Quick: what’s the biggest bottleneck in your company? Yup, we both know it’s the Information Technology department. Let’s face it, nobody likes IT people. For all of their technical wizardry, IT is where good ideas go to die. We follow their onerous documentation requirements and patiently wait in line through endless backlogs, yet somehow IT still can’t seem to get their work done.

Hating the IT department is a common sentiment in almost every company big enough to have such a group. But the truth is, it’s not the IT people’s faults. In fact, a despised IT department is a symptom of a CEO who doesn’t understand psychology. It is a corporate dysfunction for which management, more than anyone else in the organization, is responsible.

TO CREATE IS HUMAN, TO IMPLEMENT DIVINE

Why does the IT department drive everyone nuts? The answer lies deep in our primal need to contribute to our tribe. As Logan, King, and Fischer-Wright pointed out, the workplace is our modern-day clan. We come to the office with the same mental hardwiring we acquired 200,000 years ago when our species emerged. Back then, tribes with individuals creative enough to make new discoveries survived better than less innovative groups. Today, our workplace is our tribe and our impulse to create is no less important. Evolution gave us the mental machinery to seek to improve the welfare of our social groups through discoveries made by each individual.

When creativity is stifled, we become frustrated, unfulfilled and complacent. Unfortunately, in most organizations, workers blame the most obvious bottleneck, hence, they point the finger at the IT department.

In actuality, the complaints are a result of a broken feedback loop and the discontent can be explained by unraveling the blockages to corporate innovation. Though I have written extensively about how feedback loops and desire engines can be used to design behaviors, the inverse, breaking the reinforcement cycle, can bring the urge to innovate to a grinding halt, and that’s exactly what explains anti-IT-ism.

A BROKEN LOOP

Employees today are inundated with messages from management to “be innovative,” “think outside the box,” “spot good ideas when they see them,” and most of all “get stuff done.” Business books and gurus extol the value of innovation and spread the message that only companies who quickly change with the times have a hope of survival. The message to employees is “if you contribute innovative ideas, good things will happen to you and your tribe.”

These messages constitute the cue or stimulus phase of a reinforcement loop. Originally studied by B.F. Skinner over 60 years ago, reinforcement remains a powerful basis by which we learn how to behave. In a successful reinforcement loop, the cue is followed by an action, which then brings a reward. Unfortunately, in most companies, when employees generate good ideas, no reward comes, projects lag, and innovation stalls.

If employees do not receive positive reinforcement for their efforts, or even worse, are forced to comply with endless documentation requirements, long development cycles, and corporate politicking, their natural instinct to contribute shrivels. Creativity soon morphs into dysfunction.

WHERE INNOVATION DIES

It begins with a management team woefully unaware the process is broken. Next, non-technical staff, unable to produce quality output, learn to shirk responsibility as they throw projects over the fence to IT. Unwilling to place blame on management, business staff point the finger at IT ranting about why a project is late, again. Employees begin to see the company not as one, but two tribes. The business people are seen as those charged with generating ideas while the engineers are the methodical implementors, cranking out instructions verbatim.

Everyone suffers from this scenario as members of the IT department are held hostage by endless product backlogs, leaving little room to contribute their own creative wisdom. When faced with a long list of tasks and the manic pressure to complete every request urgently, engineers find themselves plugging away instead of taking the time to understand what’s truly important to the business. This endless, and often mindless, drive to complete the next item on the list isolates engineers from customer-facing employees who could help them better understand what the product actually needs to do for the user. Business people view engineers as lazy code monkeys and engineers view business people as unskilled taskmasters. This familiar pattern perpetuates in-fighting and destroys creativity and initiative.

BRINGING INNOVATION BACK

There are various methodologies for building better technology and companies have experimented with skunk works, incubators, 20 percent time, cross-functional teams, and even software “SWAT teams.” In future posts, I’ll dive into what organizations can do to bring innovation back and help the IT department feel loved again–subscribe here and stay tuned.

Above all, management must ensure employees are rewarded for their attempts to improve the company. While the reward of social recognition or monetary incentives is nice, often the satisfaction of simply knowing the idea was implemented is sufficient to fulfill our human need to contribute. When good ideas languish in bureaucracy, the feedback loop stops, and so does innovation.

Photo credits: Ben Pollard

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