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Bad IT management habits: Break them before they break you

Every worker develops a few bad habits -- maybe more than a few -- as the years on the job add up. IT pros are no exception: They lose focus or jump to conclusions or put off niggling tasks that could be finished in minutes.

Frustrated tech worker

It doesn't have to be that way. Identifying and understanding bad work habits might require a bit of soul-searching, but the benefits of such introspection can be myriad, workplace experts say.

By taking the time to step back and understand their particular stumbling blocks, IT managers stand to improve not only their ability to work productively, but also their job satisfaction, says Michael Ehling, a business consultant and a career coach with Balance Coaching in Toronto.

"Stepping back gives you 'soak time' to think, dream, consider, ponder. Instead of running around fighting fires all the time, you get time to focus on the bigger picture," says Ehling, who has a background in IT and coaches mostly technology executives and managers. And that, he says, can spur tech managers to "develop more constructive habits that will improve productivity and effectiveness."

Computerworld asked a few brave high-tech pros to 'fess up about their worst work habits. True to IT form, these managers were less concerned with peccadilloes like nail-biting and leg-jiggling than with bigger-picture challenges like staying on task, becoming better organized and thinking strategically.

Here's a look at their views on their bad work habits and ways they plan to break them. Who knows? You just might recognize a little bit of yourself in their stories.

Bad habit: Losing focus

Gordon Jaquay doesn't deal well with interruptions. He'll stop what he's working on to answer a co-worker's question or to deal with a technology problem that arises, then find himself struggling to refocus on the task at hand.

"Getting back to your train of thought after a conversation, trying to find where you were -- whether you were coding or in the middle of a proposal -- that's hard," says the IT manager at Venchurs Inc., a packaging and warehousing company with 125 employees in Adrian, Mich. "There are so many things thrown at us in IT, it's easy to get distracted."

Tech professionals may find distractions particularly irksome, since they typically perform -- and prefer -- tasks that are logical and linear, and therefore require blocks of uninterrupted time to complete.

Ad-hoc meetings, users in trouble and other distractions pierce IT managers' productivity bubbles and keep them from accomplishing the task at hand. In frustration, they tend to hole up with their work, but that can lead to bigger problems.

If IT managers immerse themselves in their work to avoid interruptions, they might give their colleagues in other departments the impression that they aren't interested in what's going on in the business -- and then they might find themselves on the outside when it comes to making key decisions, launching strategic initiatives or taking advantage of career advancement opportunities, says Ehling.

Ideally, Jaquay would like the distractions to not occur in the first place, but he knows that's an unrealistic goal. "That's the nature of the beast in IT," he says.

Instead, he's trying to train himself to re-engage more quickly after a disruption rather than lingering over "the trailing afterthoughts of a conversation" -- a process he describes as more of a mind-set than an official program of training.

He's hopeful his stab at greater mental discipline will make him more productive and less apt to lose details when jumping back and forth between solo projects and unscheduled requests.

"By shifting my full focus very quickly from one thing to the next and fully engaging the next topic very quickly, I have been able to significantly improve my performance," he says. In addition, he has started blocking out time on his calendar to work on specific tasks -- instead of just scheduling time for meetings. In general, though, Jaquay still characterizes his quest for better mental discipline as "a constant struggle."

"After all," he observes, "we're only human."

Bad habit: Jumping to conclusions

Aaron Gabrielson, IT manager at mining company Redmond Inc. in Heber, Utah, says he often begins devising a solution before he thoroughly understands the problem at hand. "I tend to skip straight to the tech solution without hearing the business case," he says, admitting that this habit puts his department at risk of developing technology that doesn't fully address business needs.

In this, Gabrielson is hardly alone. The Corporate Executive Board (CEB), a research and advisory services firm, has studied the individual habits of highly effective CIOs, and in doing so has also determined areas of weakness.

While technology departments have gotten better overall at the nuts and bolts of performing IT tasks, many still don't communicate as effectively with the business side as they could, says Shvetank Shah, executive director of CEB's IT practice.

Some IT pros tend to only half-listen and then make quick decisions in a vacuum. "Research shows that the skills missing are communication and negotiation," Shah says.

Instead, tech managers should make sure they fully understand the drivers behind a project; that way, they can contribute the expertise needed to develop technology solutions that fit the company's needs, budget and existing infrastructure.

With that goal in mind, Redmond's Gabrielson recently put himself through a business-analyst certification course at the International Institute of Business Analysis, and is now in the process of sharing what he learned with Redmond's seven-person IT department.

He knew his department was weak in its ability to fully grasp the business side of a project. But "going to that class made me realize how weak," he explains.

For example, a business unit might come to him and say it wants a website. Now he has learned to ask "why" before he starts to think about design options. "What do they actually want to accomplish?" he says. "Building a website isn't a business objective. Gaining 30% market share in the Northeast region, that's a business objective."

This summer, Redmond will begin a program to ensure that both business unit leaders and project managers analyze the business case before projects start, and the company's project management approval process will require that business analysis is completed before capital is allocated to a project.

