Does Your IT Shop Embody a “We Can Do That!” or a “We Can’t Do That!” Culture?


I was reminiscing with a consulting colleague recently about the two kinds of IT shops we’d worked with.  (Reminds me of an old joke that I first heard from Professor John Henderson at Boston University – “There are two kinds of people in this world – those who believe there’s two kinds of people and those who don’t!”)

The “Can Do’s”

Some IT shops fall clearly into this camp.  Suggest something innovative or new to them, and they are quick to explore the idea, see if it makes sense, and then figure out how they’d make it happen.  These clients are a delight to work with – energizing, engaging, sometimes challenging, but in a positive, constructive way.

The “Can’t Do’s”

Other IT shops fall into this unfortunate camp.  Suggest anything – innovative or not – and the immediate reaction is some variation on, “We can’t do that!” or, “That won’t work here!” or, a common variation, “That’s just not the way things work around here!”

Ask someone in a “Can’t Do” shop to help with something, and they will spend 30 minutes or more telling you why they don’t have the time to help – even if the help you are asking for would take only 15 minutes!  In other words, they will spend more time telling you why they can’t help than the time it would have taken to help.  It’s a knee jerk reaction.  The thought bubble I see in my head, floating above these naysayers is, “If I sign up for this, I might have to do something that would change the status quo.  That might be dangerous.  That might lead me to the unknown.  It’s safer to say, ‘no.’”

Prevent “Bad Change”

The “can’t do” environments spend all their energy trying to prevent change that might be harmful or counter to the established order.  Of course, there’s typically no way of knowing if it’s going to be a “bad change” or a “good change”, so by definition, any change is to be resisted at all costs!

Create “Good Change”

These are the innovators – the change agents.   Always looking to challenge the status quo and explore new possibilities.  I imagine that companies like Woolworths and Circuit City had a critical mass of “change resistors” (or at least, had enough of them in positions of power to preserve the status quo), while companies like Best Buy and Target had a critical mass of “change agents”.

I can understand why IT shops tend towards the “prevent bad change” camp.  IT operations depend upon stability and predictability, so you don’t want to mess with that.  But, unfortunately, the operational needs and culture tends to permeate everything the IT shop does!  Just when the business needs their IT specialists to be bringing them new ideas and new ways to compete, the IT specialists are beating down anything new.

From “Can’t Do” to “Disengaged”

Unfortunately, it’s an easy slide from “can’t do” to “disengaged”.  People in the organization get so beaten down whenever they try to introduce something new, that they give up.  It becomes such a painful endeavor, banging your head against a wall, that you stop trying.  It’s easier to slip into the background and go with the flow.  I have to admit that even as a consultant, there have been times where it was too painful trying to change things, and I’ve “gone native”.  Just make sure the deliverables per the Statement of Work are produced, get paid, and get out!  After a while, the extra energy it takes to break through the culture is spent.  At times like that, I empathize with the client’s employees – beaten down, disengaged, and at peace with simply going with the flow.  All that potential creative energy left at home, rather than being brought to the office as a source of new ideas.

So, What To Do About It?

I’m sorry, there’s no magic formula I’m aware of.  The first step, like the substance abuser, is to admit to the shortcoming.  Recognize that “can’t do” has permeated everything – way beyond those operational process where preventing bad change makes sense.  Then follow the familiar but tricky steps of organizational change management – establish the cost of the status quo, create a vision of the new, brighter future, build a guiding coalition, create early wins, etc.   Sometimes, it pays to stick you neck out – ask forgiveness, not permission!  If you get shot for doing so, that’s OK – you probably didn’t want to work there anyway!

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