This blog’s ‘wordle’ - I think it’s pretty representative…!
Every now and again most bloggers will probably ask themselves why they do it. We get stats to show that people are reading our stuff, comments either online or in person that give us some affirmation. But why stick the neck out at all? For me, I think it’s a little like those people who call into radio shows and inform the traffic presenter about delays on the road. It’s not because I have any special insight, or can predict the future. Quite the reverse, in fact. Like the guy in traffic, I am sharing the news about where I find myself or where I have been, so that others may make more informed decisions.
This advice, if that is what you call it, is offered only in the hope that it might save others from frustration. I can’t guarantee that other roads are not also blocked, I can just give my assessment of the one I have travelled…
Most people haven’t been to business school to learn strategic planning. Yet many of us are expected to provide a strategic plan, whether it be an IT strategy, a general business plan, a sales strategy, recruitment strategy and so on. When we eventually manage to produce something, we’re not sure it’s really what was asked for.
In most cases, we find that we’ve done ok. The boss/board/team is happy with the strategy. How did we do so well? Often, it’s because the person that asked you for the strategy didn’t really know what they were asking for either, they just thought it was the sort of thing they should be asking for…
This is a shame, because strategy is not as scary as people tend to think. It certainly shouldn’t be a stick to beat people with. Unless you’re unerringly clairvoyant, you don’t know what the future holds, so a strategy is unlikely to be perfect the day it is created. Indeed, it’s never going to be perfect. However, it should be the tool you use to prioritise your work, because it’s the plan to get you from where you are now to where you want to be, from A to Z.
A common failure of strategic planning is to set objectives and call them a strategy. I have seen people literally go red in the face as they object to any assertion that they don’t have a strategy, pointing out the four or five lines that explain where they are going. These are in fact useful lines, and they are generally objectives, such as ‘we are going to sell washing machines’, or ‘we are going to make a 10% return on sales’. They do tell us something important, and that is where we want to go. They don’t tell us how we’re going to get there. That detail is in the strategy.
The reason a strategy is never going to be perfect is often, as Harold Macmillan reputedly said, ‘events, dear boy, events’. If I start this year expecting to be making a 10% return on sales at the end of it, and an earthquake in Bolivia makes a huge dent in my raw material prices or availability, then I’m not in a position to change the new reality. My strategy was based on what I knew when I was back at point A, and was valid, but it has to change to reflect the situation, or it’s not worth very much. Too many people have stuck rigidly to a plan or product because it’s ‘strategic’, and come unstuck. Strategy must evolve, not to shift with every change in the wind, but to take account of significant factors, and provide the new route to Z, not from A, where we started, but B, or C, or D, where we now find ourselves.
The Tesco Steering wheel above is a good example of how a business can modify strategy but stick to core objectives, encompassing customers, finance, operations, people and community. Every time they review their performance and strategy, they look to all of the areas on the wheel and measure how they are doing against those objectives and how any adjustment to strategy will ensure they stay on track to meet them.
If you have a tool like this, you can pass it to your HR, IT, Procurement teams etc, and they can tell you how they can add their weight to supporting the objectives. Every time you review your strategy you can take their ideas and build them in. In which case, you have an evolving, living strategy. One that you can show how what you do, even at the most granular level, is linked through the strategy to the core objectives of the business. Denys Shortt of DCS Europe has used this tool to help take his business to £130m+ sales over the past 15 years.
In the IT department, we can make our own wheel, define our own core objectives, and show how these link to the business as a whole. We then iterate our own strategy in the same way, using the same tools, as the wider business. Why have we got this particular hosting model, why do we use two mobile phone providers, why do we intend to move to a virtual desktop model? It’s much easier to get buy in (and funding!) when it’s clear how these things link to the core objectives of the business.
It’s important to plan, it’s important to have objectives, and it’s vital that the strategy to meet them is reviewed and improved regularly. You don’t need an MBA, just a willingness to communicate.
This year, I made a New Year’s Resolution. This isn’t something I normally do. I didn’t blog about it, although I did talk about it on Google+ (cynics will say it’s easier to get out of when nobody knows about it…). The gist of it was that I was going to be less tolerant this year. I am aware that this is not the usual way it goes, but I was pretty sure that I had been too tolerant of time wasters, liars and slopey-shouldered parasites that exist in large organisations. Seven months on, I am in no doubt that it was the right think to resolve, and I am probably still too tolerant if truth be told.
