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IT - Does everybody get a vote?

Madison, Wis. — Sir Winston Churchill was once quipped, "Democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried." Certainly one of the challenges of democracy is that it encourages a confusion of popularity with leadership, and this poses a dilemma for conducting business in a democracy. Despite the snippy comments, eroding voter participation and the occasional historical aberration such as Chile, people who live under democracy for a period of time develop an attachment at least to the ideal of their individual voices being heard.

Following the chain of quotes from British prime ministers, Clement Attlee said, "Democracy means government by discussion, but it is only effective if you can stop people talking." For IT organizations, that challenge is particularly tough. After all, technology is about the building of systems. Hopefully, our organizations have brought people together who are good at that. To expect them not to have opinions about the organizational and cultural systems in which they work is simply not realistic. Combine that with the democracy-induced confusion between popularity and leadership, and you've got an environment that's hostile to deliberate change.

Perhaps in response to this situation, many IT organizations, managers and staff alike, seem devoted to the idea that leadership is a function of the org chart. It's probably more efficient than democracy, but such totalitarianism doesn't exactly have a great track record for sustainable effectiveness — even if Mussolini did make the trains run on time. Org charts are a little too static to accurately document all the sources of creative ideas that improve organizations and enhance their competitiveness.

So where's the middle ground between the inmates running the IT asylum and soviet-style centralization of IT decision making and operations? Where's the sweet spot of real, sustainable change?

John P. Kotter and others have written at length on leadership and leading change, but most of their work is aimed at the on-the-org-chart leaders and that focus is understandable. Not a lot of people see themselves as off-the-org-chart leaders, so writing books for people who don't acknowledge they're part of that leadership audience is a losing proposition. Nonetheless, those off-the-org-chart leaders have tremendous influence on how well an organization anticipates and handles change.
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Take just a second and contemplate the question, "Am I an off-the-org-chart leader?" Hey! You org-chart leaders and managers! Come back, here! You have to answer this question too! For the manager/leader types, ask yourself if you've ever sat in a management team meeting and made a crack about a particularly difficult employee that set heads nodding around the conference room table? For the staff types, have you ever started carping about some stupid decision the suits upstairs made and had a grumble of assent rise from the lunchroom table? Whether the tabletop is burled walnut or speckled Formica, those are both off-the-org-chart leadership moments. You've given voice to the energy of a group.

Just because neither instance is formalized leadership doesn't excuse you from the leader's responsibility to follow that moment of giving voice to problems with on-going direction to achieve sustainable resolution. Any demagogue can get the crowd whipped up into a mob. That sustainable resolution is the measure of good leaders.

In simple situations, the sustainable resolution is probably pretty pure, pretty uncomplicated. When technology meets business process meets human beings the situation is rarely simple, and the resolution is usually some kind of compromise, some thing short of anybody's ideal. That's one of the reasons good leaders are usually good negotiators and facilitators, and have a clear picture of the ultimate objective.

So all you IT staffers out there, you off-the-org-chart IT leaders, get ready to put all your technology and system-driven perspectives in the broader contexts of ultimate business objectives. Anything else is just whining. And all you managers and executives, you on-the-org-chart leaders, get ready for a little democracy. Seek it out. Build it up. Anything else is just sewing the seeds of the next coup d'etat.

Byron Glick is a principal at Prairie Star Consulting, LLC of Madison, Wis. Prairie Star specializes in managing the organizational impacts of technology. He can be contacted via e-mail at byron.glick@prairiestarconsulting.com or via telephone at 608/345-3958.

The opinions expressed herein or statements made in the above column are solely those of the author, & do not necessarily reflect the views of Wisconsin Technology Network, LLC. (WTN). WTN, LLC accepts no legal liability or responsibility for any claims made or opinions expressed herein.

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