Technical Difficulties: Developing Technical Leadership Skills

By Patricia Wallington
Fri, December 01, 2000

CIO — The responsibility of today’s technical leader is awesome. The introduction of new technology touches everyone in the company with all the attendant changes and risks. And it never stops. Just when you have completed a full deployment, the next version is released and you start all over again. Searching for a stable state is fruitless. Today, transition is the stable state. As a result it is more important than ever to know how to lead and motivate your technical group. Developing the people and processes that support the ever-changing landscape can help mitigate the inevitable feelings of chaos.

The Technical Persona

Perhaps the biggest challenge is understanding the people you work with. Consider, for instance, that technical people are generally uncomfortable with uncertainty. The quest for certainty can lead to extensive periods of analysis, thus paralyzing the organization or project. Moving to a decision despite some uncertainty is vital. In this fast-moving field, by the time certainty is achieved the technology is obsolete. I once heard the professor at Harvard who was responsible for selecting the PC for incoming students say, "At the beginning of the semester I was a hero; by the end of the semester they were looking for the dummy who picked this obsolete technology."

In search of the perfect solution, most technical people become oblivious to time. On the positive side this makes them very dedicated, hardworking individuals who frequently work crazy hours to achieve their objective. On the other hand, the perfect answer delivered too late is useless. Driving to conclusion in an established time frame is important to success. If the competitor’s product gets to the marketplace before yours it will achieve marketplace advantage. Of what comparable value will the extra 1 percent to 2 percent of perfecting be?

I have developed more ways to ask, "What other alternatives did you consider?" than you could imagine. But I have never found an approach that brought joy to the heart of the questionee! It seems that once the technical person has decided on the solution, it is elevated to the level of the Holy Grail. Any suggestion that there might be another solution is viewed as an attack on their competence, on their ethics or something else. Yet it is important for you as the group leader to understand which things were considered and ruled out.

Passion, so much a part of the technical persona, sometimes leads to wishing and hoping for things to be different than they truly are. In one company, I observed an energy-filled discussion of a project with a great rate of return; it was really beneficial to the business, but the organization did not have the cash flow or capital budget to support it in the current year. It was extremely difficult for the project manager to accept that reality. The project was tabled until the following year. The project manager swallowed his disappointment and took a big step into the real world of business.

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