The 21st-Century Technology Leader — Opening Statement

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The 21st-Century Technology Leader — Opening Statement

Posted February 8, 2017 in Business Technology & Digital Transformation Strategies, Data Analytics & Digital Technologies Cutter Business Technology Journal
In this issue:

“Musicians play their instruments. I play the orchestra.” In the film of the same name, Steve Jobs attributes this quote to a famous conductor. It’s hard to come up with a more vivid illustration of leadership. It acknowledges that conductors may be less adept at playing an instrument than any of the players in front of them, yet they elicit brilliant performances. I have been told by a San Francisco Symphony musician that guest conductors can, in a few rehearsals, have the orchestra sounding like the orchestras where they are based.

Leadership, per Merriam-Webster, means “the quality of a leader; capacity to lead.” In recent years, the word has become ever more prominent in business schools and the business press. Good “management” is no longer enough for an organization to compete successfully, and “administration” calls to mind stultifying bureaucratic procedures even though it’s the A in the MBA degree. It’s not that leadership was ever unimportant; it’s just that management — keeping the trains running on time and effectively husbanding resources such as people, facilities, and money — is more attuned to the needs of ­stable or slowly evolving environments. Today, when everybody wants to disrupt their own or somebody else’s business, and new technologies that let them do it seem to appear almost daily, people with the “capacity to lead” are critical, and nowhere more than in the exploitation of IT. Obvious though this is, recognizing, empowering, and sustaining good IT leaders has been a challenge. People who can think strategically about what, why, and how to deploy technology but have trouble delivering it — and the reverse — fall short as IT leaders. Both skills are needed, and this edition of Cutter Business Technology Journal covers them in great depth.

In This Issue

Joe Peppard and John Thorp lead off the issue with “What Every Business Leader Should Know and Do About Digital.” This article reads almost as a manifesto regarding the necessity for business leaders, not just IT leaders, to “think digital” almost as instinctively as they think customers, products, services, and the bottom line. Peppard and Thorp recognize that this is not a revolutionary new position to take, but the need to heed the advice gets more urgent by the month. They emphasize that so much more than technology is required: “The value from digital rarely comes directly from the technology itself, but from the change that it both shapes and enables.... — ranging from changes to the business model to an individual employee’s work practices — that increasingly represents by far the greatest and most difficult part of the effort required to realize value from digital investments.” They set forth a framework for “navigating the digital landscape” based on ensuring good answers to four basic questions (which they call the “four ares”):

  1. Strategy: Are we doing the right things?
  2. Architecture: Are we doing them the right way?
  3. Delivery: Are we getting them done well?
  4. Value: Are we getting the benefits?

They acknowledge that “technology continues to be something that many business leaders are only too happy to abdicate to their CIO,” but argue that “digital is a team effort. Business leaders, starting with the board and the C-suite, must become digitally literate [and] recognize and accept their accountability for creating and sustaining value from investments in digitally enabled business change.”

Our next article, by Nethaji Chapala, is more focused on the characteristics of a successful digital-age IT leader, whom he says must be an “entrepreneurial, collaborative adventurer.” Chapala makes a useful distinction between “digital native” enterprises (i.e., enterprises that only appeared when technology enabled their new business models) and more traditional enterprises that are trying to become digital. He describes particular challenges for the latter enterprises, such as the slow pace of decision making, conventional mindsets, and siloed perspectives, while stressing the importance of ensuring competency in the relevant technologies and dealing with the special requirements of cybersecurity. He goes on to discuss important characteristics of IT leaders, such as being pragmatists who look beyond the enterprise ecosystem, exploring unique and unconventional ideas with a passion for technology that enables business innovation.

Our next two articles focus more on the implementation aspects of leadership, and both offer ringing endorsements of Lean approaches as critical for success.

In “Accelerate and Scale Digitization with Lean Leadership Practices,” Cutter Senior Consultants Steve and Karen Whitley Bell show how Lean principles can apply to three domains: startup (in the context of digital innovation as opposed to a startup company), product and software development, and operational excellence. Lean principles — consumer value, flow, continuous improvement, and learning — support creative innovations, delivered rapidly but well, along with their ongoing operation and improvement.

The consumer value principle applies most directly to digital innovation, addressing questions like:

  • What is your value proposition, and how can ­technology transform it?
  • What is your consumer’s end-to-end experience with your products and services, and how can technology enhance it?
  • How do you measure consumer value and experience so teams can continuously improve and innovate in ways that matter to the consumer?

