How to create a team of real IT heroes

National Guard heroesI was invited to deliver the closing keynote at the itSMF Norway conference this month.  The conference title was “Service Management with Superheroes of the World” and they asked me to deliver a session based on the ideas in my blog, Unhappy is the land that needs a hero. Most of us love the idea of a superhero who will sweep in to save the day when all seems lost, but as I explained in my blog, IT organisations with a hero culture can both suffer from and create enormous difficulties. I think it’s really important for those of us who work in IT to understand what makes a “hero culture” problematic, so I was delighted to accept an opportunity to expand my ideas and talk about this important issue.

Everyone seems to agree that the kind of superheroes you see in movies, or read about in books, saving the day at the last possible moment whilst leaving a trail of devastation behind for others to clear up, is not helpful when it comes to running IT organisations. But in the course of preparing my presentation I found myself asking some different questions. What characteristics and behaviour would I actually like to foster in IT professionals?  What would a true, modern IT hero look like? 

In this blog I’m going to share some of my conclusions with you.  Here is a list of some things to think about if your organisation wants to create real, modern IT heroes.

Understanding value creation

The IT superhero of old was a technology genius, capable of diagnosing and solving the most complex of technical problems. One IT company I worked for had a very formal process for appointing their most senior technology people, which involved a formal interview panel, and I was lucky enough to be an interviewer on many of these panels. The interviews always started with the hero describing a piece of work they had done that they were proud of, and I always asked the same follow up question. “What did the customer use that system for?”. At best the hero would answer “It was a database server”, or “It ran <name of application>”, but if I pushed back and asked how the system created value for the customer organization they could never answer.

My real IT hero would be able to describe exactly how the technology they work with creates value for their customers, and would understand the entire value chain in sufficient detail that they could devise workarounds and solutions to real business problems, not just solve technology problems. The IT heroes of the future will not JUST be technology experts, they will combine this with real empathy and understanding of their customers.

People won’t arrive in your organization with these skills, you need to foster their development. Provide IT staff with the information they need, give them opportunities to talk to customers, encourage and reward the behaviours you want.

Collaboration and team working

If you’ve ever watched any superhero movies, or read any comics, you probably realize that the stereotypical superhero is a pretty poor team player. They solve problems all by themselves and then bask in the glory.

In real life scenarios, when one player acts the part of the hero it often leads to the rest of the team becoming marginalised and dysfunctional. It can be even worse if everyone is trying to be that hero, and no one is putting in the collaborative effort that actually addresses issues and solves the problems. What you end up with is a lot of wasted effort and some poorly optimized solutions.

Modern IT solutions are complex. You often need a whole team of people working together just to resolve a big immediate problem. It certainly takes a team to work out how to avoid future problems and then put in place the changes needed to create reliable IT solutions that do the right thing every time.

So if you want a team of real IT heroes you have to encourage collaboration and team working. This means that you have to recognize and reward collaborative efforts, instead of praising and rewarding the – often highly visible – individual superheroes.

Mentoring and knowledge sharing

One way to recognise an old-fashioned IT hero is by their reluctance to share expertise.  It is, of course, the case that explaining things to others takes time and can be frustrating.  It’s also true that by keeping their knowledge to themselves old fashioned IT heroes were able to maintain their status as irreplaceable resources. A real IT hero will find ways to share their knowledge and expertise with others; they will mentor their junior colleagues, create knowledge articles, deliver webinars and generally help to ensure that everyone develops the skills they need to contribute value to the organization.

The amazing thing about mentoring – as I have discovered from my own mentoring relationships – is that the mentor learns as much from the relationship as the person being mentored. It’s a great way to share knowledge and understanding across an organization. If you don’t already encourage mentoring relationships in your IT department then you should think about how to get started.

And don’t make the mistake of thinking that knowledge sharing just means creating text based knowledge articles for use by the service desk. You can encourage people to share knowledge in many different ways. Short recorded videos can be very engaging, as can brief presentations in the staff canteen, or webinars, or online discussion forums. If you try lots of different approaches, people will get value in different ways, and you will reap the benefits of reaching the widest possible audience.

Passion for continual improvement

This is probably the biggest single difference between a traditional IT superhero and a real IT hero for the modern age. A real hero will help to ensure your services, and your processes, and your technology continually improve. They will help to identify ways to make services more reliable, better aligned with customer needs, and easier to fix when things do go wrong.

We all make mistakes, and every mistake is an opportunity to learn and improve. If your culture is one where people cover up their mistakes, and pretend that everything is always perfect first time, then it will be really hard to continually improve, but if your heroes are transparent about the things they have done wrong, and how they recovered, then this will help everyone in the organization to learn.

What do you do to encourage a passion for continual improvement? Does everybody do whatever they can to identify and share opportunities to improve? Do you constantly strive to delight your customers by delivering ever better IT services? If so, then you are already doing your best to foster 21st century IT heroism.


Image Credit: Georgia National Guard

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