Cousin Jimmy Syndrome

I have great respect for my colleagues in the IT industry.   It’s a challenging profession that requires a mixture of technical knowledge, people skills, and the emotional stability to deal with customer dissatisfaction when technology fails.

However, there’s a downside to being an IT professional.  No matter how much expertise you have or what your reputation may be, many customers will not be able to distinguish between a polished industry expert and a self-promoting IT groupie.

I call this the “Cousin Jimmy Syndrome”.

Here’s how it happens.  You join a meeting to discuss a major IT project.  You talk about issues such as security, disaster recovery, change management, training, and support.

Then someone says, “Oh yeah, we’ve got ‘Cousin Jimmy’ doing that.”   Or Bob who lives in his parents’ basement.   Or Carol who knows how to use Excel and serves as the go to technology guru.

Unfortunately, when Jimmy, Bob, or Carol have an opinion, their colleagues trust them over you, since professional IT organizations may appear less nimble, less focused, and less accommodating than dedicated local experts.

Not to imply that IT professionals in large organizations are perfect, they have their flaws.  However, good management and oversight usually creates a culture in which there is division of labor, escalation, and few single points of human failure.    Cousin Jimmy does not know what he does not know.    His solutions may be fast or cheap but ultimately they are unsustainable, unmaintainable, and unsupportable.

How should the IT professional deal with Cousin Jimmy Syndrome?

1.   Let Cousin Jimmy fail – it may take a while, but eventually there will be a major outage, security breach, or data loss.   Although this may transiently feel like a win, it’s really a loss for the customers.    It’s a win the battle, lose the war tactic.

2.   Make Cousin Jimmy part of your team – this sometimes works and it’s worth a try.   Success has a 1000 fathers, so if you can create a sense of team in which Jimmy gets all the credit but others do all the work, so be it.   The customers win.   Of course, it’s hard to let Jimmy take the credit for what you’ve done, but I’ve learned over the years that anything is possible if you are willing to give others the credit for success.

3.   Offer a service so good, so inexpensive, and so reliable that eventually Jimmy moves on – this works much of the time.   I believe that hard work, innovation, and honesty eventually pay off and win the game.   True, sometimes politics triumph over expertise but you can outlast the naysayers.   By selflessly focusing on the customers, the technology, and your staff, you’ll end up with a service that’s really hard to beat at any price.   Jimmy may be omni-present, but he’ll have a difficult time keeping up as technology evolves.

So, when the meetings are awkward, keep your composure, stick to your principles, and put the customers first.   Nine times out of ten, you’ll eventually beat the Cousin Jimmy Syndrome.

If you need inspiration, you can always watch Verizon commercials in which the polished FIOS engineer wins over the meddlesome Cable Guy.  Next time you’re debating technology with Cousin Jimmy, just think of him as the cable guy!

John Halamka, MD, is the CIO at Beth Israel Deconess Medical Center and the author of the popular “Life as a Healthcare CIO” blog, where he writes about technology, the business of healthcare and the issues he faces as the leader of the IT department of a major hospital system. He is a frequent contributor to THCB.

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