Monday, August 26, 2013

The micromanagement macrocosm

As he entered the room, he was looking quite frustrated to say the least, and he is someone who does not feel frustrated so easily. That raised the curiosity of many in the room who have known him as the “jolly old fellow” always ready to help anyone with a smile. As someone who had been there done that with rarely a fluster it was unusual and appeared unnatural. We naturally gravitated towards him wanting to understand the load of the mountain he was carrying that bowed him down.

He was an acknowledged leader and had been a CIO for close to two decades; his business acumen, industry and domain experience was unparalleled. As a turnaround CIO he had changed IT perceptions and created delivery frameworks in many companies. Through thick and thin he portrayed himself as the savior for challenged business and IT; the image stuck and led to his enviable growth. If he ever had moments of uncertainty or felt overpowered by a situation, no one had the privilege of seeing that.

So the emotion that he displayed was alien to the group; they tentatively edged up to him to seek the reason for his annoyance. What could have flustered the first amongst equals ? He looked around at the anticipation and decided to share his situation. It appeared to be an innocuous position which everyone felt should be easily resolvable. As the discussion progressed the perception slowly faded away to leave the group in an exasperated state of mind. It was as if there was no way out.

The CIO was doing well working with the business and the Board; the company had endorsed his plan and strategy including required investments. Everyone was happy with progress, direction and outcomes. He had no reason to worry or think about anything adverse happening or changing his reality. The company underwent a management change and he now had a new boss whose belief system was a contrast to the earlier culture. She challenged everything and wanted to be involved in every meeting with peers and be the gatekeeper to every communication.

She restricted access to the CEO and the Board with a view that their time is valuable and everything that goes upwards or sideways needs her endorsement. The CIO used to a free hand started feeling stifled and struggled to work within the new rules. Every presentation, communication, and meeting request needed approval; the new manager appeared to require control of everything. Other CXOs reporting into her also shared similar experiences. Individually and collectively a solution failed them.

Seeking advice from other peers and earlier managers did not reveal any new solutions. The CEO was either unaware of the discomfort of the team or did not believe that the situation warranted a change. So everyone who was being touched by her cringed and wondered how to overcome the overbearing and autocratic behavior of their new colleague. Her credentials were reasonable, the bravado and projected success larger than life. Her conviction and mannerism did not easily allow for a challenge.

Having run out of options, our CIO friend was thus wallowing in choppy seas with no straws to clutch and wondering if he should look for new opportunities. A few members of the group shared similar experiences in their respective careers where they finally found a way out on their way out. People join companies, people leave their bosses stood proven many times over. Then someone raised an interesting question. “Why not align to the new style and start working to new expectations rather than fighting them ?”

It was as if that option was never considered and fight of wills was the only option.  Agreed that it is a departure from the conventional and it puts a constraint on the ability of the CIO to continue to innovate, in the absence of any other avenue, this may be a model that allows progress. It had everyone wondering and as they thought deeper, the solution appeared practical though not in the best interest of the flexibility and freedom that typically CIOs enjoy. I am not sure I would choose that path, but then …

What would you do ?

Monday, August 19, 2013

Insecurity is good

“Insecurity is Good”, so said a KOL CIO (Key Opinion Leader, a term I pick from my current industry - pharmaceuticals) in a conference which had over 100 CIOs gathered for a couple of days. It had the audience arise from their post-partum slumber, suddenly awake and scratched their collective heads in an attempt to decipher the deeper meaning (if any) of the phrase. Seeing the disbelief and curiosity on almost everyone’s face, he clarified his stance. The moderator and co-panelists raised more than an eyebrow !

The panel discussion among the CIOs was an attempt to unravel the seed of the perennial discussion on the endangered CIO. All the panelists had close to three decades of experience each with more than half their tenure as the head honcho. They were beacons of success and looked up to by every aspiring and junior CIO. News and views on the waning influence, diminishing power, struggle to hold on to budgets, and finally with every new technology an adverse opinion required a platform to unravel the reality and learn from the learned.

