by Jerry Gregoire

Leading Change? Act on the Most Relevant Data.

Dec 01, 20026 mins
IT Leadership

When I was a kid, about 5 or 6, I looked an awful lot like Howdy Doody, the kids-show marionette from the ’50s, complete with the red hair, freckles, big grin, you get the idea. Except for the wooden head, I don’t resemble Howdy Doody anymore, but I don’t look like Osama bin Laden either. Since Sept. 11th, I’ve developed a heartfelt kinship with anyone who believes they’ve been the victim of profiling. In a transparent effort to demonstrate their even-handedness, the folks at every airport security checkpoint look at me like I’m radioactive. I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve made it to my airplane without having my luggage emptied, and I’ve spent more time shoeless than Joe Jackson.

Enough, already. After my last trip, I dusted off my old logbook and private pilot’s certificate and headed for the best flight school in town to reacquire long-lost skills (such as they were), determined not to fly commercial airlines again.

Things have to get pretty seriously screwed up to get me to change my routine. At a very fundamental and perhaps irrational level, I distrust and dislike change, and I’m not a bit embarrassed to say so. Furthermore, anybody who says they like change ought to be run through the metal detector again, then strip-searched by Leona Helmsley for being a suspiciously dangerous character. Change isn’t a goal, change just is. Imagine your life as a fast trajectory moving toward that large unavoidable target, CHANGE. Don’t worry, you’re not going to miss it. There’s no skill involved. When it comes to our role as CIOs, the fundamental nature, value and impact of change is not, and never was, about the if or the when. It’s not about the stated goals or even the journey. It’s about our ability to lead the way to a favorable or at least neutral outcome.

Back to piloting for a minute. In order to fly yourself around for business and have any expectation of making the most of your appointments, you’ve got to be qualified to fly in lousy weather. The qualification is called an instrument rating, and it permits you to fly when you can’t see anything out the window, controlling the airplane through clouds and fog and finding your way home by watching the instruments in the cockpit.

Sometimes pilots with no outside references to tell them which way is up will suffer a problem called spatial disorientation. During a recent five-year period, there were almost 500 spatial disorientation accidents in the United States. Most of those accidents resulted in one or more fatalities. Panic and emotions overcame the pilot’s ability to reason or process information. Spatial disorientation-induced panic explains why, over the years, well-trained pilots haven’t righted their airplane, turned on an autopilot or uttered a single word in the minutes preceding a fatal crash. John F. Kennedy Jr.’s crash is probably the best-known recent accident that seems to fit that scenario.

There are two cognitive styles, referred to as field independent and field dependent. Field in this case means context or surroundings. This is important for pilots in training because while most pilots are able to absorb and respond to the critical yet counterintuitive information from their instruments despite what their other senses are telling them, there is a small percentage who have difficulty detaching from sensory inputs. Field-independent people seem to be naturally resistant to sensory overload. They are aware of, but able to separate themselves from, their surroundings. Most of the good CIOs and senior IT leaders I know fit into the field-independent group.

Field-dependent people, on the other hand, are naturally disposed to focus on the whole. They take in the whole instrument panel rather than the two most important reference instruments?the artificial horizon and the directional gyro. Everything coming through the senses to a field-dependent brain has equal importance?the instruments, the sound of rain against the airplane, the ice forming on the wing and the turbulence felt in the seat of the pants. If the field-dependent person ever gets into a situation where stressors pile up quickly, he may be unable to separate tasks and become overwhelmed. If he survives the overload, he will truthfully answer, “Yes, I saw the warning light, but I couldn’t figure out what it meant,” or “The horn was so loud I couldn’t think.”

Sound familiar?

Daniel Goleman, author of the book Emotional Intelligence, calls this situation emotional hijacking. If you haven’t already, you should consider picking up a copy of Goleman’s book. It contains some interesting insights and more than a few explanations for some of the strange behavior exhibited by others in your senior team meetings.

The point of this long explanation is that change, especially for those being buffeted by it, can be experienced as a form of spatial disorientation. We see it often enough. Systems development departments come to a standstill while programmers gather in hallways to gossip about impending layoffs; critical projects languish while everybody and their mom is given veto power for fear that the leader in charge hasn’t sufficiently covered his rump.

Change, regardless of the outcome, is bad weather. Outcomes, regardless of intent, are uncertain and often surprising. In bad weather, great CIOs and their organization survive by concentrating on what’s important and aggressively shut out the nonsense that is not. That takes a fair bit of will and concentration and no small amount of courage, but it’s how you make it home without crashing.

So, how do you tell the important stuff from the nonsense? As I see it, it’s a matter of remaining true to IT’s core mission and simply setting the rest aside. In a sense, the sole mission of information technology is a form of biotechnology: machines interacting with human organisms to overcome the frailties and limitations of human beings in a state of nature?to make us faster, stronger, smarter and safer. The role of information technology is not to constantly expand and redefine its own mission but to provide the tools for other missions.

Some of what passes for information technology today raises troubling questions about its real contribution to organizational well-being. Are our companies really better off for having systems that spy on employees and customers or for the canned applications we shoehorn our operations into? These questions are ethical and political, and even reach to the spiritual, in a way. On the whole, the people we support and the people we lead seem pretty well adapted to our technologies, at least on the face of it?but there will always be doubts in my mind about whether creativity, productivity and the human spirit thrive best in an oppressively technological environment skewed to detached and impossibly granulated measurement, cost and behavioral control, and relentless connectivity.

As CIO, are you able to tune out the extraneous and zero in on what’s most relevant and important to your business? How are you managing in this lousy weather?

Everyone is counting on you.