A Single Leader

In the past few years, I’ve been aware of two different organizations that have been greatly impaired by failures of a single person. In the first case, a trusted leader failed to properly do their job and accomplish their responsibilities and the organization nearly sank as a result. I don’t know what that person was thinking. In the second case, one arrogant leader who thought he knew everything and didn’t need any advice from anyone else made poor decisions, spoke authoritatively of things he knew little about and left key resources to neglect.

Great processes and lots of good people, can be overwhelmed by a single bad leader in the wrong place.

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Connected All The Time

So there is a story on Mashable called The Latest Tool in Medicine? The iPhone which highlights some studies where iPhones are being used to collect data as part of medical studies.

Yes, carrying around a powerful compute device, that you can interface with, that is connected to the mother ship for two way communications might result in some powerful new medical studies, advances, options and ideas. Duh.

It is not really the iPhone, it is the mobile, connected, compute device that people have with them all the time (and won’t leave behind) that is the key here. I love my iPhone, but that is not the advance, it is the connected device connecting to the patient/subject.

There will be huge things coming from this as has been written about elsewhere. Immediate detection of crisis events, more frequent sampling of data in studies, ability to trigger something to happen to the patient (administer something), etc. etc. Lots of things can come from this.

Financial Understanding

In 2013 I wrote a series of posts about what to do as new CIO. My thinking continues to evolve on this topic, but I’ve come to rethink the need to understand the financial model for IT in your organization and to put greater urgency on that understanding.

In an enterprise, an IT organization and associated investments are made to facilitate the operations of the enterprise and to protect the enterprise. We don’t make investments just because they are fun or just because we want to do them. There is a driving force behind these investments.  Those forces are things like: operational improvements (reduce waste, speed, reduced friction, etc.), financial control, collaboration improvement, security, etc.  The benefits of these investments are mostly outside of IT. Yes, some investments benefit IT, but most of what we do benefits other organizations. Saying it differently, the costs might reside in IT but the benefits reside elsewhere.

That is the central problem/opportunity to understand. How does your organization account for this fact of life? This simply must be understood by all parties and it must be clearly highlighted to all parties and that takes a lot of help from Finance. This is probably one of my biggest failures. I should have done more in this area.

Projects in IT can save tens of millions of dollars in operations or across the supply chain yet cost millions in IT to make that happen.

M&A activity are particularly dangerous to IT in that unless the costs of integration are budgeted and called out and planned for as part of the go/nogo decision on the acquisition, IT can appear to spending a lot of money to integrate that that is not really an IT cost, it is an acquisition cost. I read a while back that the two biggest risks in M&A efforts is merging cultures and IT complexity/integration risks. A company board might decide to spend $600M on an acquisition but that decision should upfront account for the cost to integrate the companies together.

IT spend is a cost to do business. Probably, the best answer to this problem is to work out a clearly understood, above board way to charge costs back to business units that are driving the investments. That chargeback would include the startup costs for sure, but also might include the sustaining costs to run or support the capabilities. In any case, the costs need to be clearly visible and either chargeback or shown back to the business and across the business. Tools like Apptio might greatly help in these conversations too.

 

 

Not Average

I recently completed reading The End of Average: How We Succeed in a World That Values Sameness by Rose. And yesterday I read a related article called “What Are You Hiding?” which goes along the same lines. The book is outstanding and makes a great case for you can’t compare yourself against averages in many cases. The articles does the same in a shorter version.

We tend to compare our IT shops against an average in benchmarks yet both of these make the point that this is not always reasonable. None of us are average. None of our organizations are average. We are all unique in some aspects. We all have unique business requirements. We all have unique characteristics.

The standard benchmark in IT is IT spend as a % of revenue. We compare what our ‘organization’ spends on IT compared against the average for our ‘industry group.’  Really, are any of us average? Do these benchmarks mean anything? Should a group be ‘judged’ by these benchmarks?

They might only provide directional considerations, but we are all unique.

Diversity Wins

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I’ve written a bit before about diversity and how it fits into getting better results and how it is a key part of collaboration success. I’ve recently finished the book Future Perfect: The Case For Progress In A Networked Age by Steven Johnson. As mentioned before, I’m a huge fan of his material which I’ve referenced here and here.  He writes:

When groups are exposed to a more diverse range of perspectives, when their values are forced to confront different viewpoints, they are likely to approach the world in a more nuanced way, and avoid falling prey to crude extremism.

and a key thought:

Diversity does not just expand the common ground of consensus. It also increases the larger group’s ability to solve problems. The pioneer in this line of research is the University of Michigan professor Scott E. Page. He has spent the past twenty years building a convincing case for what he calls the “Diversity trumps ability” theory, demonstrating the phenomenon in sociological studies and mathematical models. Take two groups of individuals and assign to each one some kind of problem to solve. One group has a higher average IQ than the other, and is more homogeneous in its composition. One group, say, is all doctors with IQs above 130; the second group doesn’t perform as well on the IQ tests, but includes a wide range of professions. What Page found, paradoxically, was that the diverse group was ultimately smarter than the smart group. The individuals in the high-IQ group might have scored better individually on intelligence tests, but when it came to solving problems as a group, diversity matters more than individual brainpower.

and in summary
We want diversity for another reason as well: because we are smarter as a society—more innovative and flexible in our thinking—when diverse perspectives collaborate.
In a corporate setting, it means our teams needs to contain diverse backgrounds and experiences with some new ideas and some older experiences mixed together.
And as a leader, it means I need to really be dialed into listening to opinions of people who differ from me because they might have a perspective that I can’t see. I once told one of my staff that I was blind to something that she felt passionate about and she later told me that meant a lot to her to hear me say that to the group.
Diversity wins.

