Heroes belong in comic books, not IT organisations

It was a bright and chirpy Saturday evening. Everybody was enjoying their weekend at home, nursing a drink, relaxing, and catching up on the latest Netflix show. Everyone, except…

***

All the important people from Acme Inc were huddled around a laptop in the conference room. The anticipation was palpable in the air and everyone was on the end of a four-hour call, giving and receiving status updates. The tension in the room was thickening with every passing moment.

Acme Inc’s payment gateway system had crashed just before the big sale on Monday.

***

Larry, the lead architect and Acme Inc’s most committed employee, is sitting on his bed in his pyjamas typing rapidly on his Macbook Pro. Woken up by his phone four hours back, he hadn’t even gotten off his bed. His only focus right now was to get the payment gateway up and running. Millions of dollars were on the line, and he was their hope.

The sales leadership team manager Jeff’s voice crackled urgently over the call. “Is it working?”

“Try now.” says Larry.

“It’s up!” exclaims Jeff! The entire group collectively let out a sigh of relief.

“You’re a hero, Larry!” echoed the group. Smiling wearily to his colleagues, Larry sighs and disconnects from the call, thinking longingly of a hot cup of coffee.

Walking towards his kitchen, he felt a huge sense of satisfaction. He smiled to himself, elated. He did feel like a hero! He had saved the day!

***

Well, Larry is an idiot!

Don’t get me wrong! He worked really hard to get the system working and all that, sure. But if he was really the most committed employee for Acme Inc and was keeping an eye on things, the system wouldn’t have crashed to begin with, right?

Here’s the problem — we celebrate many heroes who come in and save the day but we never stop to ask why such situations arise in the first place.

Let’s take a step back and ask ourselves  — When do we need a hero?

A hero arises when the situation is so bad that someone has to save the day! If we acknowledge the heroes in our offices, are we also acknowledging that our organisation is so bad that any one person has to pull beyond their weight and save the day? I don’t think that’s anything we should aspire to, nor is that pressure something any individual should feel.

Why are heroes bad for organisations?

As Stuart Rance points out in this blog, a hero culture almost always leads to an unreliable system.

For starters, it creates a dependency on the heroes. The team becomes so used to depending on that hero, that their first instinct would be to turn to them during any crisis. Imagine what would happen if that hero goes on vacation — well, that usually never happens. Poor heroes can’t even take a mini-vacation to relax.

Heroes also tend to disregard processes and documentation as they feel they’re on top of everything. This sets a really bad example to the others on the team. Not only will they think they can follow suit, some may even harbour negative feelings of resentment and unfair work practices, which will affect the dynamics and environment of the entire team.  While it may be true that heroes can operate without documentation, it can’t be applied across the system. The system has processes and documentation in place for a reason, and will crumble without it.

Not just for the organisation, a hero culture is bad for heroes themselves. Think about the number of times Tony Stark had to disappoint Pepper Potts. Heroes usually go through a stressful time at work as they’ll never know when they’ll be called upon. It also means that heroes won’t have time to work on long term tasks as they’ll constantly have to context shift.

How to eliminate heroes in your IT organisation?

Focus on problem management

What? Really? Yes.
The connection may not be immediately obvious but problem management is a really good way to ensure that you avoid situations where heroes are needed. Problem management will avoid incidents and ensure that the systems are as stable as possible.

Document everything

Heroes thrive because they sometimes hold key information. It could be anything from a vast understanding of the architecture or information about the last major incident, but this information makes them powerful (their superpower, in fact).  Documenting everything and making it available for wider consumption will ensure that most of the team members are equipped to solve most problems.

Conduct debriefs

IT organisations are always busy. There’s always the next new thing to fix, tickets to resolve, and meetings to go to. But IT leaders must focus on making sure that they lead debrief meetings after every significant issue to understand what went wrong, and how they fixed it. This will ensure that the entire team is made aware of the key information that’ll help them later.

Focus on the problem, not the hero

This one is for the IT leaders – I’m sure that someone like Larry deserves a pat on the back but be sure to quickly align everyone’s focus on the problem at hand. Most of the time, heroes are glorified, and this takes the focus away from the actual problem. Yes, credit must be given where it is due, but the larger picture is about the problem itself and steps to avoid it in the future.

I hope this blog post doesn’t come across as an insensitive piece of writing to our IT heroes. To all those who give up their sleep & weekends to fix IT issues, I have nothing but respect for you. But in the long run, I hope you see merit in my point and will leave the hero-lifting to the comics and movies.

What are your thoughts on my views? Agree, disagree, on the fence? Leave a comment below and we can chat

Cover Image by Sharmila Prabhakaran

Edited by Vinithra Menon