I flipped to the last slide and the words, “The End,” filled the screen. I waited a moment and then asked, “Are there any questions?”
Jessica and her staff sat silently around the table, still staring at the screen. The only exception was Ramesh. He was watching Jessica, looking for some hint of her reaction.
I was confident the message from my presentation had been overwhelming. Even Ramesh had been stunned into silence when I showed it to him yesterday. After seeing it, he was more excited about any of my work than I had seen him in a long time. He even ended the meeting by assuring me that together we were going to make this happen. It felt really good to have him backing me.
My root cause analysis showed statistically how 83% of our incidents were due to the activities of people; that 78% of our preventable incidents were due to approved change activity; that 43% of our incidents were repeats, nearly identical to previous incidents; and that collectively, the DBA, UNIX and software development teams were responsible for 87% of our incidents. These four dimensions were the low-hanging fruit just waiting to be plucked. Making an improvement in these areas would have a leveraged effect on reducing the number of incidents impacting our business partners.
I was proud … really proud of what I had done. And not just because all of the data on incidents had been reduced to a few core bits of actionable information. I had also crystallized a methodology for categorization and filtering that we could use going forward. I had just presented the IT leadership with a way to make problem management a practical tool to reduce the number of incidents. And that was the issue that had ended more than one person’s career here. But I had beaten it. Today was my day to be the hero.
After a moment of silence, Clement, the VP of software development, closed his notebook and pushed back from the table. He crossed his arms and said, “I don’t believe it.”
Clement was not new to his role, or the company. He’d been software development VP for the last six years and with the company for over 20 years. He’d worked his way up in the company from third shift computer operator, to his current position. Rumour was that he had no aspirations for any further roles at the company; that he was quite happy where he was and wanted to stay there.
Everyone in the room turned to Clement. “Each element of our development activity is rigorously tested and corrected during development, and before we release it into the environment, so I know my team’s work cannot be the source of these incidents. Clearly, there is an error in the data, or the analysis. Obviously, Chris has expended a lot of effort here, and I am sure we all are appreciative of his attempt to reign in what continues to be a chronic irritation for everyone. Personally, I’ve seen Chris here working at all hours of the day and night. I don’t know of anyone who’s worked harder at trying to fix our situation.”
Clement gestured to me with a cloying smile. “Thank you Chris, for your commitment and industriousness.”
He looked at the rest of Jessica’s directs sitting around the table, and continued in a more solemn tone. “But effort alone doesn’t make it correct. Perhaps due to Chris’ inexperience or unfamiliarity with what my team does, many of these incidents have been inaccurately categorized. Everyone knows that categorization is difficult to use and can produce misleading results. In development, we study human factors, and we know that when presented with lists of categories, people tend to pick only from the first few. So I suspect the data may be skewed, due to what we call selection order effects. That’s where, when presented with a long lists of choices, people gravitate towards the first few, even though better choices may exist further down the list.”
Clement gestured to Ramesh. “If you’d like, I can have one of my experts educate Chris, explaining this effect in detail, and perhaps providing some guidance on better ways for Chris to approach the analysis, so it is more accurate and more in line with how people think and act. We have a great deal of experience in these matters on my team.”
I waited for Ramesh to defend me. He had been so certain and supportive last night. But he just sat there and looked to Jessica. Jessica didn’t respond to Clement, or even seem to react to him.
Jessica gestured to Ross, the VP of infrastructure. Ross had emigrated from Edinburgh eight years ago and was incredibly smart. When I had a chance to speak with him, I was struck by how modest and self-effacing he was. He never beat you with his brain power. He always gave you the chance to uncover some insight he knew, but also understood that you would only appreciate if you discovered yourself. I hoped to work with him some day.
Jessica asked, “Ross, what is your reaction to Chris’ presentation? Do you think there is some truth in what he is saying?”
