IT Management

My father’s career was spent working within hierarchical bureaucracies. Sure, he worked on programs and projects directed through matrix management. But in his day, the org chart ruled. Chain of command was paramount. Decision-making was, for the most part, orderly and predictable.

Dad intuitively understood my working environment when I started at a software development company that built mainframe products. Mainframes and their data architectures were mature. The processes used to build our products were mature (even when they weren’t very efficient). He understood that I was working in a top-down, command-and-control, divide-and-conquer, let-the-big-guys-align-requirements environment.

I almost didn’t discuss with him the chaos and confusion that erupted when we started building client/server versions of our products. Suddenly, we had a slew of competing concerns and requirements. They had to be aligned at the detail level if we were to balance our mature practices against new integration, security, and compliance requirements in mainframe, Windows, and, ultimately, Web environments.

"Aha!" Dad said, when I finally brought it up. "You’re prepared for this! Remember your Toffler!"

Years before, Dad had gathered together the oldest Thomas kids and given us a book review of Future Shock by futurist Alvin Toffler, who—in 1970!—predicted many of the changes that would come to be during my career. One of Toffler’s points was that hierarchies, while they wouldn’t go away, would be overlaid by other decision-making structures that would often be fragmented, contradictory, and misaligned.

We needed to be prepared to see these and deal with them, Dad said. We needed a toolbox of activities that would help us understand power (authority and influence) and how it was put into play. We needed approaches that we could carry with us from project to project, job to job—approaches that would allow us to be true to our professional best practices, our work ethic, and our sense of fairness in human interactions.

Sound familiar? We’re all living in Toffler land now. Recently, I learned a new word—teamocracy—that seems to describe much of today’s technology decision-making. Once a team is empowered to work on a program, project or system, certain team members or sponsors are given (or grab) high levels of decision rights. Cries of “Because I said so!” or “Because the project needs it!" trump weak protestations by those who have to build and maintain systems and data that serve the needs of multiple programs, projects, business processes, analytical activities, and operational reports.

So, what can we do when the “compliance card” is played—when someone in authority says you have to do something exactly the way they tell you to “because of compliance.”  

Of course, sometimes you’ll do it. Or, if your organization is still driven by org charts, perhaps you can appeal to your superior. But what tactics can you employ if you work in a teamocratic environment?

Dad’s advice to me was to memorize a list of five stakeholders, who I was obligated to involve if asked to do anything that presented risk to their interests. Just mentioning them, he said, could change the power equation of a disagreement.

Would this work for you? Could you transform a “you say/I say” disagreement to a “five-against-one” situation? Consider how many more compliance options you might have if you were to complete and memorize the following statement:

I hear what you’re saying and I understand the control objectives at the heart of the request. Of course, there are several approaches that could satisfy those control objectives, including one that I believe would also satisfy all of my data stakeholders. Unfortunately, the compliance option that seems to be in favor might negatively affect the ability of some of my data stakeholders to access data, understand it, trust it, filter it, sort it, or link it. So, before we could move forward, I’d be obligated to involve [list stakeholders]. Instead, would you like to hear an alternative approach?

Of course, you have to give this little speech with a cool, neutral voice and a helpful expression on your face. If you do, you might have a shot at improving your future as well as the future of your stakeholders and the person you’re negotiating with.