The CIO clarified his position: CIOs should not get into comfort zones and shun risks that may require a different level of thinking. They should be risk takers, and as they take on the unconventional, it is natural to feel insecurity; the opposite being complacency, insecurity is a preferred state of mind. Insecurity ensures that complacency does not set in and that the CIO will think out of the box and explore all options before taking a decision. The calculated risk and the accompanying insecurity are essential to keep the bar of performance high.

Are CIOs really an insecure lot ? Are CXOs really insecure about their future ? Do they really live in a world of uncertainty with no visibility of how their role will change for the good or worse ? Do utterings from a motley lot of opinionates indeed make their daunting predictions require rebuttal ? (see Chief Insecure Officer). The group largely disagreed and opined that once for all this debate should be put to rest; not just by argument, but by actions which shall strongly signify reality as it is, giving a burial to this postulation.

A potential solution was proposed by one: CIOs are reluctant communicators; they send occasional status reports, outage notices, a project go-live or delay, and a few times an update on the industry or a new trend. A lot of the good work done by the IT organization remains unnoticed or unappreciated only to be negated when something fails. There is almost no match to the communication sent by other CXOs or their functions on specific/generic issues internally or externally. This commentary is rarely matched by IT.

Another viewed the situation as a self-inflicted disease; why are CIOs so gullible that they are willing to be swayed so easily ? Why do they have to retaliate to every small instigation ? They should ignore the doubters and work towards creating a position for themselves driven by results rather than by debate. I kind of agree with the view except that I cannot let go of a good fight without getting into the ring. Should the CIO take the non-violent biblical path towards his/her success and acknowledgement ?

I do not believe that any hypothesis is universally applicable to the entire fraternity. There are some who have adapted and evolved to becoming KOLs, while some remain in their positions of perceived insecurity. Evolution is selective and that is nature’s way of weeding out the weak. Everyone without exception has to build relationships on the foundation of credibility and trust which is derived from success. Most shortcuts lead to perdition, the escalator to success is rarely sustainable. Take the ladder or stairs up.

So coming back to “Is insecurity good” ? I believe that insecurity is not the opposite of complacency, it is an inexplicable feeling of being incomplete that keeps you from achieving more. It does not and should not have anything to do with external stimulus or instigation; the CIO gets to this position based on some core competencies and deliverables. S/he has adapted to the changes thus far and achieved success; why should the future be different ?

I wonder if CIOs have lost their mojo so abruptly ?

Monday, August 12, 2013

Change is like that only !

We all have been part of multiple project teams; projects big and small, spread over weeks to months and years, functional and cross-functional, department, geography, or enterprise wide. We have played roles ranging from team member, functional or project lead, sponsor, champion, or simply an observer. We have shared the euphoria on successful completion and anguish of failed projects, the pain of projects missing timelines, the anger when someone does not get it, the relief of recovering from missed milestones, heartbreak when a project was abandoned.
Every project has its set of protagonists, antagonists and fence-sitters; the mix largely determined not always by reality but the perception of impact to self, team, function, and organization. The difficulty level and the change to existing norms, processes, role, conventional wisdom also determines the enthusiasm demonstrated by everyone. Position within the organization hierarchy and age too play an important role in determining how we embrace the project and the change it brings about.
Change management has thus become an industry where specialists and consultants have defined frameworks to help overcome resistance to change. From proactive to resistive management, these practices collate experiences from multiple projects with a hope that some of them can be universally applied. The faith in such an intervention keeps fuelling the growth of change specialists and enterprises continuing to invest in managing change with every project. There are a few basics that address the challenge: engagement, communication and agreement.
Project charters to creation of a team, and bringing them together typically defines the first few stages of any project. The collective belief in the outcomes is a basic necessity to create a foundation on which the project will be build. When a motley group gets together the first time, their collective conscience needs alignment to the common goal. Achieving this requires the leaders to engage the team in formal and informal settings. Their professional, social and emotional states require tuning with each other.
Communication needs a plan and then you break the plan to adapt to project progress; there will always be instances when a few will raise a furor that they were not informed or involved or constrained from participation. Everyone in the team needs to take charge of communication rather than a few chosen ones tasked with it. It is not just status reports, newsletters, and email campaigns, but open and honest dialogue within the team across hierarchy and laterally, is the best mechanism to keep the spirits high and aligned.
Whenever a group assembles, there is disagreement, conflict, and politics; projects with significant change also bring fear of the unknown, surfaces insecurities, and highlights missing competencies. These emotions and states challenge not just the project, at times also the company and business continuity. It does not matter if they were mediocre or high performers in earlier roles, or their longevity; the fact that they have to change is unpalatable to the human mind by design.
Young are impressionable and embrace all ideas without judging them; as we grow older we benchmark any new ideas with our past and what we believe is correct. We want things to be white or black equated to right or wrong rather than as an alternative view or way of working. What we disagree with is not necessarily wrong. This fixation to slot every action or decision into two buckets leads to conflict and a change averse behavior. We all learn through experience as there is a limit to what we can gain from others.
Every day is a discovery of our ignorance; we have to unlearn the past to learn something new. Giving up old beliefs is always difficult, they were part of our lives and brought us where we are. As Marshall Goldsmith said “What got you here, won’t get you there”. I believe that change starts from self. Change is a threat when done TO us, but an opportunity when done BY us. Threats are resisted, opportunities are embraced. We have to give up being a caterpillar to become a butterfly.

