Information Technology Leadership & Alignment

If you’re in business today (especially in the Information Technology space), you’ve no doubt heard of the need to ‘align IT to the business’ or something similar…you may have even heard me talk about it (see here and here). The majority of my time in my consulting practice revolves around the idea of alignment and that’s also what I’ve devoted this blog to (although I sometimes ramble on about other topics). I live and breath in the space of alignment of IT and business…..and I’m always perplexed by the lack of understanding of what it truly means to align the technology of an organization with the business goals and practices of an organization.

What does alignment really mean? It’s simple (not really…but…): it means that you look at every aspect of your business to ensure that you are taking on the IT projects that will bring you the most benefit. These projects must fit into your strategic goals and must deliver value to your organization. It’s not really that simple..there are always political agendas, pet projects and personal quirks as well as other issues that creep into the equation. which complicates things.  But…for the purpose of a definition, it’ll do.

So…what does any of this have to with Information Technology Leadership? Read on and see.

With proper leadership in IT groups, and proper leadership within the organization, the act of alignment can be made much simpler. Let me ‘splain. 🙂

As part of the push to align business and IT, there’s been a lot of talk of bringing ‘business savvy’ people into IT groups. To do this, organizations are sending their IT staff to business classes and MBA programs and hiring technology savvy business professionals to run IT groups. This approach is a good one because it gets your IT staff closer to the business and helps IT understand the terminology and business ‘speak’ as the rest of the organization.  This approach is flawed though as it lacks the two-way communication that is required to truly align business and IT.

Training your IT staff on the business lexicon is all well and good…but what about training your non-IT staff on what the IT group does and what it can do for the organization? The current approach is one-way. It turns ‘techies’ into business people….but what about putting the onus of responsibility on both sides? Make the non-IT staff truly understand what IT is, what its capabilities are, and what they can do for the organization and you might open up the communication channels even further.

Mike Schaffner had a great quote in a recent blog post (read it here):

I once had a CEO tell me that one of the things she wanted in IT was people that “talk like us” meaning they understand business issues and can explain things in business terms

It’s great that the CEO understands that she needed to have IT people that understood business principles and the business lexicon. Wouldn’t it be just as important for that CEO and the rest of the organization to understand basic IT principles and what technology can do for them? More importantly, doesn’t it make sense to take some time to understand the people that work in IT?

Rather than making “them” (IT) talk like “us” (business people), why aren’t we looking for more of a two-way communication medium? Rather than forcing IT professionals to change, why not look at the organization as a whole and change the way it operates. Integrate the Information Technology professional into the organization so they can be involved from the start on any new projects and can quickly provide input on the best way forward.

So…you might still be asking “what does this have to do with Information Technology Leadership”. Well…this is what should be at the forefront of every IT leader in the world. Scratch that. It should be at the forefront of every leader in the business world.

Before you make IT personnel ‘speak business’, why not take the time to understand what drives them? Understand why they do what they do. Most times you’ll find that IT Professionals like to solve problems using technology….which is exactly what organizations need in abundance these days. Stop forcing ‘them’ to act and speak like ‘us’ and start working together to understand what IT can do for the organization and what the organization can do with IT.

In order to “lead IT”, organizations need to look for leaders on both the IT side and business side who can bridge the gap between the two worlds and help fold IT into every aspect of the business. Bring IT into the strategic planning sessions…heck….let your IT staff take a crack at leading your strategic planning sessions. You might be surprised to find that you’ve got some very savvy folks in IT today who haven’t been given an opportunity to show their true value.

If you truly want to align IT with business, you must first lead change within the organization.  Lead the organization into a new reality and help everyone understand that IT is more than a bunch of ‘techies’…the IT group can be one of your most important assets into today’s competitive environment.

Organizations need to ensure that the proper leadership is in place within both IT and the rest of the business.  These leaders need to understand that IT and IT personnel can be a competitive advantage.  Organizations need to pull IT into the organization and make it an everyday part of business life rather than a necessary evil. To truly align IT with the business, leaders to lead the change that makes people say “I’ve got a meeting with IT tomorrow and I’m excited about what they can do for me” rather than “I’ve got a meeting with IT tomorrow and I’m not looking forward to it.”

The Strategic Project Leader

I just finished reading The Strategic Project Leader: Mastering Service-Based Project Leadership by Jack Ferraro….not a bad book.