What made me think of this today? I read a blog post by Bob Sutton, about a friend of his who trusted United Airlines with their daughter’s travel, as an unaccompanied minor. They let her, and her parents down. The system didn’t care about this little girl. The people in the system didn’t care about anything but the system. It reminded me of a discussion on Euan Semple’s blog about the ‘hollow man’. It also reminded me of an interview panel I sat on earlier this year, recruiting a school employee. When the question ‘what would you do if you saw an adult behaving inappropriately toward a child’ arose, the most common answer we got was ‘I’d fill in the form to report it’. I’m not an educational professional, but I found this dispiriting and disturbing.
In large, or highly process-driven organisations, it’s easy to become the ‘hollow man’, it’s easy to be like those United Airlines employees who stopped thinking of the person they were failing. It’s easy to push the work around, waiting for pay day or the weekend. That’s why I was reminded of my resolution. If you’re doing that when you should be doing something for me, or my customers, watch out. I will not tolerate it, and neither should anyone else.
“The best executive is the one who has sense enough to pick good men to do what he wants done, and self-restraint enough to keep from meddling with them while they do it.” - Theodore Roosevelt
Delegation is the key to management, they say. This is undoubtedly true as no one person can do everything, and in a traditional tiered structure accountability must (should) lie with the folk at the top of the tree, who allocate the work to those they have chosen to do, or manage those tasks. Whether these traditional structures are right or wrong is another story (for starters, check this slideshow out about organising for complexity), it’s fair to say most of us work in a traditional variant.
There are plenty of people who delegate well, but that’s not the majority of managers. The majority that delegate poorly tend fall into one of two categories. Those that delegate too much, and those that can’t bear to let go of work. I’d wager that in a lot of cases for both these groups, they don’t actually know they’re doing it wrong. More to the point, the subordinates that feel the pain and can see the problem first-hand are often extremely reluctant to communicate the fact. It’s understandable - if you’re a passenger in a car and you find that the driver is actually not very good at driving, do you tell them? You might find yourself without a lift next time! Unless you were actually in fear of your life, I expect you’d let it pass, and be grateful for the favour. Telling someone they are a bad driver is challenging a skill they probably take for granted, and one that people are often highly defensive about. Tell a manager they delegate badly, and you’re stepping into the same area.
However, we do owe it to ourselves to communicate where there are problems to be solved, both as managers and as the managed. I have often struggled to know whether I’m treading the line between neglecting someone I’ve given a task to, and being over-protective or controlling. I tend to ask the question ‘do you need anything from me?’ a lot, and hope that I get truthful answers.
As for the other problem, I’m not sure I’ve ever found the perfect method of dealing with neglectful or controlling managers. Blunt speaking is one way, but doesn’t work for/with everyone!
I’ve no answers to this one - but it does happen a lot, and it does help if we’re all aware that we could be contributing to the problem if we don’t communicate honestly and openly.
Received wisdom says that people perform better at tasks, and are happier in their work, when they get positive feedback on things they do well. Pretty simple stuff that I’m sure we all agree with. We all like to get affirmation from the boss, it lets us know that we’re on the right track and adding value to the team. Sometimes it doesn’t happen as often as it could, and many of us worked with the exception to the rule that seems to think criticism will motivate people… What we don’t often hear is that it is important to do the same for your leaders. This can be a difficult line to walk, but it’s important, and paradoxically I think the higher up you go the more important it is.
I’m not advocating sycophancy – there are plenty of people out there that will do that naturally and good luck to them. It took a long time for me to mature enough to be able to reflect good work to my manager without feeling like I was blowing smoke into the posterior orifice. It’s still not easy, because I’d be appalled at being thought of as a ‘yes man’. But, honestly done, it’s valuable and encouraging. For the same reasons mentioned above, good feedback means repeat performances. That’s a win-win, right?
So, get over yourself and tell your good leaders they’re doing a fine job!
Talking about having a personal brand can be like admitting you’re a locomotive enthusiast, or worse, a secret Estate Agent. Many people have an immediate aversion to the very idea, as if it’s somehow underhand, or tragic, or self-indulgent. Well, I think it’s important, even essential, for any person or group of people working in a larger organisation to consider their brand.
So, what is a brand? It’s not a logo, it’s not a souped-up title (like Nathan Barley’s ‘Self-facilitating Media Node’), it’s just the distillation of what service you provide, and what value you add to the whole. When you have a brand in place that makes sense to you and to others, it becomes easier for people to know where to go to solve their problems.
Consider some examples from people we all know about. Richard Branson has a brand. It’s not Virgin, it’s Richard Branson. Would you go to him for advice on lean manufacturing in order to decrease the overheads in your Widget business? I’m guessing there are others you’d go to first, despite Branson being a hugely successful businessman. That’s because his brand tells you he’s interested in fast-paced, way-out ideas. He’s interested in breaking the mould. Bill Gates has a brand. It’s not Microsoft, it’s Bill Gates, and his brand has changed over the years. Once upon a time it was the controlling force behind the world’s biggest software company, now it’s Bill the philanthropist and campaigner on poverty. If you have a project in East Africa that might save lives, you go to Bill. And you go to Bill because his brand told you so.
