Saturday, February 13, 2010

Be Consistent & Flexible

I remember an experiment covered in an under graduate psychology class meant to demonstrate that people prefer consistency in thought over randomness even if they disagree with the principal of the consistent thought pattern. Here is the scenario:

Person X states that he dislikes all people from place Y. He then comes to know that his new friend to whom he has grown very close is from place Y. Person X has three options:

1. Change his views about people from place Y.

2. Maintain his view about people from place Y but rationalize an exception.

3. Denounce his friendship given his new knowledge of his friends place of origin.

Most people see option 1 as the "correct” choice, not surprising given the positive connotation this option holds. What is more interesting is that given only a choice between option 2 and option 3, most people choose option 3 as the "correct" choice despite the negative connotation that option holds. My point here is not to delve into the deep rooted psychological reasoning behind this fact but rather to point out the following: Given a choice between consistency and inconsistency, people prefer consistency even if they do not necessarily agree with the principal being consistently adhered to. This is an extremely important point for IT leaders to keep in mind across a wide facet of IT operations.

Consider certain IT policy related to issues such as who in the organization has local administrator rights to their workstation. Users will generally prefer "option 1", giving them free reign and full flexibility as it relates to installing software and making configurations on their own workstation. However, the very practical considerations of security and stability force us as IT leaders to take "option 1" off the table. So an IT workstation policy can really be seen as serving two purposes. First, it clearly outlines to users in a practical and no disputable fashion why "option 1" is not a possibility. Second, the policy tells users how the rules will be applied consistently across the organization. Armed with this information, users will prefer a consistent application of IT policies even if it means they are not given their "option 1". Remember, users will always prefer "option 1" but will accept "option 3" over "option 2" if it is the only alternative. Users will always be on the diligent lookout for the existence of "option 2" in the organization. The moment users perceive the application of policies in an inconsistent fashion the howling will begin.

Consider also the yearly ritual of the performance appraisals. An employee who is rated low on a category will accept that rating if he or she feels the standards for that category are being applied consistently across all staff members. IT team members may not necessarily agree that "number of support cases closed in a 24 hour period" is a relevant measure, however, if all team members are graded consistently with respect to this metric it will become accepted as a goal. The hidden gotcha here of course is to be careful what it is you consistently ask for because that is exactly what you will get!

These are only two examples, many more abound. So as an IT leader, ask yourself if you are being consistent in your actions. Do you users understand the rules and see them as being applied the same to everyone? Do your staff members feel they are being measured consistently against the goals you have set whether they necessarily agree with your goals or not? Be consistent in your actions but do not lose sight of the need to listen and be flexible. As things change, the rules and goals that govern your IT organization may also need to change. Be willing to adjust, inform everyone clearly of how the game has changed and adhere to the new standards in a consistent fashion. This last point reminds me of an adage told to me by a colleague who spent many years in the Navy:

On a foggy evening, a U.S. Navy destroyer is leaving harbor, heading out to sea. The Admiral is setting in his quarters working on paperwork when he notices a light dead ahead. He radios down to the bridge to inform the light to turn 20 degrees port side. The bridge calls back up to the Admiral and tells him the light has refused the order. Hearing this, the Admiral gets livid and asks to be connected directly. Once connected the Admiral roars: "I am an Admiral in the U.S. Navy and this is a U.S. Navy Destroyer". The voice on the other end responds "Understood Sir, I am a third class Navy seaman and this is lighthouse".....

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