In section two of his book, Mr. Ferraro writes:

In project management, leadership is desperately needed; leadership that is adaptable, perceptive, timely, meaningful, authentic, and unselfish.

This one sentence sums up the core of The Strategic Project Leader’s message: Project leaders, not project processes, are the future for project management. As the first section carefully lays out, the codification and standardization of project management knowledge has created a commoditized service that can be bought and sold like any other product. However, project managers can resist the force of commoditization by adding personal value to their organizations through leadership.

Ferraro defines a new role for the project manager seeking to be the spearhead of change – the service-based project leader. As the book points out, this role of ‘Project Leader’ is an area of untapped potential in project management. This kind of leadership requires a project manager to provide service not only to a sponsor but to all the project’s stakeholders. By truly serving the needs of organizations and individuals, project leaders find themselves doing meaningful work, a factor that is linked to personal growth and great job satisfaction. Due to the highly personal and individual nature of leadership, it cannot be codified and standardized into a ‘methodology.’

The first section of the book is devoted to this idea of leadership in project management and provides guidance as to how to step up into a leadership role. However, Ferraro also introduces several critical topics not usually found in project management books. He discusses the importance of establishing trust-based relationships with clients, and putting the needs of the client first, ideas that are central to high-level project leadership.

The second section of the book provides more concrete information in the form of a ˜leadership competency framework” that is comprised of five ˜core competencies”. This competency framework is presented in the form of a pyramid:

  • Project & Program Management Knowledge, Skill & Experience
  • Subject Matter Expertise
  • Trust-based Relationships
  • Consultative Leadership
  • Courage

While knowledge of project management processes is necessary as the base of this pyramid, project leaders must move beyond this to become true consultative leaders.

The third section helps the reader create practical self-development plans – a step-by-step guide to improving leadership skills. The final section, written by Roberta Hill, provides a detailed overview of a variety of assessment methods.

Smoothly written and easy to read, The Strategic Project Leader is an indispensable guide to anyone looking to be a leader among project managers.

NOTE: This book was provided by the publisher as a review copy.

Zemanta Pixie

Factors affecting Productivity – IT, Management and Process

Bit Literacy: Productivity in the Age of Information and E-mail Overload

Interesting analysis today over on Jeffrey Phillips’ Thinking Faster Blog in an article titled “Productivity Barriers“.

Note: if you have an interest in productivity in this digital age, check out Bit Literacy: Productivity in the Age of Information and E-mail Overload (Affiliate Link)…great book.

In the article, Phillips discusses a recent newsletter from IFS (an ERP software vendor) that discussed the issues of usability of ERP systems. In the newsletter, IFS relates survey results that tried to, in Phillips’ words, understand:

…how much of a barrier the enterprise software most of us use everyday presents to becoming more productive

The research that IFS presented is quite interesting (click here to read the results on CIO.com). In addition to looking at usability, the research looked at productivity and asked questions around what factors caused a loss in productivity in the organization. The results aren’t surprising…results included things like (not in any order):

  • too many emails
  • too much work
  • lack of clear priorities
  • poor IT optimization
  • too many meetings

The survey respondents were than asked to supply factors that effected their own productivity and, again, the results aren’t really that surprising…results included things such as unclear objectives, not enough resources, too many meetings, etc etc.

What I found most interesting was Phillips’ take on the root causes of the above issue. He writes:

  • Unclear objectives/priorities – poor management strategic direction and communication
  • Too many meetings – poor management skills and time management
  • Too much work/Lack of resources – downsizing and “doing more with less”
  • IT not optimized/doesn’t work the way the company works – inflexible technology supporting a business that is required to be flexible and change
  • So, in my simple analysis, many of the issues related to productivity have to do with clear management direction and communication, and the ability to communicate what’s important. Additionally, in today’s market, flexibility and adaptability are just as important as established processes and operational excellence, but our technology, systems and processes aren’t designed that way.

Jeffrey Phillips’ hits it on the head.

Most problems with productivity today can be traced to a few factors (at least in my experience). These are:

  1. Poor Alignment of Information Technology and/or IT Process to the Business goals – If your organization needs to be flexible, don’t put in an inflexible IT system and/or IT process.
  2. Reliance on formal IT process – Process is good. Process is necessary. Create process to allow for flexibility, speed and change. Most processes today in the IT world do not follow this mantra. They are created and then their creators expect people to follow them closely with no deviation and no room for change.
  3. Poor Communication – Managers need to understand that in order to get the most of their teams, they need to clearly outline the responsibilities and expectations of the people in their teams. Without this clear communications, people will spend time trying to determine what they should be doing and/or who should be doing it.
  4. Poor Leadership – with good leadership, an organization can overcome many things. Excellent leaders will overcome poor process (by changing the process), poor alignment (by aligning IT and business), and poor communication (by ensuring communication improves).

