7 ways small IT departments can accomplish big things

EducationSummary: IT department size is a perpetual problem for many companies, and it seems to be getting worse. More and more companies point to limited staff as the reason they can’t accomplish what they want to accomplish. If your company deals with this problem, this article outlines a few tips for improving IT productivity.

photo credit: PublicDomainPictures via pixabay cc

photo credit: PublicDomainPictures via pixabay cc

Every year, we survey those working in IT, and those managing IT departments. One of the questions on that survey: What keeps you from addressing your most pressing challenges?

Can you guess the most common answer?

Most answers sound something like this: “Our IT department is too small.”

It’s a perpetual problem. IT department sizes are small. There aren’t enough hours in the day to accomplish everything, and it feels like the problem is getting worse.

Today, let’s address that problem. If IT department size keeps you from accomplishing your goals, what’s the answer? How can you get the most out of your small IT department? While the list could easily fill multiple articles, here are 7 great ways to accomplish big things with a small IT department:

1. Break up projects into small milestones

This article on productivity explains how our brains attack large projects. We get overwhelmed and turn to multi-tasking in an attempt to do everything at once.

The problem: We can’t multi-task. What we refer to as “multi-tasking” is actually “task-switching.” Our brain jumps from one thing to the next, without actually accomplishing anything at all.

How can IT departments combat this problem when dealing with large projects? Break your large projects up into single, actionable tasks. This lets our minds focus on a single goal, and ultimately improves productivity.

“A common problem is managing the prioritization of projects and understanding out how much we can get done during a given time frame,” says Phil Phillips, IT Manager at Experts Exchange. “One thing that makes projects easier to tackle is to break up large projects into small milestones. We then use a set development cycle, so we can map out how the milestones fit within each iteration. This process keeps the momentum moving forward without overloading our limited resources and time. As we’ve settled into this framework, we have a better understanding of how much work we can do per cycle. It even allows us the flexibility to bookmark time for putting out fires around the office.”

2. Create group mini-sprints

photo credit: Kapa65 via pixabay cc

photo credit: Kapa65 via pixabay cc

Once interrupted, how long does it take our brain to refocus on the original task? A recent study puts that number at 23 minutes. If we’re pulled off task–by email, co-workers, phone calls, etc…–we need 23 minutes to completely refocus.

The worst part: We face more distractions than ever before. Other studies find that a typical office worker faces a distraction every 11 minutes. In other words, the typical office worker is caught in a constant state of refocusing.

It’s becoming more and more important to set aside “productive time.” This is time where you close out all distractions, and focus on a single goal. For IT teams, time can have enormous productivity implications.

“It’s easy to get distracted by drive-bys and random user requests for assistance,” says Kelly Bedrich, director of IT with APQC. “When your team needs focused working time, reserve a dedicated block of time on everyone’s calendars and find an out-of-the-way conference room. Go inside, shut the door, and intensely focus on one specific activity, task, or issue. No email, no phones, no messaging. Just work on one specific problem, and accomplish the task you identified before you started.”

3. Vet everything against business goals

Peter Drucker is famously quoted as saying, “There is nothing so useless as doing efficiently that which should not be done at all.”

It’s a great reminder. Sure, you may be productive. You may complete big projects quickly. But…how are those projects helping the business?

“Vet everything you do against the business goals,” says Tim Montgomery, President & CEO of TIMIT Solutions. “Remove all activities that you cannot prove value by measuring, tracking and reporting against business goals. You will have an easier time getting approval for more resources if you focus your capacity entirely on activities that the business recognizes as adding value.”

4. Take advantage of tools

photo credit: TiBine via pixabay cc

photo credit: TiBine via pixabay cc

Web application development is becoming more complex. It requires an ever-increasing number of skills. These days, a developer must understand architecture, security, databases, responsive design, and more.

To combat this growing issue, we’ve seen an explosion of development tools, open source software, and frameworks. IT departments now have more available tools than ever before to help them deliver fast solutions to the business.

With these challenges, it amazes me whenever I see IT departments building solutions from scratch. With the right software, even one or two-person IT shops can complete big development projects in days.

“Small IT departments can accomplish big things by using open source software and robust frameworks,” says Jack Martin, CEO/Founder of technologyjobs.nyc. “Some languages have open source ‘apps’ that are built and maintained by the development community. By using these apps, daunting technical feats can be accomplished easily.”

5. Fix problems, not symptoms

“When fixing something, fix the problem, not the symptom,” says Sheldon Lyne, General Manager at Entelect. “If you don’t do this people will end up wasting time putting out fires instead of focusing on better ways of doing things or improving the environment.”

It’s a common problem. Too often, we focus on the symptom rather than the root of the problem. We spend time and money fixing the symptom, but the problem remains.

“Shadow IT” is a great example. Businesses see employees using their own devices and purchasing third party tools, and assume that’s the problem. They create rules and policies to ban the practice.

Then, they wonder why the problem remains.

Instead, you must get to the root of the problem. In the Shadow IT example, understand why users bypass the IT department in the first place. Are employees unhappy with their software options? Do they feel ignored by the IT department?

That’s just one example, but there are many like it. The point is this: IT departments who focus on the symptoms will waste time and money on “fixes” that don’t fix the problem. Only when you understand the real problem, you will know how to address it.

6. Use monitoring tools

In his book, “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People,” Stephen Covey explains why proactivity lies at the foundation of every other habit. Those who aren’t proactive spend their time reacting to outside circumstances, rather than taking charge. They’re so focused on fixing problems, they can’t move forward.

Does this sound familiar? Is your IT department constantly putting out fires? Do you spend your time reacting to problems as they arise?

If so, how can you become reactive? As explained below, monitoring tools are one way to help you stay ahead of the issues.

“The goal of I.T. is to be proactive, rather than reactive,” says Kurt Simione, Owner of Technology Seed. “Monitoring tools allow you to monitor the “health” of a computer or a device. For example, if a hard drive is nearing capacity, you should receive an alert before it’s 100% full. If antivirus is out of date, you should receive an alert before the user gets a virus. If a server has a failed hard drive, you should receive an alert to replace the drive. By alerting on many events that are precursors to failure, you can generally prevent many problems before they turn into user downtime. Using monitoring tools to work proactively will reduce the total number of hours required for I.T.. work – being proactive takes much less time than being reactive.”

7. Automate, automate, automate

One of the biggest productivity drains across the business world today stems from a lack of automation. Employees waste their time performing manual tasks that could easily be automated.

“One of the best things a small IT department can do to try and save time and increase productivity is to do a quick analysis of where they are spending their time on and which of those tasks can be automated,” says Dean Wiech, managing director of Tools4ever. “If a certain type of call to the helpdesk is a major time sink, are there commercially available products to reduce or eliminate the task. If employees are calling to get access to certain applications or can’t access parts of the network, can this task be driven down to a workflow system for request and approval by managers, thereby eliminating IT involvement?”

“It is very common for repetitive tasks to occupy a large portion of an IT department’s time and simple, cost effective solutions can help alleviate the most common causes.”

What types of tasks can be automated? While it varies by company, here are a few areas to explore:

  • Do you spend time using Excel for data manipulation and analysis?
  • Do you manually enter data into your system?
  • Do you still rely heavily on paper forms?

The list could go on, but these are a few common areas that should be automated. Make sure you regularly analyze your processes, and explore ways to automate these tasks. While it requires time up front, this will save weeks of time going forward.

So, what do you think? Is there anything you would add to this list? If so, please share your thoughts in the comments.

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