Serving your IT customers: be careful of being The Wizard of Oz

Cultural references are among the most powerful language tools around.  The old cliche may be true that a picture is worth a thousand words, but equally, a well-targeted cultural reference, used as an analogy, can stream light onto a subject better than dozens of droning paragraphs of prose.

So here’s one that comes to mind over and over again in the course of IT management: the Wizard of Oz.  And it’s not a flattering analogy; in fact, it serves more as a warning or a reminder of what not to do.

Specifically, think about the Wizard of Oz’s behavior when Dorothy asks him to help her and her friends.  She gets upset when it seems that the Wizard isn’t going to help them, but he assures them that he will, if they do just one little thing:

The Wizard: Silence, whippersnapper! The Beneficent Oz has every intention of granting your requests. [Lion instantly regains consciousness and sits up.]
Cowardly Lion: What’s that? Huh? What did he say?
The Wizard: But first you must prove yourselves worthy by performing a very small task. Bring me the broomstick of the Witch of the West.
Tin Man: But, but, but, if we do that, we’ll have to kill her to get it.
The Wizard: Bring me her broomstick and I’ll grant your requests. Now go.
Cowardly Lion: W-w-what if she kills us first?
The Wizard: I SAID GO!!!

How often do you, as an IT executive and overall manager of people, tend to display that behavior?  How often do you ask someone (a business stakeholder, or one of your staff) to first go out and fetch you a broomstick, so to speak?  I know I have.  Why does this reaction occur?  There are two basic species of reason:

  1. It’s a great way to delay having to act — so, be careful of doing this as a knee-jerk response simply because you’re busy and swamped.  It becomes a defensive mechanism, and yes, your stakeholders and/or employees will start to pick up on it and/or imitate it too fully and frequently.  I had one IT manager tell me with great delight that a really effective way to get people to shut up about their needs was to ask them to document those needs.
  2. Sometimes, well, you actually need that broomstick before you can grant the request. In other words, sometimes (often, in fact) you can’t magically solve people’s problems unless and until they do a little groundwork themselves.  Sometimes that’s as simple as having them write down their actual requirements, rather than leaving it to a couple of ambiguous sentences exchanged in a hallway conversation.  Sometimes it’s asking your employee to more fully research alternatives before you sign off on a purchase order for a software tool or hardware acquisition.

Remember, it’s actually acceptable (indeed, it’s usually necessary) to set these kinds of prerequisites, such as asking users to provide things like documentation and requirements and prioritization.  Granted, sometimes doing so is one of the few ways to slow down the stream of needs from the firehose that’s trained at your eyeball.  Sometimes it’s the only way of giving a quality response on things like a request to estimate the work level of effort to accomplish something.

The trick, of course, is distinguishing between situations when you’re imitating this Wizard of Oz behavior out of a pure knee-jerk reaction, and situations when you really need that broomstick in order to fulfill a request.  The key? Don’t ever ask for any broomsticks that you don’t plan to use directly and rapidly to help serve the person bringing you the request.  That tends to backfire, especially when you’ve let your broomstick request become an implicit promise to grant their wishes once they comply.

Remember the outcome in the movie.  Dorothy and her entourage, amazingly, succeed in obtaining the broomstick, and they bring it back to the Wizard, expecting to now get their wishes granted.  That’s when things really hit the fan, and they have genuine reason to get angry.

The Wizard: Can I believe my eyes? Why have you come back?
Dorothy: Please sir, we’ve done what you told us. We brought you the broomstick of the Wicked Witch of the West. We melted her.
The Wizard: Oh, you liquidated her, eh? Very resourceful.
Dorothy: Yes, sir. So we’d like you to keep your promises, if you please, sir.
The Wizard: Not so fast, NOT SO FAST! I’ll have to give the matter a little thought. Go away and come back tomorrow.
Dorothy: Tomorrow? Oh, but I want to go home now!
Tin Man: You’ve had plenty of time to think already!
Cowardly Lion: Yeah!
Dorothy: If you were really Great and Powerful, you’d keep your promises!

And it goes downhill from there; the Wizard is (rightly) ultimately exposed as a charlatan.

So, key take-aways:

  • be careful what you wish for and ask for from stakeholders and co-workers;
  • be even more careful about what you have promised to do for them once they provide it;
  • and, as appropriate to the situation, be prepared to be Great and Powerful once you actually get it: keep your promises.


  1. […] high who pushes for near-impossible results and then takes all the credit.  (In another context, I warned against becoming the Wizard of Oz. In yet another, I urged us all as leaders to “participate in the process, rather than just […]

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