(My friend Stilgherrian and I had a discussion about this during the week. This post contains my synthesised thoughts.)
Clients in perpetual crisis
If you work in IT-related services, you will be familiar with this type of client:
- They are always chaotic and in a rush. They only have time to listen to the bare minimum. They run out of time to respond to questions or think. They are always juggling a multitude of problems.
- Last minute problems are normal. Especially recurring problems: problems that should have been avoidable with a bit of planning. They constantly expect everyone around them to drop everything and help them with their crisis.
- They make snap-decisions; just what is needed to get the immediate problem fixed there and then. They don’t have time to consider any longer term implications. “Just do whatever you need to fix it NOW. We can sort things out properly
laternever.” they say as they rush out the door.
- They appear very disorganised. They are always losing passwords and other important administrative information. Their hard drive is filled with a mess of cryptically/nonsensically named files. They don’t appear to understand the idea of folders.
- They require handholding for almost every task. They lose or forget the instructions you give them. They ring and ask for everything just as they desperately need it.
- They don’t have any systems or processes in place. Any system that is implemented quickly degenerates into chaos. Everything is reinvented again and again on the spot when needed.
- Issues that are not immediately relevant to their current problem are ignored, until they in turn become emergencies.
Don't get me wrong, we all encounter big problems now and again. We all forget, lose, misfile, and misunderstand things. We all have our frantic, disorganised and “everything is going to hell” crisis moments – sometimes.
The sort of business I am referring to here has these sorts of problems as part and parcel of their daily operations. And they unwittingly draw their customers and suppliers into these dramas.
So why is this so?
The contributing factors seem to revolve around:
- Lack of knowledge
- Lack of thinking skills
- Getting the people stuff wrong.
The 10 key causes of a chaotic business
- Fear of technology – “I’ll never get it”, “I don’t even know how to turn it on”, “I’ll break something”, “computers are not reliable.” Computers are now more reliable than ever before, unfortunately the insecurity around them persists from the bad old days.
- Fear of appearing ignorant – “I’ll just muddle my way through.” Men tend to be uncomfortable admitting their lack of knowledge, especially over technical (thus macho) matters. Women tend to underestimate their ability to understand and use technology. There is a strange willingness to buy into the “I am a woman, I don’t get technology” myth.
- Fear of making significant decisions – typically decisions relating to infrastructure planning, especially over the longer term. Linked to this is the fear of incurring excessive charges and costs, or the fear of being ripped off. Unfortunately there are loads of unprofessional service providers out there.
- Rote learning – the turnover checkbox IT-training “colleges” have a lot to answer for. People are trained to operate a piece of software according to a step-by-step recipe, but they don’t get the underlying concepts. Rote learning is not transferable – simple visual changes to the user interface will confuse many. It does not create any basis to subsequently self-learn. Students comfortable with Internet searches won’t necessary know they can search their PC for a missing file.
- Not knowing what to learn – there is too much focus on the technological details at the expense of the big picture view. Discussions about anything IT tend to rapidly fall into in-depth and alienating jargon. And yet, it is this big picture view that managers rely on so they can make real decisions. There is no clear way for managers to know what they need to learn, and how deeply. As a result, many managers simply do not know enough of the basics to make real decisions to buy something or hire consultants.
- Lack of organisational and problem solving skills – many businesses are about being busy. “Doing stuff” is still valued over “thinking and planning”. The ability to organise, prioritise, plan sequentially, see the big picture as well as the details are not really valued or encouraged. Every goal is RIGHT NOW, and every project starts with “diving in”.
- Lack of play and creativity – which is related to the lack of problem solving skills. Without the ability or time to ask why, there is no opportunity to do anything differently. This is made worse by the belief that there is only one acceptable way to “do business”.
- Lack of self-awareness – many managers and leaders lack self awareness. Some are not aware of their need to learn new skills. Or their ego gets in the way. Others are not aware of the consequences of their actions; like the manager who happily tries out all the latest technical tips and tricks in the computer magazines live on a business-critical IT system.
- Flawed recruiting and HR practices – businesses are often filled with the wrong people in the wrong jobs. Hiring on the cheapest basis, hiring primarily on “doing” experience instead of thinking skills, hiring people who are “like” the boss (same attitude, fears and outlook), or hiring people who are not threatening to the ones in power. Those who see the problems, who try to do things better, are often shunned or managed out. Thus the blind leads the blind in the perpetual cycle of chaos; and those who see, leave.
- Inability to trust employees and delegate – many managers try to everything. Managers are often not taught to lead. They tend to be promoted up from a “doing” position, and find it difficult to switch to management/strategic work. In a complex area like IT, managers have to trust others, they have to learn how to ask questions. Counter-intuitively, the lack of trust in others seem to be inversely proportional to the expectation that all and sundry will drop everything to help fix yet another crisis.
This may sound all doom and gloom, but that is certainly not my intention. These issues can be fixed and avoided. Chaotic businesses can be turned into beautiful businesses. these businesses have to first realise their situation, and then want to do better.
Change is never easy. The longer we get used to working in a certainly way, even with acute dramas and endless stress, the more we become habituated to it.
Maybe Stilgherrian and I should set up a 12-step programme...