Change is like that only !

Monday, August 05, 2013

Stay relevant, stay hungry

In the last few weeks by accident, coincidence or that suddenly it has become a big discussion; I had a few CIOs young and old, and other senior non-IT friends wanting to discuss job security and career progression. Their questions were fairly similar with the prime theme being how do they contextually stay relevant to their changing role and expectations and at the same time address the flavor of the month or season. After all with every even slightly disruptive technology trend comes the hype that the CIO role is no longer relevant.

Everyone has an opinion on IT today and they are trigger happy in their pronouncements; not that it matters who they are, or the power or authority they wield, there is always an opinion on what the CIO should be doing to survive the bad world of changing expectations. CIOs are used to this now, but when some non-IT friends raised similar doubts it had me wondering. A little more than a year back I had explored the subject of changing skills (Re-skilling for the future) and I did not see any change.

It is a fact that the role of technology professionals has changed over the last many decades; it is also known that CIOs have come up to the situation with varied degrees of success. Staying unaligned to enterprise politics and power struggles, in most cases the CIO has acted in the best interests of the company. This was an easy path with multiple conflicting priorities or interplay within functions. This position brings with it a strength and vulnerability leaving the choice to the person on how s/he uses it (a post on this coming soon).

The evolution curve has created some first amongst equals or the crème who are seen as the role models. They are visibly successful, appear to do everything right, have good presentation and oratory skills, are able to shift across companies/industries and roles with ease, end up attracting great talent and retaining them. They appear larger than life and are favorites as speakers for seminars, group discussions, quotes for publications, great networkers and are even sought after by executive placement companies too.

The relevance of a role in a company changes with industry ups and downs, size and growth, profitability and industry positioning, the culture and politics, and finally the incumbent individual. All these changes require adaptation to the new paradigms with focused action. Changes are rarely sudden and give fair opportunity to prepare; high professionals align quickly and hit the ground running. No one can afford to lag behind for too long, the outcome will be Darwinian; everyone is responsible for their own survival.

Everyone almost always thinks that they are doing well in whatever they do. It is typical for people to wait for feedback and when none is coming, they live in a false sense of complacency. Many also wait for their development plans to be created by HR or their managers, or training to be scheduled by the learning function; effectively it is a passive approach to skills enhancement and development. The crème takes ownership of their vectors and creates the desired path and outcomes more frequently.

Sustaining relevance to the role and context is important for continuity; for growth, demonstration of hunger is necessary too. It is important to create a persona that people associate with and are able to relate to. I have observed many CIOs drifting along with a sense of helplessness while enviously looking at the visible CIOs. They wonder why they are unable to rise; I do not for a moment believe that they are disadvantaged in any way except their inertia and self-created limitations of what they can achieve.

Survival is not mandatory said Edwards Deming the quality guru, while Darwin postulated that the adaptable survive. In the hyper-competitive and uncertain world that we live in, everyone has to fend for themselves. I believe that CIOs should take charge of their future as well as demonstrate leadership for their teams to keep themselves relevant. This has worked for everyone I know in the crème group; there is no reason for it not to work for you. Go ahead, stay hungry, and stay relevant.