The 'Big Brown' Syndrome in IT

By Laurent Duperval

(Back to article)

On the last race of the Triple Crown of 2008, all eyes were on Big Brown, who could become the first horse in thirty years to win all three races. The horse finished dead last. However, you wouldn't think so judging by the media portrayal after the race. The winner of the Belmont Stakes, Da' Tara, was a 38:1 underdog. Yet, despite that fact, immediately after his win all attention was focused on Big Brown and Da' Tara was neglected.

Similar behaviour can be seen in IT departments when attention and resources are funnelled to a particular project or team, while the rest of the projects and teams are neglected. The reason is simple: new projects are cool, they're sexy, they are very visible and as such, demand more attention. However, doing so at the expense of existing teams and projects can come back to bite you.

When new projects are launched, there is a tendency to put only the "best and the brightest" on the new team. In order to make it a success, we look to people who have been successful in the past. Then, when the project is successfully completed or launched, it is transferred to the "support team," that is, the people who perform well but have not necessarily had stellar accomplishment.

Continuous application of this pattern can have disastrous consequences:

·     The support team feels taken for granted. New initiatives are not seen as new challenges and opportunities for growth, but rather as "yet another piece of software to support."

·     By constantly being in a supporting role, some people may never fully develop their talents. Some employees may be monitoring systems and processes, when they could be better used as team leaders or in another capacity.

·     Resentment and boredom can set in if the same group of people is always getting the new plush assignments. This can lead the rest of the employees to poorer performance, absenteeism, and departures .

·     Those on the "hot projects" can eventually suffer burnout, because they are constantly being tasked with tight deadlines, asked to venture into the unknown, and pull all the stops to maintain their "superstar" status.

Make sure you don't "Big Brown" your teams at the expense of others:

Everybody shares in the project's success. Success is rarely due to a small group of people at the forefront of a project. The project manager may be the most visible person on the project, but the programmers and the architect do the work that turns the initial idea into reality. Those programmers and architects could not do so without the contribution of the system administrators, DBAs and others on the support team. When you celebrate a successful project, make sure everyone is included whether from IT, marketing, sales, or other business departments.

Rotate roles. Allow people who have always worked in the shadows to step up to the limelight once in a while. There is nothing worse than being stuck supporting a project that was completed three years ago, and only doing maintenance on it. Everyone wants to try something new once in a while. Allow your IT talents to volunteer to work on new projects instead of assigning tasks. You might be surprised at the results.

Reward the support team. Maybe you don't have enough new projects or enough manpower to satisfy everyone's thirst for new experiences. That's all right. Think of rewarding your support teams periodically, simply because they are doing a bang up job of keeping the business afloat.

Supporting roles are not the most glamorous, but whether in movies, in hospitals, or in IT, they are critical. Companies celebrate their secretaries, hospitals celebrate their nurses; think of celebrating your support teams. Make a big deal out of it.

In any horse race, there will always be the stud, the one everybody expects to cross the finish line first. Then there are the others, the also-rans, the underdogs that only the owners will love. They may not be the most exciting horses, but they are the ones that allow you to have a race worth running.

Laurent Duperval is the president of Duperval Consulting which helps individuals and companies improve people-focused communication processes. He may be reached at laurent@duperval.com or 514-902-0186.