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IT operations best practices to boost team performance and morale

You can make sys admins happier and more productive with easily implemented practices, which includes forcing them to do their least favorite chore.

IT teams have to automate where possible to free up time, while encouraging individuality within the team.

This article isn't about DevOps or any fancy management paradigm -- it's about IT operations best practices that every organization can use to maximize team productivity. Managers and IT administrators alike can take these practical steps -- there's nothing fancy about documenting a patch procedure -- to prevent common snags and foster long-term good morale.

SMART targets

One of the biggest dangers to IT team efficacy is a project that becomes a time sink. We have all experienced it. Put an end to dragging projects by verifying that tasks are SMART: specific, measureable, achievable, realistic and timely.

All projects should achieve all the above. If the project does not meet these criteria, analyze and review it. It is OK to question project scope and demand to prevent a loss of time, resources and political or financial capital.

Write it all down

IT documentation is the least popular activity among systems administrators. Often, there is a lack of documentation even within the best teams.

What does IT documentation have to do with team morale? Staff retire or leave and all too often the knowledge leaves with them. Those left on the team waste time reinventing procedures and reverse engineering previously known steps.

If the specialist in a certain area isn't available and the documentation isn't good, a problem or procedure has three possible outcomes:

1)    It is made low-priority, wastes cycles and/or slows the deployment;

2)    It is done, but not to operationally documented standards or best practices; and

3)    It is implemented incorrectly and must be remediated. Incorrect implementations can have bad consequences.

Train IT staff on how to create good documentation and organize it effectively so that others can find it. As long as concise, correct documentation is available, implementation becomes a simple process of understanding, learning and following the defined documents. All documentation should clearly define processes that are easily reproduced. Wikis are easy and inexpensive to run, leaving no excuse not to have a go-to place for documentation.

Good documentation doesn't replace professional knowledge transfer and good ol' show and tells. These trainings build generalist knowledge thanks to team experts, and encourage communication and trust.

With trust comes latitude

About those experts -- each team member has an area where they excel and enjoy solving problems. For example, one team member is a code guru, while another takes to managing infrastructure hardware.

A wise IT manager lets each team member play to their strengths when possible. The team as a whole has a breadth of skills that should be assigned appropriately to maximize overall productivity.

Automate everything possible

Every team member, regardless of specialized expertise, should meet a certain prescribed level of understanding around automation. Consider it an IT operations best practice to automate the low-end, manual jobs under an admin's control. This gives the team back valuable time to work on other issues.

Prioritize what to do

IT teams, particularly distributed ones, struggle to understand precisely what the workload is and what is expected of each team member. Frequent meetings keep everyone informed, and prevent people from duplicating work or treading on each other's toes. Team handovers are an area to diligently improve. Effective meetings provide visibility into the changes occurring with current hot issues.

Help each other succeed

Mentoring programs are proven to increase productivity and happiness within teams. The mentor relationship, formed with a team member who excels, provides a great way to learn new skills. For example, a colleague was a little lost when given a fairly straightforward, but large, task. This task was easy to automate, and I taught him the basics of PowerShell. Within a few days, he completed a task that would have taken several weeks -- likely with many errors -- to do manually.

Standardization makes life easier

Any system that deviates from standard wastes time and resources -- treat servers like cattle, not pets. Create plans to remove nonstandard systems as a best practice. Not only do nonstandard systems add to the complexity of IT operations, they go wrong at the worst possible moment. The troubleshooting admin is less likely to have a plan of attack or fast path to resolution on a specialized, unique configuration. If certain systems must be kept as "pets," resort to good documentation to keep the peace.

Accidents happen

Lastly and perhaps most controversially, understand that accidents will happen to even the best IT team. No matter how good the documentation and the administrator, errors occur during IT operations. IT operations best practices and diligent staff members only serve to minimize the error rate, not reduce it to zero. As a team, learn why the error happened and update procedures and implementations to negate the issue in the future.

There are several ways to increase productivity and happiness along the lines of these IT operations best practices. The secret in daily operations is to automate where possible and cross skill team members. And always be on the lookout for time-sink projects, ready to say no as needed until the project is in an acceptable form for all.

Next Steps

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Encouraging teamwork encourages productivity

This was last published in February 2017

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