The flow principle addresses speed to market for innovations without sacrificing quality. The principles of continuous improvement and learning hearken back to Japanese practices that revolutionized manufacturing in the 1980s and have been successfully applied to nearly all business processes.

Em Campbell-Pretty also addresses Lean in her article “12 Lean Habits of the 21st-Century Technology Leader.” She shows how the “House of Lean” is supported by four “pillars,” each with three associated habits. The pillars are respect for people, flow, innovation, and relentless improvement. As the names suggest, these are related to the principles in the Bells’ article, but they are not identical. Campbell-Pretty focuses more on IT’s use of Lean practices. The 12 habits represent a very practical guide to successful execution of what everyone who has ever done it knows is a very tough job: managing the introduction of digital innovations, delivered predictably, that produce the hoped-for results both at first and on a continuing basis, and whose lessons learned feed into subsequent innovations.

Having gone into some detail for each habit, Campbell-Pretty closes with a stirring call to arms, in so many words: “Now you are armed and dangerous. You have a dozen new practices to help you make this year your best year as a leader yet. Remember to apply the habits when implementing the habits — make your work visible, limit your work in process, apply validated learning, make space for innovation, and never forget that technology leadership is all about people!”

The final article in this issue, by Cutter Senior Consultant Alistair Cockburn, might seem as if it belongs in a different issue. It does not deal directly with IT or the digital revolution or strategy for business or technology. Yet it’s here because it speaks directly to leadership; especially leadership in situations where cross-disciplinary collaboration is critical — such as, well, digital transformation of business. Since the earliest days, IT projects and programs have been infamous for high-profile failures as well as lots of busted budgets and schedules. In my own observation over several decades, the single biggest cause was not the technology, however challenging, or people, however stretched skill-wise, but a lack of true business-IT collaboration during analysis and design. In large part, IT managers caused this with their slow bureaucratic lifecycle methodologies (full disclosure: I used to tout those, back in the day), which virtually mandated arms-length communication via documents tossed through transoms. And unfortunately, a lot of business people didn’t exactly mind not working closely with IT people, and vice versa. The Agile movement, of which Cockburn is a pioneer, has codified a dramatically better approach.

One important tenet of Agile is decentralized decision making, a practice that acknowledges that “often the people closest to the situation have the experience and information needed to resolve the problem more quickly themselves.” In his article, Cockburn takes this principle one step further in the concept of “guest leadership,” which we see in those moments when people recognize what needs to be done and either do it themselves or rally others to the cause. “Organizations that are able to create a culture of guest leadership multiply the efforts of their staff,” he writes, so it behooves them to find ways to encourage guest leaders to step forward. In addition to providing a taxonomy of guest leadership, Cockburn identifies the factors that are most likely to call forth guest leaders in the service of collaboration.

We Know It When We See It

Leadership is one of those words that convey an idea, yet it’s very difficult to pin down specifics about what it is. We can recognize it when we see it, but the qualities that make us see “leader” in one person may not be all that similar to those of another person we also perceive as a leader. Perhaps the best way to recognize leaders is to look for sustained accomplishment, which requires a combination of good ideas and robust approaches to implementing them, and that is the focus of this issue. As we’ve all learned, though, good ideas and robust implementation approaches are necessary but not sufficient without the ability to elicit excellent performance and team loyalty. Very different personality types can do this successfully. Intelligence (both intellectual and emotional), creativity, street smarts, charisma, integrity, and flexibility are all typically present in excellent leaders, but these can appear in very different mixes. What’s best is what works, which depends on the situation, the culture, and the individuals involved.

The bad news, if you will, is that there is no model or even a small set of models one can emulate to guarantee success as a leader in the digital age. But you knew that already. The good news is that a lot of approaches and styles work, and even if they’re a bit atypical culturally, any place worth working in will value sustained accomplishment. Our hope is that the articles that follow will make us better equipped to produce just that.

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About The Author

Paul Clermont, Senior Consultant

Paul Clermont is a Senior Consultant with Cutter Consortium's Business Technology & Digital Transformation Strategies practice. He has been a consultant in IT strategy, governance, and management for 30 years. His clients have been primarily in the financial and manufacturing industries, as well as the US government. Mr. Clermont takes a clear, practical... Read More

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