How to strike a balance between maintenance and innovation in your IT team

Written by Leroy Owusu-Addae | Technology | Posted 04/09/2019 09:58:42

Ensuring that your department is supporting the business day-to-day is a priority but encouraging innovation is key to staying ahead of your competitors. Leroy Owusu-Addae a Sanderson Tech consultant, gives some advice on finding the balance.

One of the age-old problems that face technology leaders across the world is establishing the right balance between innovation and maintenance within their department. In my experience, most IT departments are structured so that they’re responsible for both of these aspects but, undoubtedly, conflict can arise due to budgetary and human resource constraints.

In my experience, I’ve heard situations of managers spending too much time on innovation whilst neglecting maintenance, which can easily end up with unhappy customers should they come into contact with an IT failure. On the other hand though, if you spend too much time “keeping the lights on”, you’re at risk of losing your commercial advantage and could fall behind your competitors. According to IDG Connect report The CIO’s conundrum, only 20% of an IT department’s budget is spent on innovation, whilst 80% goes to “keeping the light on”.

With IT budgets remaining stagnant for the majority of organisations, technology leaders should find ways to reduce maintenance costs in order to fund innovation and stay technically competitive.

Read on for three different ways this could be achieved:

Automation

Automation is one such way to free up resources, whether you’re working for a FinTech company, a law firm or anything in between. Finding ways to automate time-consuming and repetitious tasks is one gift that keeps on giving.

This can be applied to several areas of your tech team:

  • Automating your new user setups
  • Bringing automated test suites into your software release pipeline
  • Creating self-serve portals for your business intelligence.

Putting in the effort to automate as many BAU activities as you can will help save money as well as free up resources that can be directed to be used in more value-added activities such as innovation.

Future-proofing

If you’ve ever been to North Greenwich tube station (for the O2 arena) outside of event days, you may think that the huge size of the station is a waste of space. But when 20,000 people are looking to leave at the same time, it handles people traffic significantly better that stations that were not built with future-proofing in mind (looking at you Wembley…).

How this relates to IT is that when performing upgrades and fixes, doing the bare minimum to get the problem solved often leads to the problem re-occurring soon after. Of course, I understand that this is the harder sell at some businesses but constantly hotfixing and firefighting without truly addressing the cause will lead to more and more of your team’s time spent away from innovation. In cases like this, getting buy-in from your stakeholders is critical to help them understand and allocate the appropriate resources to allow your team to solve the issue properly.

Story time: during the WannaCry attacks in 2017, an IT manager that I spoke to had some of their systems affected. They had figured out a long-term fix that would prevent any of their systems being affected by a similar bug again but the challenge was that this expense would blow out his budgets.

The business chose not to take on his initiative, refusing to accept the work in their budget citing cost. Eventually, all of their systems were hit, costing them significantly more than project that they didn’t fund.

He was on the phone to me less than a week later…

Dual teams

Another option is separating the two duties entirely, with one team dedicated to greenfield projects and the other dedicated to maintenance. This works theoretically but in reality, it can bring up its own problems.

With this division of duties, maintenance-based roles could be perceived as the “boring” stuff whilst the greenfield could be seen as exciting. In reality, each as its ups-and-downs. If this division isn’t managed properly, there is a risk of an “us” vs. “them” mentality being established, which could exacerbate the issue even more. With developmental teams, this can be even worse, as the people refactoring and fixing code didn’t create that code in the first place.

With this approach, managing morale needs to be the priority in order to make sure that each team don’t feel demoralised by not being involved in the other but this is a good approach to having uninterrupted progress being made on both maintenance and encouraging innovation.

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It is vitally important to balance BAU with more creative activities and every percentage point of your time allocation and budget counts. Without investing in future technologies and projects, you can easily end up with a legacy technical environment that leaves you at a competitive disadvantage to your competitors. It also leads to staff looking else to companies that can offer them the chance to work with the latest and greatest.

Saying that, there is no point building a new shed if the house is on fire. Innovation for innovation’s sake helps no-one so focusing on those quick, easy big wins like cutting your new start set-up from hours to minutes or dedicating a sprint to refactoring will add more value than that Blockchain or IoT project in the long run.

No matter your industry, keeping IT innovative can be critical to the long-term success of your firm but, of course, keeping the lights on is critical to your short-term success. Of course, striking this balance is easier said than done…

Implementing the right changes in your team to ensure this balance can be a tricky process. If you’re needing some advice on next steps, click here to see what Sanderson can do for you or click the image below to get in touch with Leroy.


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