In a small business, or a charity, or a team within a larger organisation, or personally – a brand is just as important as it is to Branson and Gates. What is it that you do that brings others to your door? What are the things that really bring out the best in you? This is far more interesting and important than ‘Bill Brown, BI Developer’ or ‘Joe White, IT Director’, just as ‘Richard Branson, CEO’ is a travesty of a description of him. How about ‘Joe White, who delivers an IT function that meets budgets and keeps users happy, by employing and motivating great staff, using intuitive tools and working with great suppliers’? How about ‘Bill Brown, who delivers data in the fastest, most appropriate way to decision-makers, by working with the business teams so that he understands the value of the information and the quality of the sources’?
It is my contention that this is a natural way to inspire engagement with others, when they understand what problem it is that you can help them with and how it is you do what you do. It’s also a brave step, because you have to be able to deliver against your brand. You can’t make this stuff up. It has to be what you believe in, what you’re passionate about, and has to be justifiable.
A brand is NOT snake-oil, or spin, or anything to be ashamed of… it’s your proposition, stated in a nutshell. It can break down the barriers in organisations and it rises in value when you deliver against it. Be proud of your brand, maintain it as you change and grow, and it will look after you.
A year ago, I wrote a blog entry about my experience at the IT Directors Forum, and my surprise at the relative conservatism of people that lead IT in their organisations. Given the incredible increase in the use of social media tools in the general population, I had expected the IT community to be somewhere near the front of the wave when it came to exploiting this phenomenon in business. It didn’t turn out like that, so I was interested to go to the same event this year and find out if attitudes had changed.
The topic that had appeared this year, that no-one discussed last year, was BYOD. This is an unavoidably social issue, and although the term was muttered with apprehension, it was at least muttered.
Other than this, on the whole, opinions seemed to have moved a little - the demographic was maybe a little bit younger, and there was more acceptance that younger people entering the workplace, or achieving their first management position, would naturally expect to be able to use such things. There is still a hard core of conservatism, a fear that this is a dangerous place for an IT Director to be - I suspect that these people also work in ‘20th Century’ organisations where the IT function is a silo that is a cost, rather than a ticket to play in the world of the data-rich.
Still, we move too slowly in most cases. Employees are connected, whether ‘governance’ likes it or not. As Jane Bozarth reputedly said recently
“Your employees already have a “social media policy”. If you’re lucky, they included you.”
I look forward to seeing how the world changes in the next 12 months…
Every now and again I come across something in an article that encapsulates an opinion so well, it’s worth repeating. This is from an article on inc.com, about ‘Core Beliefs of Extraordinary Bosses’, one of those unfortunately-titled pieces that dissuade most right-thinking people from reading them in the first five words. However, despite the appalling title, the article is good, and this in particular;
Average bosses adhere to the old IT-centric view that technology is primarily a way to strengthen management control and increase predictability. They install centralized computer systems that dehumanize and antagonize employees.
Extraordinary bosses see technology as a way to free human beings to be creative and to build better relationships. They adapt their back-office systems to the tools, like smartphones and tablets, that people actually want to use.
These two points of view are examples of what I like to call the 20th Century, and 21st Century organisations. Now twelve years in to the millennium, in many many organisations we’re still stuck in the old structures, the old IT, the restricted way of working that holds us back from being truly creative. For some companies the change will come too late - how about yours?
While we all seem to be pussyfooting around the fully hosted model for infrastructure, a lot of companies seem to be building the so-called ‘private cloud’. There is something to be said for the concept, if not the name - it’s hardly ‘cloud’ computing if it’s all owned, managed and allocated to one organisation. However it can provide a way of more effectively dealing with the infrastructure in a shared services environment.
One of the things that has always been a black art, unless you’re a black-belt in ITIL and have a lot of time on your hands, is capacity planning. Whether this is in a small/medium sized business, or especially in the larger, shared-services type organisations mentioned previously, it’s hard to know what’s coming next. Budgets, technology choices, refresh cycles - get your crystal ball out.
So, it was refreshing to read an article by someone who thinks a lot of organisations have dealt with this problem already, but not for disk space and CPU cycles, for hotel rooms. Andrew Hillier argues that they already optimise their assets in order to strike a balance between supply and demand, and have mature reservation processes that can be applied to datacentre models.
I’d encourage anyone dealing with infrastructure to take a look at his article - it’s great to get a different perspective on these things from time to time.