Don’t Panic! Don’t panic Captain Mainwaring!

How often is your organisation seen by your staff, team members, individual contributors as being a bit of a headless chicken when things go wrong? More specifically when there is an outage that affects people being able to work? Especially when the outage last for more than a half or even a whole hour?

I’ve dealt with all manner of outages in different types of companies over my career so far and to be frank and honest I rather enjoy dealing with them. Oh I’m not one of those “let the techies sort it out” kind of managers. Nor am I a leaning over the shoulders micromanaging the techies either. As a manager or rather a leader of a team of technical support specialists I have a very specific function. To resolve the issue as quickly as possible with the minimum of interruption to the business. Indeed it sounds obvious but in practice it is oft forgotten, hence the headline.

I approach these kinds of issues with one constant theme. Communication. If you are not able to communicate effectively, honestly and concisely during an outage you will face a great deal of pain. If you are the lead manager dealing with an outage of epic proportions you have to ensure that the relevant people are kept informed of not only progress but impact as well. The gives other managers the opportunity to galvanise their teams to perform other tasks instead of sitting around and grousing about how bad IT is. Keeping people busy and informed is really a major benefit for the business and for the IT teams. The last thing the IT team needs is answering superfluous questions when dealing with complex technical issues.

The technical team manager is the one who has to be able to implement a communication plan to the relevant people to ensure that the IT team can concentrate on the task at hand. The only person who should be talking to the technical team is their manager. The only person who should allow technical guys to get involved in management decisions/communications is the manager. I have learned this the hard way. Once another manager gets involved directly with the technical guys the issues can be easily lost control off, usually due to the other manager wanting things done for his or her team. It is understandable but is of no use to actually getting to the root cause and resolving the issue. That manager should be concentrating on leading their own team, based on information from the technical team manager.

What is a communication plan? Well it is a process that a manager should follow to allow for the business to appreciate the severity of the issue as well as what is being done to fix it. Indeed it is often not possible to give time scales to start with…which is why the communication plan is not just a one off event. You should be looking to update in a timely manner. By this I mean on a time basis…not an event basis. If you update your business on an event basis you could end up flooding people with too much information. You should look at an update once an hour or half hour…even if there is nothing concrete to report. The consistency of such a report does actually aid in not having people call you. Leaving you to work with your team, as a leader, to resolve the issue. You have other roles to perform in these cases as well. Be it hosting Emergency Change Advisory Boards or dealing with vendors to escalate or co-ordinate resources, or even setting up and manning the “War Room” (web ex sessions, conference facilities and the like). However you must be able to communicate with your user community as well.

So in terms of your communication plan you need to understand each functional area of your business. For example your SAP system for finance might crash and die…do you need to contact HR? Unlikely. Of course if your outage is business wide then you do. Your communication cannot rely only of email…what if your outage impacts your email system? So you need to look at how you get your message across to the other managers. Mobile phone numbers are invaluable. Also invaluable is ensuring that the managers you are contacting understand why they are being contacted and their role in dealing with outages. They might have specialist IT staff as well, who could well be of use to resolve any issues.

So the bullet list of things to do (an admittedly basic bullet list which can be tailored to your business) :

  • Understand how ICT integrates into each functional area of the business and the impact of outages of critical systems
  • Identify the stakeholders in each area: Managers, specialist staff and deputies
  • Ensure you have their contact details: Email and mobile telephones
  • Hold twice yearly meetings with these stake holders to ensure they understand why they are on the communication plan, what is expected from them and to look at any improvements to the system
  • Be clear, concise and honest with your communications
  • Make sure you adhere to any promised time schedule with regards to your communications

This is not an end all and be all but as a start will assist in ensuring that you are looked at as a professional company (or ICT support team) rather than a Corporal Jones.