Greg Holladay, CIO for Los Angeles-based TBWA/Chiat/Day advertising agency, answered readers’ questions on CIO.com about how to encourage creative problem solving in an IS staff
Q: I moved (or was asked to move) to IS about eight months ago and had never touched a PC—only Macs. I work with a bunch of technical people, but my true passion is in the creative realm. In my singular role in IS, I am a project manager, technical administrator for my NT server, client liaison, multimedia developer, copywriter, Web designer, photographer, strategic planner, policy drafter and music composer. How does a creative IS person mesh and connect with technical IS folk? After eight months I feel like I’ve earned my stripes here, but I get the feeling that most people feel that I’m still somehow different. Can you offer any advice?
A: Integrating technology is sometimes easier than integrating IS staff. One of my most challenging tasks is to create an environment that not only nurtures the individual but the group dynamic as well. The ability to thrive in a unique environment and really be a part of the group is sometimes more important than technical expertise. We don’t hire people who think only a certain way. My point is that it’s important that everyone in the group be open to new ideas, differing opinions and other points of view. Communication is the best remedy for lack of understanding. One idea might be to share your unique perspective with your colleagues in an informal setting. If they get to know you better, they might better appreciate your differences. And don’t be too concerned that because they don’t share that perspective, they don’t respect it. We all bring different things to the table. A smart manager recognizes that a healthy blend of opinions and approaches strengthens the group. It also helps us to better understand the diverse personalities and needs of the user base.
Q: I am a manager in the IS department for one of the Big Five accounting companies. How would you approach the introduction of creative management methods in an old-school business environment?
A: TBWA/Chiat/Day is a special place. Its culture, clients and management personality all define the environment, and the environment dictates the role of IT. I’m lucky that I’m at a place that endorses our style. But every environment is different, and I don’t think our way of doing things would work just anywhere. First, I would determine if these management methods do, indeed, provide benefit. If they do, I can offer two suggestions. The first is to articulate the benefits to the appropriate management. You’ll know shortly whether or not the company is open to change. If it’s not, our approach probably wouldn’t work anyway. The second is to start small and make changes that management wouldn’t notice or be concerned with. Slowly influence not only management’s position but the user base as well. Make it an evolution, not a revolution.
Q: I don’t know about your advertising company, but my agency has offices all over the place. How do you create and enforce corporate standards across a far-flung enterprise without stifling local creativity?
A: We struggle with that issue every day. From an infrastructure perspective, I believe in absolute standards. Of course, much of that depends on how your enterprise infrastructure is funded. It’s tough to ask a small office to pay for the kind of equipment that a large office requires. In that regard, we’re considering tiered standards based on office size. Another tactic might be to approach your corporate entity about assisted funding to the smaller offices. From a desktop point of view, we try to give our users as much flexibility as we can. We try to never lose sight of what our core business is: creative ideas. IT standards, policies and vision should fiercely support that. Overall, I don’t know that you can have “standard standards.” The needs of our business constantly change. I think you just have to make the call on a case-by-case basis.
Q: We have a staff of help-desk agents who provide phone support for computer-related problems for internal customers. Can you identify some key recommendations that I can apply to encourage the staff to bring their ideas/creativity forward. This has been difficult to accomplish given the demanding call volume and heavy workload. It’s easy for them to get caught up in the everyday fire fighting that takes place in a support center.
A: I think most people have opinions and ideas about how things should be. We just have to provide them with the appropriate forum to express them. It’s your responsibility to find the right time and place for your staff to brainstorm about how they might retool the process. Provide them with some comments or questions in advance that can help spur creative thinking. If you do this during office hours, it should be without interruption. Turn off all the phones or go to a location or space where you won’t be disturbed. It’s important to get management support, however, as there are sure to be complaints. Help them understand that the small investment of time now will pay off in better service and timesavings later. If taking time away from answering support calls just isn’t possible, see how open everyone is to meeting off-hours. Would the company pay for a retreat? A night out, perhaps? If not, a gathering at someone’s house would work just as well. I’m a big fan of off-site, off-hours group meetings, both formal and informal, business and social. Getting everyone out of the office environment promotes thinking and ideas beyond the confines of the day-to-day processes. It also provides an opportunity for the group to bond in a way that, though they sit with each other for hours every day, just isn’t possible in the work environment.