Friday, October 19, 2012

Chaos Theory for IT

I made a career shift several years ago from financial services to higher education. Being in IT leadership, I wasn’t concerned with making the change. From my point of view I was simply doing a similar job, just different industries. What I discovered was a fascinating cultural shift from a centralized top-down environment to a distributed consensus-based world.

Moving from organizations with enforced technology standards to a one-size-fits-none world was an interesting transition. Personal computing tools in a corporate environment were locked down and well controlled. In a higher education environment, particularly universities, funding comes from many sources and technology decisions can sometimes be made in many places.

I could debate the relative merits of technology in these different worlds, but the most fascinating difference is the decision-making process. Utilitarian efficiency experts may argue that top down is the obvious preferred approach. Decisions get made and everyone simply follows through. Logical.

But do the best decisions get made in this model? The university world provides an interesting counter-example. Major decisions are made with extensive socialization of the underlying issues. Building consensus in this world is like pulling back an elastic band or a slingshot. The more effort you put into developing consensus (or pulling back the elastic), the more buy-in, understanding, and acceptance you have to the solution. When you launch your initiative and let go of the elastic, everything goes faster.

My lesson from implementing large IT projects in this model: invest the time in developing consensus and you will see the return. It is worth the time and effort to build consensus first, because you have everyone’s support later. The time upfront is saved by reducing grief and re-work during the implementation.

The process of consensus-building starts with engaging the key thought leaders across the organization. The next step is to make it interesting for them. What do they want from it? Once you get their input, use it. Apply their comments in a meaningful way. Consensus doesn’t mean everyone gets to make the decision. But it does mean that everyone at least has the opportunity to contribute.

Ultimately, consensus is about relationship building. Whether you work in a top-down hierarchy, a centralized bureaucracy, or a distributed chaoscracy, the one consistent factor is your ability to create confidence in the decisions made and the path forward.



  1. Great post Mark. I have been thinking along the same lines lately, especially as I prepare to re-enter the field. I know it is easy to get frustrated and fall into the trap of thinking that gathering consensus is a waste of time and resources. The reality I suspect is that far more resources are spent forcing through changes that are unevenly supported in the organization. Wide consultation can be time consuming and occasionally irritating, but it builds momentum for an initiative. There are many mechanism for consultation in higher ed, and those who fail to leverage these do so at their peril. There is nothing like passive resistance to just suck the wind out of a project's sails.

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