Balancing Control and Agility in Today’s IT Operational Reality

How can IT Departments balance control and agility in today’s IT operational reality? For decades, IT Operations has viewed itself as the controlling influence on the “wild west” of business influences. We have had to create our own culture of control in order to extend our influence beyond the four hardened walls of the datacenter, and now the diaphanous boundaries of the Cloud. Control was synonymous with good IT hygiene, and we prided ourselves in this. It’s not by accident that outside of the IT circles, we were viewed as gatekeepers and traffic cops, regulating the use (and hopefully abuse) of valuable IT resources and critical data sets. Many of us built our careers on a foundation of saying “no,” or, for those of us with less tact, “are you crazy?”

That was then, when we were the all-seeing, god-like nocturnal creatures operating in the dark of server rooms and wiring closets. Our IT worlds have changed dramatically since those heady days of power and ultimate dominion over our domain(s). I mean, really, we actually created something called Domains so the non-IT peasant-class could work in our world easier, and we even have our own Internet Hall of Fame!

Now, life is a little different. IT awareness has become more mainstream, and innovation is actually happening at a faster pace in the consumer market.  We are continually being challenged by the business, but in a different and more informed manner than in our old glory days. We need to adapt our approach, and adjust our perspective in order to stay valued by the business. My colleague John Dixon has a quality ebook around the evolution of the corporate IT department that I would highly recommend taking a look at.

This is where Agility comes into play. Think of what it takes to become agile.  It takes both a measure of control, and a measure of flexibility. They seem to be odd roommates. But in actuality, they feed off each other, balance one-another. Control is how you keep chaos out of agility, and agility is how you keep control from becoming too restraining.

Mario Andretti has a great quote about control: “If everything seems under control, you’re just not going fast enough.” And this is where the rub is in today’s business climate. We are operating at faster speeds and shorter times-to-market than ever before. Competition is global and not always above-board or out in the open. The raw number of influences in our customer base have exponentially increased.  We have less “control” over our markets now, and by nature have to become more “agile” in our progress.

IT operations must become more agile to support this new reality. Gone are the days of saying “not on my platform”, or calling the CIO the CI-NO. To become more agile, we need to enable our teams to spend more time on innovation than on maintenance.

So what needs to change? Well, first, we need to give our teams back some of the Time and Energy they are spending in maintenance and management functions. To do this, we need to drive innovations in that space, and think about lowest cost of delivery for routine IT functions. To some this means outsourcing, to others it’s about better automation and collaboration. If we can offload 50-70% of the current maintenance workload from our teams, our teams can then turn their attention away from the rear-view mirror and start looking for the next strategic challenge. A few months back I did a webinar around how IT departments can modernize their IT operations by killing the transactional treadmill.

Once we have accomplished this, we then need to re-focus their attention to innovating for the business.  This could be in the form of completing strategic projects or enhancing applications and services that drive revenue. Beyond the obvious benefits for the business, this re-focus on innovation will create a more valuable IT organization, and generally more invested team members.

With more time and energy focused on innovation, we need to now create new culture within IT around sharing and educating. IT teams can no longer operate in silos effectively if they are truly to innovate.  We have to remove the boundaries between the IT layers and share the knowledge our teams gather with the business overall.  Only then can the business truly see and appreciate the advances IT is making in supporting their initiatives.

To keep this going long term you need to adjust your alignment towards shared success, both within IT and between IT and the rest of the organization. And don’t forget your partners, those that are now assisting with your foundational operations and management functions. By tying all of them together to a single set of success criteria and metrics, you will enforce good behavior and focus on the ultimate objective – delivery of world class IT applications and services that enable business growth and profitability.

Or, you could just stay in your proverbial server room, scanning error logs and scheduling patch updates.  You probably will survive.  But is survival all you want?


By Geoff Smith, Senior Manager, Managed Services Business Development