaborators, and love to learn and explore new solutions on the job. As modern organizations demand more dynamic workers and problem solvers to join teams, new talent should have the proper skillset, and they should also be flexible and adaptable. 

This also extends to how companies maintain talent. In the past, companies were in the habit of arbitrarily restructuring or reorging teams, even swapping members out simply based on metrics. Now, organizations should be wary of making swift changes like this that undermine investment in employees and devalue relationships between team members. Instead, a company  should commit to becoming a learning organization. This fundamental shift places a high value on development and employee growth by giving teams access to unlimited information when and how they need. 

A solid place to start is by investing in pull-based learning infrastructures, a model that encourages workers to proactively pull useful and relevant information at will. Whether it’s in the form of articles posted on an internal communication platform or downloadable content or webinars made available through company resources, on-demand learning and other forms of enrichment empower workers to create new solutions and bring more value to their team and the organization as a whole. 

Bad Habit #6: Underfunding Learning and Development

In line with becoming a learning organization, how companies fund projects must be reevaluated as well. Typically, centralized decision-makers manage annual capital funds and determine the budget for each team or program. These large chunks of funding, usually given annually and infrequently, have a tendency to hop over innovative projects because the budget is allocated based on measured practices and finite resources. 

What to Do Instead: Sponsor Employee-Led Projects 

But to innovate, companies need to swing for the fences and invest in new ideas. Metered funding is a compelling way to support more experimental projects and fund learning-based initiatives. If we consider companies like Uber, which has invested $500 million in a collaboration with Toyota to develop self-driving cars, we notice a startup model that isn’t afraid to put funding into projects that may be a bit outside the box yet in the vein of their mission. 

Start by funding learning-based initiatives in the early stages and phasing into growth-based funding later. Ideas presented to design makers are given several rounds of funding periodically depending on the stage of the project and advancements made. Create a roadmap of business outcomes, and use team velocity to estimate the number of sprints it’ll take to reach the edge of the goal. This approach should also help you estimate the cost of the project. Metered funding also allows your organization to pragmatically fund explorations and product enhancements, bringing some balance to funding when the ROI is largely unknown. 

Bad Habit #7: Relying on Steep Hierarchical Structures 

The last few decades have been driven by middle management, which new studies are showing hinders the flow of communication between staff and executives. Often hierarchical structures in the workplace can be rife with issues, including territorial managers, lack of collaboration, and complacent, less innovative practices. 

What to Do Instead: Embrace a Flatter Organization

There’s been a movement to dispose of traditional organizational structures and embrace a flatter one. Flat organizational structures, such as holacracy and Teal, decentralize middle management and rely on either a smaller than normal amount of middle managers or no middle management at all. 

But in newer organizational models,  teams are free to be active in the decision-making with few obstructions between them and executives. Flat organizational structures are embraced by many tech companies who thrive on making more impactful decisions faster and have teams who are empowered and autonomous.

Be Dedicated to the Change

More is more this year. Achieving agility increases your company’s response time, improves your product, and better communicates your mission through and through. Change must be intrinsic and highly valued in order to truly innovate. 

Start with a commitment to a new philosophy on how you want to govern as an organization and realign every aspect to the values that will help your company thrive. Find out more about what you need to know in the Forrester report, "The Future of Technology Operations" and register for the webinar with a Forrester guest analyst.


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