Phillips’ analysis of the results of the IFS study were right on the mark….or at least they match up with my own thougths 🙂

It’s Your Ship

Just finished reading the book “It’s Your Ship” by Mike Abrashoff. At first glance, this book looks like it would be something that I wouldn’t like at all…the picture of the naval officer (the author) on the front really turned me off. I read the book at the urging of a friend and was pleasantly surprised.

Although there is nothing in the book that is groundbreaking, it is interesting to see an approach to leadership that mimics my own approach as outlined in my post titled “Five Simple Traits of Leadership (sorry…shameless self-promotion!).

The book is part memoir and part leadership primer. This is not a dry leadership tome that you will find on most bookshelves…it’s the story of a ship being led by a man who isn’t afraid to admit his mistakes and listen to his crew.

I’d recommend this book to anyone looking for a “real world” story on leadership but don’t expect too much out of it…it is what it is…a memoir from a man regarding his years learning how to be a leader.

[tags] It’s Your Ship, Leadership, Mike Abrashoff [/tags]

Strategy and the Fat Smoker

I’m about half-way through an advance copy of David Maister’s latest book titled Strategy and the Fat Smoker and I have to say I like what I’ve read so far.

The book condenses all the ‘strategic planning’ discussions down to two main points:

  1. Figure out the strategy to get where you want to go.
  2. Do what you need to do to implement the strategy and get where you need to go.

Most people and organizations can do the first step but never really perform step number two.

Maister uses the example of the Fat Smoker to make his point. As a Fat Smoker (which Maister says he actually was), you know that being overweight and smoking are bad for you and you should do things differently. It’s easier to continue to be a fat smoker than it is to not smoke and lose weight….and this is the road that most people and organizations take.

It is tough work doing the right things to implement a strategy. If your strategy is to lose weight, then you need to do something to actually lose weight (e.g., eat less, exercise, etc). If your strategy is to provide better customer service then you need to do something that ensures that customer service is the top priority within the organization.

This is a great book and worth the read…it’s currently on pre-order at Amazon so jump on the list and reserve yours today.

NOTE: This book was provided by the publisher as an advanced review copy.

[tags] Leadership, strategy, David Maister, Organizations, Strategy and the Fat Smoker [/tags]

HR World – 30 Questions you can’t ask

HR World has a new article titled “30 Interview Questions You Can’t Ask and 30 Sneaky, Legal Alternatives to Get the Same Info“.

At first, the title seemed to turn me off to the advice, but after reading through it, I’m OK with it but would have preferred a different title without the word “sneaky”.

There is some good advice for interviewers in the article. For example, one of the illegal questions and its legal alternative is:

What you can’t ask: Are you a U.S. citizen?

Although this seems like the simplest and most direct way to find out if an interviewee is legally able to work for your company, it’s hands-off. Rather than inquiring about citizenship, question whether or not the candidate is authorized for work.

What to ask instead: Are you authorized to work in the U.S.?

Another interesting example:

What you can’t ask: Have you had any recent or past illnesses or operations?

Again, gauging commitment is important, but illness isn’t something that most people can help.The answer here is to make sure that the candidate can perform the job while avoiding questions about his or her physical abilities.

What to ask instead: Are you able to perform the essential functions of this job with or without reasonable accommodations?

The article does a good job presenting illegal questions and alternative questions that an interviewer can use to gather as much information as possible.

Perhaps an unintended accomplishment of the article is to educate people that are interviewing as to what some key phrases in job descriptions and interviews might be and what they might mean. For example:

What you can’t ask: Do you have or plan to have children?

Clearly, the concern here is that family obligations will get in the way of work hours. Instead of asking about or making assumptions on family situations, get to the root of the issue by asking directly about the candidate’s availability.

What to ask instead: Are you available to work overtime on occasion? Can you travel?

This is an interesting question. Instead of directly asking if you have children, the interviewer might ask availability questions…knowing that these types of questions might be alternatives to the question such as ‘do you have children’ or a similar question might help the interviewee better understand the job.

Its an interesting article and definitely worth reading.

[tags] HR, people, Leadership, organization, Human Resources [/tags]

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