Interesting Reading

I’ve picked out a few articles that struck me this week as particularly interesting. Thought I’d share them here.

  1. How Long Till Hackers Start Faking Leaked Documents appeared in The Atlantic a few days ago. I had never considered this possibility before and it has really struck me. Distribute thousands of real emails and insert in 2-3 carefully crafted ones into the mix. Elections could be influenced. Governments could fall. Businesses could collapse. I had never thought of this before and is absolutely no reason to believe it isn’t happening already or will happen.
  2. Spotting the Gaps is a wonderful reminder that we need to learn to see what is missing. We need to learn to look for the missing pieces, the things that aren’t there or aren’t happening. We tend to only see what is right in front of us. Perhaps we should start purposely asking about what is missing in discussions about problems and opportunities.
  3. Six Rules to Simplify Work is another gem. Reenforce the integrators is particularly important. Those who connect and tie things together are very valuable. Learn to be that person.
  4. Seven Steps Toward Better Critical Thinking is another very good list of things to consider. Don’t believe something just because everyone else does. I might add to the list that you need to consider the source of a position because they might be biased in favor of one position over another. I recently read an article where someone came out criticizing a position yet it wasn’t clear in the article that the author was motivated and prospered by the decision going a particular way.

I post a lot of articles that I like on twitter at @brewerma.

 

Cross Disciplinary

When I was in graduate school, I remember sitting in a vector calculus class and realizing how the thoughts in this class were beginning to merge together with an earlier electromagnetic fields class and my current complex analysis class. The thoughts and ideas were overlapping and merging together. It was a moment of clarity for me as I saw how these different disciplines began to fit together.

This draws me back to Steven Johnson’s book Where Good Ideas Come From which I’ve talked about before here and where he writes about exaptation and liquid networks and how ideas can blend together, cross over, and become something new. He uses the phrase ‘idea sex’ where ideas blend together to become something new and perhaps amazing.

I just finished reading one of James Altucher’s books, The Choose Yourself Guide To Wealth after following him online for a long time. In the book, he talks about reading all the time and in several places about tying different things/thoughts/disciplines together. He, like Johnson, use the phrase ‘idea sex’ where you combine two ideas into a new better idea.

This is not just taking a good idea and applying it to your problem or space. It is about blending ideas together in a new fashion. One day at work years ago, we had a network cut that isolated one of our key sites off our corporate network and to make matters worse, the tool we used to communicate bulletins about outages was hosted at the site cutoff. We lost the channel we used for corporate communications with this outage. In thinking about this, I realized we should have an off-network communication channel and at once, we realized that Twitter could be that channel. We could create a private account on Twitter and only allow approved people to see the tweets of that handle. Then we’d have a communication channel for broadcasts 100% off our network. We used a social networking platform in a new way to solve a problem and it cost us nothing.

I see this all the time. When I read the book Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder (Incerto) I could see how that applies to several problems in a University setting and I shared it with friends there and I also had work related applications in mind.

Tying all this back together, I think we need to

  • Be reading all the time and reading across disciplines. Don’t just read in your area of expertise, but read across lots of areas and include fiction in your reading too.
  • Connect people together and have more meaningful conversations and not just about the weather and the score of the game. Talk about politics, about what you are reading, about what struck you on a blog post or in a twitter feed, talk about ideas.
  • Share great ideas and nuggets of information with others that might help them in their endeavors with no expectation of anything in return. Become known for sharing ideas with others.
  • Listen deeply to what others are saying and perhaps what they are not saying.
  • Become a person who facilitates the success of others. Countless leadership books talk about this.

Altucher’s book is about a lot of these ideas and he even suggests we should host dinners with interesting people. Just bring good people together to meet, share and connect. Perhaps, one of your guests might solve a big problem that another one of your guests is struggling to solve.

There was a wonderful post in the NY Times the other day called The Moral Bucket List which starts by saying:

ABOUT once a month I run across a person who radiates an inner light. These people can be in any walk of life. They seem deeply good. They listen well. They make you feel funny and valued. You often catch them looking after other people and as they do so their laugh is musical and their manner is infused with gratitude. They are not thinking about what wonderful work they are doing. They are not thinking about themselves at all.

When I meet such a person it brightens my whole day.

Be that kind of person. Be someone connecting dots and people.