In 2006, whatis.com defined firefighting as “…an emergency allocation of IT resources, required to deal with unforeseen problems.” A few years later, a leading IT research group noted, “Fifty-two percent of IT departments classify their current state as ‘firefighting mode.’” They closed the research with the statement, “Benefits of improving this state outweigh the cost of staying there.” Being around and managing various IT departments over the last 20 years, I can attest that the other forty-eight percent are still somewhat transitioning from it.
What are the signs that your IT department is in perpetual “firefight mode”?
There are quite a few:
- Your organization is having a tough time meeting internal or external Service Level Agreements (SLAs)
- The resolution of the recurring technology issues are short-lived; the same problems will reappear after some time
- Your IT department is putting in quite a few overtime hours that are not associated with project work or planned outages
- Your IT budgets are hard to predict and follow
- IT projects are usually not delivered on time, as IT staff is re-allocated to focus on unplanned operational issues
- Your organization is losing key IT staff, as they experience constant stress and burnout
- Your whole IT operation depends on one or two people, whose absence may prolong the service unavailability – “hero culture,” anyone? Please note that “hero culture” only serves and rewards a few individuals for the work they shouldn’t be doing in the first place.
Don’t get me wrong; even the best organized IT departments experience IT fires from time to time. Things will always break and they will need to be fixed. But why are so many organizations still firefighting on a daily basis? The answer is simple: because it is difficult to break the cycle and regain control. Period.
How do we prevent those fires and move into more controlled IT environment?
To break the cycle and regain control, we would suggest a three-point, phased action plan:
1. Assessment and the analysis of the people, process, and technology areas. A few steps in this phase are:
- Collect and analyze all of the issues that are affecting the IT department on a daily basis
- Review existing processes and documentation
- Document and prioritize collected issues
- Understand the costs which are associated with firefighting
- Develop an IT department skills matrix
2. Identify and determine root causes that are triggering the “firefighting mode.” A few steps in this phase are:
- Identify root causes for the IT service delivery problems
- Identify inefficiencies that could add to the IT problems (e.g. lack of monitoring platform, ticketing system, or use of an outdated technology)
3. Find the solutions which will resolve the identified problems and move the IT department to a more controlled environment. A few steps in this phase are:
- Address the technology root causes (e.g. applications, infrastructure, monitoring platforms, etc.)
- Implement stringent department-wide process documentation policies
- Develop and implement IT governance processes that follow the Information Technology Infrastructure Library (ITIL) best practices
- Implement a formal intake process from the business
- Encourage knowledge sharing and transfer practices
- Present the new policy to your IT department and explain the violation implications; don’t forget to reward good behaviour
- Establish good communication channels between business and IT (e.g. steering committee, etc.)
The transition from “firefighting mode” to “controlled IT mode” will take some time to complete, so try not to box yourself into a time-frame that will not work for the size of your organization. This transition will not be easy, but it is achievable. Many organizations have gone through this transition, and at the end, they succeeded in introducing higher levels of process standardization, their IT staff developed deeper problem solving and resolutions skills, and the work environment became less hostile and stressed for everyone involved.
What are an organization’s benefits when the transition is completed?
There are quite a few, but I will outline four major ones:
- Business and IT will be more aligned
- IT staff will feel in control, which will reduce overall staff turnover
- You will save money in the long run and reallocate it to more project work, which is more fun for your IT staff
- The focus will be shifted from short term to long term IT plans
In summary, there is no easy fix for making this transition. You have to start somewhere and to dig deep in order to identify the root causes that make your IT department firefight on a daily basis. Once this information is analyzed and documented, the real fight will start. Change is not easy, but it can lead to something that your organization and all IT guys ultimately want: more time to do what they like to do, which includes project work, mentoring, and maybe, just maybe, a long vacation that will not be interrupted because the server named PROD-WhatEverApp took the whole finance department down. Again.
StratoGrid Advisory IT Advisory practice has assisted numerous organizations in developing and executing the shift from the firefighting mode. Please let us know if we can be of any assistance to your organization.
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