For his part, Gabrielson is paying more attention to documenting requirements before projects begin and working on communicating a project's business objectives with stakeholders at the start.

Bad habit: Fighting fires 24/7

Lorraine Spencer's worst work habit is her tendency to focus so much on day-to-day emergencies that she never has time to think strategically or make progress on long-term projects. "I tend to go from one fire to another," says Spencer, IT project manager at Johns Hopkins University Office of Continuing Medical Education in Baltimore.

"It's human nature" to prioritize emergencies -- as when a user loses data or can't connect to the network. "If [users] can't do their work, you have to solve the problem," says Spencer, who supports 40 users.

Still, she acknowledges that constantly putting out fires detracts from her ability to step back, look at IT systems as a whole and determine if IT resources are being spent optimally.

Spencer ends up working extended hours to reach her goals, but she worries that that sets up unreasonable expectations -- both for herself and for tech employees as a group.

Good habit: Talk to the top ranks

Gordon Jaquay, IT manager for packaging company Venchurs Inc., reports directly to the company's CEO, Jeff Wyatt.

That, he says, is a good thing, because it forces him to understand his company's business processes as well as its technology and to be able to translate between the two as needed. "When things get lost in translation, it's difficult to find out exactly what people are looking for," he says. "There's an art to translating IT goals and projects, and it's important."

Jaquay attempts to share this good habit with his team as well. For example, members of the IT staff attend company project meetings outside of their department on a regular basis. For example, they might sit in on a plant production meeting to learn what the current hurdles are and what work is on the agenda.

"IT managers tend to be people who just grit their teeth and get it done, so the expectation is that you can pull off these kinds of miracles all the time," Spencer says. "But then you end up with fewer people" in IT.

Spencer believes if she had more time to better analyze her systems, she'd have fewer crises to attend to and more time to complete scheduled tasks, allowing her to cut down on overtime hours.

What's needed to make that happen is more end-user training so employees can better help themselves, newer hardware and software that runs more reliably, and more delegation on her part -- for example, she could appoint someone on staff to deal with urgent matters while others work on more strategic issues.

Spencer says her department is working on some of these solutions, such as providing end users with more training and offering them do-it-yourself tools. "We're also working with some small teams across function areas to do some data cleanup tasks that would [otherwise] have been on IT's plate, so we're making some baby steps in that direction."

Bad habit: Poor time management

Bart Hunter, IT manager at Effingham Hospital in Springfield, Ga., admits to a few bad habits, all of which are related to time management.

For one, he says he focuses too much on future projects that haven't yet received approval from senior management. "I'm always thinking 'What could be...' instead of what is," Hunter says.

Furthermore, he tends to put off small tasks that would take only a minute or two to accomplish -- such as dealing with a user request for a new toner cartridge or putting a shortcut to Word on a user's desktop.

And when he has a lot of work on his plate, he often finds himself unable to develop a plan for where to start.

Hunter believes he could address his bad habits by creating -- and sticking to -- a daily schedule, which would allow him to complete more tasks in a given day.

Using a scheduling/planning application, he acknowledges, would give him an overview of all help desk and IT tasks and then allow him to rank them based on priority to make sure that the most critical jobs get done. But even that solution creates a chicken-and-egg situation, because Hunter hasn't had the time to search for and test a scheduling app that fits his needs.

Redmond Inc.'s Gabrielson also admits to procrastination -- particularly when it comes to doing routine maintenance and security patching. "Sometimes patching can cause more problems than it solves. It's a hassle, and we tend to put it off," he says, adding that he believes this is a common problem among IT shops.

Good habit: Walk the halls

Lorraine Spencer found a way to put a bad habit to good use. "I can't sit for incredible lengths of time alone in my office," says the IT project manager at Johns Hopkins University Office of Continuing Medical Education, where she supports 40 users.

"So I get out and talk to the people I work with who are not in IT, and I find things out. People may not come to you and tell you their issue," she says, "but if you ask about their problems, often you can find ways to make users' lives easier."

Given her druthers, Spencer would spend more time with users than she already does. "We do a pretty good job here, and we're included in the management team and take part in projects, but there's still a division," she says. If walking the halls can help break down those barriers, then she figures it's time well spent.

Here, too, technology could provide a solution. Gabrielson says he's looking into patch management packages that automatically detect vulnerabilities in applications and apply available patches where appropriate. "We know we need to do better with it. We have skipped months of Patch Tuesdays [Microsoft's monthly releases of security fixes] in the past, and then you have to do them all at once to catch up. But during that time, you could be at risk."

Tech managers, new and improved

Luckily, IT managers are in a good position to draw on their strengths as they face down their bad habits and vow to replace them with better ones. The process may take time, experts say, but it's generally time well spent.

"IT managers can typically draw upon their innate sense of curiosity and use that to, for example, learn what people in the business really need, want or desire from them," says Balance Coaching's Ehling.

"It may be slow going at first, but it's not at all impossible, and the benefits are many."

Garretson is a frequent Computerworld contributor in the Washington, D.C., area. She can be reached at caragarretson@gmail.com.


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