Ross pondered for a moment, “I know that my teams get paged out a lot during incidents and are key players in their timely resolution. The constant disruption of their lives is one of the major complaints I hear from them. I am willing to look at any approach that can improve the delivery of services to our business partners and help our employees maintain a good work–life balance. Based on the information Chris presented, I’m disappointed with my organization’s performance and accept responsibility for changing our behavior … especially if that improves the relationship with our business partners, and gives my team more of their lives back.”
Clement leaned toward Jessica and said, “I think that whatever we do, or don’t do, should be consistent across all of IT. While no one will agree that our current situation is ideal, for each of us to act, or not act in our own way on the data Chris has presented, would only make things worse. I feel very strongly that we need to act consistently. We need to act as a unified team. Otherwise our business partners will lose even more faith in us.”
Jessica nodded and mumbled murmurs of agreement filled the room.
Jessica sat silently for a moment, biting her lower lip.
She turned to me and said, “Chris, you have done a fantastic job providing all of this information to us. You’ve helped reduce the number of incidents, and given us insight as to what our next steps need to be for the enablement of effective problem management. But that said, I think we need to pause for a while and assess the impact of what you are asking the organization to do in six months. There are a lot of demands being placed on the organization, and more are coming. We don’t want to make too many changes all at once and destabilize the entire organization. But please don’t take this as a rebuke or rejection of the information you’ve provided. I appreciate, and I know the rest of my team appreciates, that you’ve done.”
She turned to Ramesh and asked, “What do you think? As the direct leader of Chris, the person who has had the most exposure to this, what do you think? Do you agree with the idea of giving the organization a chance to absorb all the changes so far, before we give them more?”
Ramesh smiled and in a loud firm voice said, “I couldn’t have said it better, Jessica. Chris has done a great job so far, and by holding off for six months on further changes to our processes, there will be time to gather more information, and confirm the accuracy of both the data and the methodology.”
He nodded to Clement. “And, of course, we will take you up on your generous offer to assist us.” Looking at the rest of Jessica’s direct reports, he added, “And we welcome any feedback, or support, any of you cares to provide, so that we can do a better job serving your teams and our business partners.”
I tried hard not to show a reaction. I should have known that Ramesh would bend whichever way Jessica went. His corporate survival skills were too finely honed to do otherwise.
Our presentation over, Ramesh and I left the meeting. As I closed the door behind us, he put his hand on my shoulder, smiled and said, “You did a great job. Don’t worry about the six-month delay. That’s just high-level IT leadership politics. Keep refining your problem management process, and before you know it, we’ll be implementing it.”
I worked my way over to Meredith’s cube. Meredith had become the closest thing the business had to a single point of contact for IT. She’d been a product manager for a number of years and under her direction some great new products had been rolled out. She’d been out under maternity leave for 12 weeks early last year for the birth of her daughter. While she was out, her group brought in a new leader and reorganized. That new leader brought in a number of new product managers from their old firm and let some of the legacy employees go. While Meredith had been welcomed back and given a job at the same grade as the one she had previously, none of her projects seemed to have quite the same high visibility as before. Those projects all seemed to go to the people recently hired by the new leader. But she seemed determined to not let herself become a victim. She stepped up at every opportunity to impress her leadership and convince them she was ready for some more important work.
That’s why I liked working with her. I’d worked with Meredith on the incident management process, and she had been fairly supportive. At least as much as one could expect when you were asking them to sell their organization on material changes to the way they were doing things. She was more than willing to get her hands dirty on new work, especially if she felt it would get a positive response from her leadership. Meredith didn’t always agree with what I thought or wanted to do, but there were plenty of opportunities for things that would benefit us both.
“So I heard you got the brush-off from your leadership. That must have felt good,” she said.
“How did you know,” I asked. “We just finished an hour ago.”
Meredith shook her head. “There are no secrets here. Information is power, and the people that have it are not shy about wielding it.”
“You mean Jessica passed the word along?” I couldn’t believe she would humiliate me like that.
