In a recent article in Harvard Business Review, business strategy guru Gary Hamel wrote, “The world is becoming turbulent faster than organizations are becoming resilient.” Since organizations are collections of people, then individuals are feeling this same disorientation from the high-change world?which, I might add, is here to stay. The technological change that occurred slowly over centuries (such as the invention of the wheel) accelerated to change measured in decades (the impact of the automobile, for instance), which has now been transformed into continuous and pervasive change brought on by the computer chip.
The implications for individuals in general, and leaders in particular, can be either debilitating or energizing, depending on your aperture. Use a narrow day-to-day lens, and the winding path of change will disorient you. Widen the aperture to a few years, and you’ll see patterns forming out of the changing landscape. These patterns out of chaos will give you both great insight and confidence to either stay or change the course.
Consider, for example, the dotcom craze. In the late ’90s, anyone who didn’t buy in just didn’t understand. By 2001, it seemed obvious that everyone who had bought in just didn’t “get it.” In retrospect, although the business models were wrong and overheated very quickly, the long-term principles of e-commerce (consumer choice, self-service and extended, real-time supply chains) were right. The technology innovation spawned during the first dotcom boom set the stage for true e-business transformation, which will take place during the next decade.
It’s important for all leaders to step back and recognize the patterns in change and factor out the noise?but it’s even more critical for CIOs to do so. CIOs have a bifurcated agenda, because at the same time that we’re dealing with the rapid pace of technological change, we are also shaping technology.
There are three major competencies that great IT leaders need in order to get the lay of the changing landscape: pattern recognition, technical savvy and street smarts. Put another way, if you want to be a great IT leader, these are three talents you need to hone.
Pattern Recognition The ability to sit back and watch the horizon instead of concentrating on the “hood ornament” will keep you going in the right direction. The faster the speed and the more winding the road, the more this principle is true. Unfortunately, the demands of business make most executives pay attention not just to the hood ornament but also to the fly on the windshield.
In truth, both perspectives are important. You need to narrow the aperture and broaden it at the same time. It’s a contradiction, but it must be managed. For example, a one-hour network outage can create havoc if not handled properly. Yet understanding where networks are going in the future may be the difference between your company or your major competitor winning in the marketplace.
Where should CIOs focus their energy? On the immediate crisis?handling the network outage that has everyone screaming? Or on the longer-horizon issue?the time-consuming analysis of technological change? Good IT executives are usually good at one perspective or the other. Great IT executives are good at both. CIOs must surround themselves with people and partners who can help scope out a complex operating problem and then zoom in to connect the dots.
Technical Savvy To develop pattern recognition skills, you have to remain technically competent. For the past few decades, companies have reversed their thinking about the type of CIO they want to hire. Recruiters have gone from looking for strong technical skills with limited business acumen to seeking strong business skills with limited technical acumen.
The trade-off that’s assumed in these trends is problematic and unnecessary. In both business and technology, there are long-range patterns that must be recognized, assimilated and articulated. But at the same time, significant details must be understood and managed.
For example, when considering utility computing, it is just as important to know that it’s an evolving technology as it is to understand the business need for surge capacity. This demand is being created by customers and employees doing more self-service and suppliers being integrated into networks and processes. These multiple players create capacity peaks and unpredictability. The changes in demand make it mandatory that you are “always on” and have backup capacity.
Being technically savvy doesn’t mean that you have to be the best technician in your organization. For most CIOs, that would be impossible, in fact. What you need is an understanding of the basics?to know what’s real and what’s marketing, what’s hard and what’s easy, and what’s here now and what’s not. You also have to know enough to know who (on your staff or in the marketplace) knows the topics versus who knows the words and slogans.
Street Smarts The final competency required for IT leaders to get the lay of the land is street smarts?that is, understanding how things really work, not just how they look on an org chart. This isn’t politics?that implies manipulation. Street smarts is pattern recognition about people and organizations. You have to understand how decisions get made: who the influencers, the experts and the “blockers” are; and who will tell you what you want to hear versus what you need to know.
Make no mistake: You can have the widest aperture vision with great business and technical insights, but if you fail to understand the organization as a whole, you will never sell or implement your agenda. Consider, for example, how you interact with the procurement office. It is charged with getting low-cost, leveraged buying. That mandate can be a great ally or a formidable enemy to your agenda. For example, you might be focused on the total cost of ownership (TCO) of IT assets, which implies a program of simplification and quality management. The procurement office will naturally focus on the per-unit cost of a purchasing transaction. Your ability to educate procurement about TCO is critical to your overall success. Having the group work with you rather than against you is what I mean by street smart. You can rely on the formal power of your position from time to time, but it’s much more effective to use your influencing skills.
If you can develop all three of these competencies, you’re on your way toward setting the corporate IT agenda. Execution will then become key. My next columns will address the high-level IT leadership skills of building a great team and having an impact.