Looking to improve IT operations? Try IBM’s ‘Pyramid of Pain’

IBM CIO Fletcher Previn has focused IT on fulfilling a hierarchy of core user needs to drive efficiency and promote IBM as a great place to work.

Looking to improve IT operations? Try IBM’s ‘Pyramid of Pain’
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Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is a motivational theory in psychology often represented by a pyramid. Needs at the bottom of the pyramid must be met before those higher up can be met and actualized.

And the same is true for an IT department, says Fletcher Previn, CIO at IBM.

According to Previn, there are core foundational needs that must be addressed before higher-level issues can be addressed. Whereas Maslow’s theory focuses on an individual’s needs in a movement toward self-actualization, Previn’s targets end user pain points. His “Pyramid of Pain” theory helps IBM’s IT department understand and empathize with employee challenges and prioritize their focus accordingly, as well as boosting engagement and retention. 

In Maslow’s hierarchy, base needs for survival are at the bottom of the pyramid, such as food, shelter, and warmth. Those needs must be satisfied before one can achieve a higher order need like feelings of safety, a sense of belonging, friendships, self-esteem, and, eventually, self-actualization at the top of the hierarchy,” Previn says. “Translating this to our IT world, I created a four-tier pyramid of user needs.”

Previn’s pyramid begins with infrastructure (“technical underpinning”) as the foundational layer, followed by shared services, applications/user experiences, and, at the top of the pyramid: tasks. 

“Spanning across all layers are the policies and rules that underlay the business rules and workflows,” he says.

‘The Pyramid of Pain’

A closer look at the four levels of Previn’s pyramid, from base to top, helps reveal how the hierarchy impacts productivity and engagement:

  • Level 4: Infrastructure: This is the technical underpinning of IBM’s digital estate, Previn says, and it comprises the elements of the workplace that underlie everything IT service and asset and impact usage when they perform poorly or have outages. For example, core networking and Wi-Fi services.
  • Level 3: Shared services: These are conceptual spaces that are made up of related tasks and tools; for example, email and calendaring, performance management, and device management.
  • Level 2: Applications and user experiences: These are the tools that must be used to complete tasks, Previn says. For example, setting up a new laptop or mobile device, or engaging with the help desk.
  • Level 1: Tasks: These are tasks that relate to specific goals the employee needs to achieve; for example, buying an accessory, booking travel, or having a video conference.

After identifying the four levels of core user needs, Previn and IBM’s IT department set out to map IBM’s core capabilities, functions, and applications to the appropriate layers in the pyramid. Once that was accomplished, it was easier to see which areas needed greater financial, personnel and technological resources, he says.

IT in a ‘servant role’

“Ours is a servant role within the company. We exist to remove friction from the activities employees need to perform in order to do their jobs. That requires having empathy” with the challenges and pain points that affect users, Previn says. “The IT Pyramid of Pain allows us to place greater weight on those areas that are causing our colleagues daily friction. We begin by mapping; that then drives the weighting we place when prioritizing our investments,” Previn says.   

How IT impacts engagement and retention

IBM’s IT department is using the Pyramid of Pain to create a productive technical foundation for all departments, and it also helps to attract and retain talented professionals, says Previn. The Pyramid of Pain system is a powerful tool to help prioritize IT’s focus and energy and remove user pain points and reduce friction, yes, but it also sends a signal to potential employees about the importance IBM places on seamless IT functionality and user experience, he says.

“Before we can focus on large, complex transformation projects, it is important to have a solid foundation,” he says. “If the base services like network capacity, help desk [and] employee device provisioning are not good, it creates the perception that the entire IT function is poorly run — and therefore makes it nearly impossible to have the credibility with the business needed to truly transform the company.”

IT as a driver of culture

For Previn and his IT teams, IT is a driver of cultural change, and also impacts how potential and current employees view IBM, he says. “The culture of a company is a function of how work gets done. Ensuring our employees have the best tools possible is not trivial — it’s core to our strategy of fostering a high-performance culture. The IT Pyramid of Pain is a lens through which we can empathize with employees and better meet unmet demand.”

In addition to leveraging the Pyramid of Pain, Previn says agile is a critical methodology for addressing the pain points users experience and for ensuring IT works with the business to tackle IBM’s most pressing problems and projects.

“Agile is a great methodology for prioritizing a backlog in a transparent way, in partnership with the business. We form small, eight- to ten-person teams, with the product owner typically sitting in the business, and working together to perform backlog grooming,” he says. That allows agile teams to remain small and nimble, but still remain large enough to successfully address user pain points, he says. 

Redefining ‘mission critical’

This approach has also helped IT operations and development teams redefine what is “mission critical,” Previn says. Historically, that definition has applied to applications that have financial implications if they fail; however, now the definition includes measurements of a team’s Net Promoter Score (NPS) and tracks user experience as well.

“By measuring the teams on NPS and making the user experience part of what the teams are measured on, the definition [of mission critical] has evolved to include applications that are experienced by many employees,” Previn says.  

Previn believes this approach can help other CIOs improve IT operations by focusing on the core needs of the organization before working upward to the top of the pyramid. In addition, agile can help your IT teams do more with less, and focusing on user experience can help determine where to focus IT energies.

“Agile is a force multiplier for getting work done more quickly, to a higher quality, with smaller teams. Standardize on NPS, and hold teams accountable to take action based on the NPS scores,” he says.