Being a Hero vs. Doing Things Right

Let’s say you’re a talented and ambitious young IT professional. Late one Friday afternoon, the VP of sales corners you in the hallway and says his laptop has crashed, just as he was finishing a presentation for a Monday morning meeting with a new customer.

Do you:

A: drop everything and restore the document, even if it means calling in colleagues and working over the weekend.

B: tell the VP to call the Help Desk and get a problem ticket.

Obviously, in this instance the right thing to do is to jump in and resolve the crisis.  However, the scenario illustrates a key challenge of managing an effective IT organization: how to reconcile individual ambition and initiative with the need for process discipline and consistency.

Many large IT organizations make a virtue of fixing crises and putting out fires. As a result, what they become really good at is fixing crises and putting out fires.  Meanwhile, the truly top-performing organizations find ways to prevent crises and fires from happening in the first place.

The “hero” culture in IT can undermine efficiency and improvement initiatives in a variety of ways.  Consider, for example, an ITIL initiative – it’s all about process standardization, consistency, and repeatability. In a sense, all those things are a threat to the IT hero, because they don’t give him or her a chance to shine, to be different and better, to be heroic.  For executives managing ITIL initiatives, it’s therefore essential to gain the support of the IT heroes and give them a stake in its success.  Otherwise, because they’re talented and ambitious and smart, they’ll find a way to derail the process. .

Sourcing relationships can also fall prey to the hero syndrome. In many instances, a client organization characterized by a hero-driven, ad hoc, and reactionary approach to problem management confronts a process- and standardization-oriented service provider. When these respective approaches clash, the client’s way usually prevails, for a variety of reasons. First off, the idea that the “customer’s always right” is a powerful one. Moreover, retained staff are often more experienced and senior than their service provider counterparts, particularly in offshore environments.  Hence, the vendor team often lacks the wherewithal to push back and insist on standards and consistency. An added danger of the hero syndrome in outsourced environments is that strong personal bonds often develop between the respective teams – everyone’s in it together, striving to be heroic. So both sides feel that the partnership is strong, even if service delivery is woefully inefficient.

The way out of the impasse is for senior executives from both sides to step back and reassess the initial objectives of the initiative, and to re-commit to the steps necessary to drive improvement. Again, it’s imperative to gain the trust and support of the best and brightest on both teams, and to give them a stake in ensuring that standardization and consistency prevail over individual heroics. Read more

About the author

Chris has helped more than 100 client companies optimize their IT operations, increase business and user satisfaction, control IT spending and align business unit objectives with IT strategy. He brings more than 30 years of technology management, consulting and operations experience that spans a wide range of industries.  He is an expert in improving enterprises’ ITIL and best practice models, creating balanced scorecards and IT measurement programs, technology business management (TBM) and implementing technology governance and policy. He has helped clients with national and global projects, including operational performance optimization, service chargeback models, service catalogues, cost reduction initiatives, sourcing strategies and IT operations consulting. Chris is ITIL v3 certified.