“No, I’m talking about the holders of real power in the company. The people who know everything about everyone, and have the ear of every decision maker … the administrative assistants. They share the word among themselves.”
I laughed. “So if I want to know what’s really going on, I should count on the admins to give me the straight answer?”
“No better or faster source out there. They don’t have a lot of rank on the org chart, but because of the access they have, and the information they control, they are definitely players behind the scenes. That’s why you always want to be their friend. And never ever forget administrative professional’s day. Get them some flowers, take them to lunch, or do something that will be meaningful for them, so they will not forget you. Trust me, it’s well invested.”
I nodded. “Thanks for the advice. What do you think about categorization of incidents, so we can focus on the events that matter?”
“I think you messed it up big time. When you call out a senior leader in front of their boss for being a primary contributor to service disruptions, you are asking to get shut down. Especially if they don’t know you are going to do it beforehand.”
“But I told them it was about all of us working together to make things better. I didn’t even try to point fingers.”
“Doesn’t matter what your intentions are. It matters how your actions are perceived.”
“But Jessica … and even my own boss, should have stood up and helped me. They could have added clarification, and helped those leaders feel better about it.”
“Don’t be naive, Chris. Ramesh has outlived three CIOs, and will probably outlive Jessica, at the rate I hear she’s been going. He’s going to take all his cues from the others in that room. He’ll stand up for you, but only if he feels it won’t hurt him. It’s not that he doesn’t like you, or support you. It’s just that his survival comes first. He’d probably weasel it around so it sounds like he is looking out for your best interests, but take it from me, Ramesh is only concerned about himself.”
“But what about Jessica? She’s the one who gave me the assignment. Why wouldn’t she support me?”
“Public flogging for disobeying or refusing orders is allowed here. Leaders here only get to stay around if their team is willing to work for them. Authority is what you give people. If you don’t submit to their authority, then they don’t have much. Sure, a leader can always fire everyone who doesn’t support them. But after the first couple, their leader is going to figure out something is wrong with them and want to get them out. You can kick one or two people out, but if you try to get rid of most of your department, then the powers that be will usually get rid of you instead. It’s a lot easier to replace one leader than it is to replace an entire department.”
“So what does that have to do with Jessica?” I asked.
“She couldn’t very well force half her team to do something they refused to do, even under threat of termination. Threats are a crummy way to lead, and will never work for long, because eventually she’d have to follow through and start firing some of her directs. And those folks have all been here a long time. They are well connected. They wouldn’t go easily, and definitely not without letting their network in the company know what a lousy leader Jessica has become. See … it really doesn’t matter what level of leader you talk about. They are all subject to the same rules of retention and coercion.”
“You are really cynical and bitter,” I said.
“Nope, just a realist. You will be, too, once you’ve been here long enough. Being realistic about how people work, and act, and think, is the only way you can be effective in getting things done and changing behavior,” she said.
“Well that’s still discouraging,” I said. “Looks like I’m left with no one to support rolling our problem management with categorization.”
“Well, you can always get the support of the business. With them behind you, IT would line up in a minute. They know where the money comes from, and if the people providing the money think this is a good idea, then your leadership will, too.”
She laughed and sat back in her chair. “Not on a bet. You don’t have a chance, and I need to make sure I’m associated with successes if I’m going to get back into the fast lane. Nothing personal, but the answer is a clear, definite and final, no.”
Tips that would have helped Chris
Try to speak individually beforehand with each of the participants at an important presentation. This will tell you what the issues are before the meeting, so you can develop a mitigation strategy. It will also prevent them from being surprised during the meeting. People don’t like surprises in business. All it takes is one person with questions and reservations to derail your solution acceptance.
Despite your best efforts, some people may tell you beforehand they will support your solution, but if they sense others are not supporting it, they will change their position simply for their own benefit. While you can’t always identify these people in advance, you can at least learn from the experience, and treat their commitments as tentative in the future.