Let Your Fast Zebras Run Free (with a Vblock)

Let Your Fast Zebras Run Free (with a Vblock)

What makes an IT department effective and agile?  How can you let the stars on your team succeed while reducing gridlock and OPEX (operational expenses)?

Jon Katzenback and Zia Khan have an intriguing post at Harvard Business Review on fast zebras.  What’s a fast zebra?  I’ll let them explain:

Mark Wallace, former US Ambassador to the United Nations, has a term for people who can quickly absorb information, adapt to new challenges, and get people aligned in the right direction: fast zebras. They are the people who can skirt around or blast through the kind of gridlock found not only in the political spectrum, but in organizations of every stripe.

The metaphor is based on the fast zebra on the African savannah who survives a trip to the drinking hole by moving quickly while slower herd members fall prey to waiting predators. Well, organizations are sometimes like the savannah; to the new-comer, they constitute vast, unexplored areas fraught with hidden dangers. The fast zebras in both contexts travel the terrain swiftly to accomplish significant goals while the naïve ones run into the predators of red tape, unaligned incentives, and unmotivated teams.

Before I get into the Vblock concept, I want to take a step back and talk about the management issues here and add to them with my own experiences.

In one organization I worked as a part of a core team of a handful of “fast zebras”. I was the SAN admin, the server admin, and often the application engineer as well. The network team was readily available and we had the luxury of engaging them without a formal process.   While there are some drawbacks to such a design, we were able to attack projects with great speed and it was satisfying as well.

Suddenly we became a much larger organization and now we had to deal with a new model where there were rigid silos of responsibility and the fast zebras in the organization were told that they had to be “corralled” (that was the actual word used) and work within the new system and to NOT transcend across the silos.

If one does a Google search for “organizational management silos” you won’t see a lot of praise for silos – which management sometimes can be seduced with from an accountability standpoint.  Rather you’ll see posts about “breaking” and “tearing down” the silos, bridging them,avoid them, poking holes in them and even blaming CEO’s for their rigidity. (One of my MBA classes last year focused on organizational management and if I had my book handy I’d have a lot more great quotes!)

So what was the impact of the new siloed organization? We found that projects in general took 300-500% longer in the new organization. We had meetings to reclarify statements, specifications and then schedule even more meetings.  Think of the difference between telling the network or storage team to do “X” versus having an engaged partner in the initiative who understands the business and technical drivers.  Those of you who have built virtual infrastructures know just how complex everything from firmware to spindles to fabric can be in creating a solid infrastructure.   At times we even uncovered single points of failure that needed to be corrected.

Another area that amazes me is how some organizations can focus so much effort on their processes for regulatory compliance, but don’t focus on making those same processes effective for IT.  Even worse, real-world security can be an albatross when you pull back the curtain, but all the regulatory compliance appears to be solid and in order. It’s as if management can take solace in a regulatory interpretation of security while the effective security is a near-disaster lacking both standards and best practices.

Projects reigned and best practices became a luxury unafforded and with no silo of its own.  Compliance and structure over effectiveness.  Perception over reality.

Getting back to the topic, some level of red tape will be necessary for accountability and regulatory compliance but what are we really gaining by corralling our fast zebras?

Fast zebras are not mavericks. They do not seek notoriety for overtly breaking rules, and then start enjoying breaking the rules for the sake of being noticed. Instead, fast zebras are relentlessly focused on results. They prefer bending to breaking rules. They achieve results by using their fact-based knowledge of the formal organization complemented by insight into the informal organization. They often have no preference for either and view both simply as means to the ends.

So how do you let your IT fast zebras run free? Part of it is process and organizational structure of course. Rather than endless meetings and task delegation across silos, identify your fast zebras and empower them within your processes and reporting structure to transcend the silos and get things done quickly and with a consistent vision.

Another part of it is your IT infrastructure itself.  This is what I love about the Vblock and complimentary technologies like UIC and vCloud Director – not only are there significant OPEX reductions, but it helps to knock down the silos between networking, storage, server and app, while improving organizational agility.  Imagine if the application engineer can quickly provision a new multi-tiered application — including servers, networking, firewall rules and storage, mostly from a single console.

In an upcoming “Agility” series I will discuss CAPEX, OPEX, value and the need for agility, then obstacles to agility and then how solutions like vBlock, UIC and vCloud Director (and especially when all put together) can create exciting value and opportunity in new ways.

Leaders can speed up their formal machinery with the lubrication that fast zebras provide by planting them wherever agility, responsiveness, and innovative approaches are needed most. But sometimes what fast zebras do is so important that it warrants changes to the whole system so that fast zebra behavior is adopted more broadly by others. When a few fast zebras won’t do, and a herd is needed, leaders need to change the ecosystem of the organizational savannah. If they don’t, they run the risk of encountering their own unpleasant predators.

Your fast zebras in IT want to run free – it is their natural state. If they are herded, both morale and productivity will suffer – perhaps bad enough that your fast zebras may find somewhere else to run.

40 Responses to Let Your Fast Zebras Run Free (with a Vblock)

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    Love the theme and message of the post — sounds like something I would write, only you’ve done it better!

    Keep up the good work — looking for more!

    — Chuck

    • Kevin says:

      Thanks Chuck! As a follower of your own blog I really appreciate the kind words. I’m hoping to crank out a weekly post over the next few weeks on agility/vblock/UIM, etc. which I hope will be both interesting and valuable. Thanks!

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