Bears, hedgehogs, and Gladys Knight: parables of IT leadership

For years, I’ve had two framed items hung on my office wall throughout my various stints as CIO, CTO, etc.  I like to think of them, both individually and together, as reflecting certain truths or ironies I encounter as a technology executive, particularly in the realm of leading others.  They serve as cautions to me of leadership potentially gone awry.  So let’s talk about what they show.

The bear and the hedgehogThe bear and the hedgehog: “Vielleicht kannst du auch mal was machen”

The first is a decades-old cartoon taken from a German calendar, preserved from the years I lived in Berlin.
Two animals are playing on a seesaw. One is huge and bear-like, the other a small critter like a hedgehog.  As you’d expect, the bear outweighs the hedgehog, who dangles on the high end of the seesaw. The large one says to the small one, “Now make yourself heavy.”  The little one says “OK”, and voilà: the next panel shows the seesaw reversed, contrary to gravity and logic, where the hedgehog is now outweighing the bear.

The bear says, “You see? It really does work.  Now make yourself light again.” Whereupon the hedgehog quietly retorts, “How about you doing something once in a while?”

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We don’t like that estimate. Change it.

CIO: “We can’t go live in six weeks as you want.  It’s going to take at least three months.”

CEO: “That’s … unacceptable!

One of the most recurring memes in IT, for me, has to be hearing “we don’t like that estimate”, coming from stakeholders, senior management, etc. Depending on the mood and/or semi-intellectual rigor of the person saying it, the conversation then typically devolves into one or more of the following:

  1. identifying and removing any hint of schedule contingency (which is often viewed as padding just to make life easier for IT);
  2. mentioning repeatedly the idea of “what if we double the team size to get it done twice as fast” etc.;
  3. conducting a scrutiny, one by one, of the bottom-up estimates (”it won’t really take three days to test that feature”);
  4. volunteering resources (usually less than qualified) to “help”;
  5. insisting on scheduling full-time work for all remaining weekends and holidays between now and the desired launch;
  6. making frequent use of the phrase “why don’t you just …”
  7. declaring that system delivery must occur by a specific date, no matter what.

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Uncommonly followed common sense tips on CIO communication

I recently had the privilege of being interviewed, along with other experienced senior technology executives, by CIO magazine for my thoughts on communication mistakes still made by CIOs. Some great ideas came out in the article, but when it comes to communication (see tip #1 below), there’s always more to say. So here goes.

  • Communication can always be worked on and improved. I was at one company where we did a semiannual employee satisfaction survey. Even better, the company was admirably dogged about implementing specific measures to address areas of dissatisfaction that emerged from the survey results. But in every single survey, the number one vote-getter was the need to improve intracompany communications, no matter what initiatives were spawned to improve them. Communication is an ongoing challenge and necessity.

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Yes we can, yes we must: the ongoing case for IT/Business alignment

How do we (IT executives) get away from being typecast as technologists, unconsulted on core business issues and approaches? Face it, that’s a common situation and dilemma that we all encounter, early and often, and it’s the grist for a constant mill of articles and blog posts and books on business/IT alignment.

Lately, though, a part of that mill has started insisting that focus on technology should be avoided altogether by what they usually cast as the “next generation” of CIO.  So I’m going to (again) be a bit of a contrarian here: it’s possible for the pendulum to swing too far in the wrong direction. I think that we can at times go overboard in our desire to avoid being seen as the geek with the pocket protector.  Examples: some preach outright denial that there might be such a perception problem: don’t even think of using the terms “IT” and “business”, they urge, and they recommend against ever discussing “alignment” as a goal.  Stop referring to the “business” as something separate, they recommend; IT is just as much part of the business as anything else! Similarly, their advice is “avoid discussing the technology itself.” As if a mere shift in language could solve the perception problem and automatically propel the CIO into the inner circle of decision-makers.

Here’s the gist of how I see it, though: in many (I daresay most) companies, the path of IT from high priesthood to strategic key playerdom has not really been fully traversed: in other words, greater alignment IS still needed of IT with “the business.”

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IT transparency is good. But how transparent should you be?

A few years back, I had an extremely surprising and unpleasant experience as CTO. The director of my Program Management Office ran a weekly status meeting for project stakeholders, where we’d all methodically go through the current project portfolio, in order to communicate on issues, gather necessary feedback, and align everyone’s expectations. I typically attended in order to provide input and executive-level decision participation, but left it to the director to actually run the meeting and present the topics.

Unfortunately, immediately before one of these weekly meetings, that director was given bad news (in a brief hallway conversation, no less) about a major bug that had just been discovered in the software for our highest profile project, which was currently in testing and due to launch in just a couple of weeks.  This project, with its strategic and revenue-enhancing potential, was foremost in the minds of everyone in the company.  Stakes were high, in other words.

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Complexity isn’t simple: multiple causes of IT failure

Roger Sessions recently published a white paper on IT complexity and its role in IT project failure: “The IT Complexity Crisis: Danger and Opportunity”.  It’s certainly possible to quarrel with bits and pieces of his analysis, and thereby tweak his numbers, but the overall thrust remains undeniable: IT failures are costing the world incredible amounts of real money. Sessions even sums it up under the dire-sounding phrase, “the coming meltdown of IT,” and says, “the out-of-control proliferation of IT failure is a future reality from which no country—or enterprise—is immune.” And he presents “compelling evidence that the proliferation of IT failures is caused by increasing IT complexity.”  He points out that the dollar cost of IT failure in the US alone is close to the cost of the recent US financial meltdown, and cites indications that the rate of failure is also increasing by 15% per year.

Roger’s paper is excellent and thought-provoking, and I recommend it highly. And I do agree with his view that complexity is the chief culprit in IT failure. That said, I think his argument focuses a little too strongly on one cause of complexity (unnecessary overcomplexity of architecture), to the neglect of other important factors.

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“Getting” Twitter, from the technology executive’s perspective

I don’t want this to be just another post about Twitter, the current hot trend of the Internet.  Rather, I’d like to relate this new Twitter fad to a long-planned important topic here.

Specifically, what can we in technology do to keep current and stay up-to-speed on our various areas of interest and expertise? There’s more out there than any of us can learn, and new technologies come along all the time.  Truly staying current, at a reasonable depth level, would be a more-than-full-time job.

Here’s how I’ve come to grips with that basic reality. These remarks are most relevant to the executive level, but to some extent they apply across the spectrum of roles in IT.
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Speed vs. bureaucracy: management issues confronted by companies in transition

I was at a relatively young company once where a senior executive suddenly sent out a message to the entire employee base, asking for general input on the cause and treatment of the following concerns:

  • “There is a feeling that the company is not able to move fast enough or nimbly enough — we’re not delivering products fast enough or turning projects around fast enough
  • “People feel that it’s very difficult to get things done
  • “There is a feeling that we’re getting too bureaucratic in everything
  • “People aren’t working collaboratively; there appears to be a ‘contract’ mentality in dealing with people”

Aside from the unfortunately vague, passive-voice constructions in this message (“there is a feeling”: meaning one person? everyone? just senior management?), this message didn’t surprise me much.  In fact, it wasn’t (at all) the first time I’d seen this kind of sentiment arise in a young company.

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