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Stop being IT heroes and take the low-key approach

It's fun for IT to save the day, but a low-key approach is the most effective way to get things done.

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We often idolize people who make big gestures: individuals on the nightly news who braved dangerous conditions to save others, or superstar athletes who made the big play in a game, such as hitting a home run or scoring a clutch goal. Hollywood reinforces this behavior with action movies, with heroes running around saving people and stopping villains in big ways. As a result we've become accustomed to the idea that big gestures stop the bad guys, help get the girl or guy and generally allow one to succeed in life.

What the nightly news and Hollywood never show, though, is all the training those brave people endured to prepare for the dangerous conditions. They never show the time and monotonous training that went into becoming a sports great, a member of a SEAL team, a firefighter or a superhero. Would you go to a movie that accurately represents how long it takes IMF agent Ethan Hunt to move around the globe to find the bad guys?

The nightly news and Hollywood also never do any type of root-cause analysis. Why did we need a brave firefighter in the first place? Because someone failed and set a building on fire. Why did we need a SEAL team? Because diplomacy was completely ineffective. And what's the total cost of ownership for a superhero? Those folks cause way more damage than the villains do when solving the problem or saving the day.

IT heroes must have a critical eye trained on them. Why did they need to be heroic? Did they need better training instead? Who screwed up? Sometimes you discover that the cause of the problem was the IT heroes themselves. When the root problem is found it needs to be fixed, so nobody ever needs to be heroic like that again. Heroism in IT is a failure of IT.

The same is true for IT's equivalent of power hitters. It's exciting to hit a home run, but when you're always swinging for the fences you fly out and strike out way more than you get on base. It's the folks who play what baseball calls "small ball" who get things done in IT. Small ball gets people on base and advances people methodically until they start to score.

This is how things get done in effective IT organizations, too. You can effect large changes in an organization by changing roles just a little bit each day or week. There is way less overhead because you don't have to deal with fear of change. And it's usually easier to deal with little problems, caused by little changes, than big ones caused by big changes. Nobody can anticipate all problems, so by intentionally making them smaller you're doing yourself a favor.

Second, many small successes don't lead to organizational inertia. Whereas the home run hitter needs just the right conditions to do their work, a base hitter gets things done every day. Eventually they start helping their teammates score runs. I'd much rather be working with a team that gets things done every day than with a group of individuals who are waiting for just the right moment to shine. So stop idolizing IT heroes and stop letting IT swing for the fences; aim for lifetime achievement instead.

Bob Plankers is a virtualization and cloud architect at a major Midwestern university.

This was last published in September 2015

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