Monday, April 14, 2014

The Flinch and Other Traps

Everything that IT leaders do involves a negotiation in one way or another. Yet, focusing on negotiation skills is one of the last things we do when thinking about the professional development needs of our organizations.

Once, while thumbing through a magazine on a cross-country flight, I noticed an advertisement featuring a very distinguished-looking gentleman named Chester Karrass, whose testimonial stated, “In business as in life, you don’t get what you deserve; you get what you negotiate.” Seeing this ad several times before, I decided “why not” and signed up for a Karrass negotiating seminar. While the content of the workshop was predominantly focused on buying and selling, what stuck with me was how applicable it was to the negotiations regarding the expectations and resources that IT leaders face every day.

This semester, one of my reading clubs – a group of mid-career IT professionals at the University of Georgia – is reading Karrass’s In Business as in Life, You Don’t Get What You Deserve; You Get What You Negotiate. But our group is less focused on buying and selling than on applying Karrass’s principles of negotiation to day-to-day discussions regarding expectations and resources between IT organizations and those they serve. All too often, the root cause of major IT failures has less to do with technical competence and is more likely to be rooted in a mismatch between user expectations and available resources – often the result of a negotiation that didn’t turn out well for the IT organization. Faring well in negotiations is key to avoiding a self-reinforcing cycle of over-commitment and underperformance, which destroys IT leadership credibility and leads to a downward spiral of deteriorating IT service performance.

Karrass’s point is that there are time-tested strategies for better outcomes in any negotiation, and his book’s Chapter 11 highlights two of the more common demand-and-offer tactics that often cause IT leaders to overcommit their organizations.
  • The Flinch – involves the use of body language such as arm gestures, shoulder shrugs, or other hand movements when expressing concern over an offer. Perhaps building, testing, and putting a new IT feature into place would ideally take a month, given other commitments. In response to that offer by the IT leadership, there comes significant concern or even disbelief that something so simple could possibly take so long, and that such a delay would negatively impact a business operation. A flinch, in this case, puts the IT leadership on the defensive, as they feel that they must relieve the obvious concern by defending why their offer is reasonable. When pressed in this way, the IT leader will often overcommit in order to save face, given the obvious expression of concern.
  • The Planning Purpose Trap – involves a request from someone for a rough estimate of time or cost to accomplish some IT-related objective. The person asks for a “rough ballpark estimate” for planning purposes should an initiative be requested later. Wanting to be helpful, the IT leadership makes some quick assumptions about what this initiative is, how it will impact current operations, how much time is required for completion, and how it fits in with other commitments – assumptions that many times prove to be way off. Only later, when the client makes the full request, do IT leaders dig into the actual requirements and discover that their original estimate was way too low – hence the trap. When pressed in this way, the IT leader will again overcommit in order to regain credibility lost when the original estimate was way off.
Ultimately, all conversations around expectations and resources are negotiations, but that does not mean that the individuals we work with are competitors or adversaries; they most certainly are not. All of us – those in IT and in the broader university community – are feeling the pressures of growing demands on higher education at a time when there are fewer and fewer resources. Stronger collaborations – looking for win-win solutions for both IT and those who depend on IT – is key to mutual long-term success.

For IT leaders, when negotiating with others regarding services you deliver, here’s how to keep the negotiation on a path to a win-win outcome.
  • Focus on understanding and meeting needs and not wants.
  • When listening, try listening to understand and not to respond.
When looking for win-win negotiations, there’s no better solution than to proceed with an eye toward understanding the true needs of those you work with – and the best way to accomplish that is through asking good questions and listening. Other tips for win-win negotiations include: understanding IT’s present constraints; knowing the difference between IT’s true needs and wants; investing in preparation by writing down questions or ideas that may lead to win-win outcomes; and bringing others to the discussion who can help you listen and understand better.

IT success – the kind that we all desire for our institutions – flows from the alignment of expectations and resources. The more that IT leaders understand that managing expectations requires negotiation – albeit sometimes difficult ones – the better their organizations will perform when it comes to meeting expectations and delivering value that goes above and beyond those expectations.

Monday, February 24, 2014

The Operations – Concierge Divide

Of all the things I get to do at the University of Georgia, one of my favorites is my lunchtime reading clubs, which are groups of mid-career IT professionals who get together regularly to discuss an interesting book. Typically, half of each club’s members come from EITS, the central IT organization on campus, and the other half comes from UGA’s schools, colleges, or other units. This semester, one of the clubs is reading Gene Kim’s (@RealGeneKim) The Phoenix Project, and it is leading us through some very productive conversations on what service-oriented cultures really are – and more importantly, what they are not.

Broadly defined, a service-oriented culture can be said to be a set of beliefs and behaviors of a particular group, directed at activities that are deemed helpful to others. Within the context of IT organizations, those beliefs and behaviors typically revolve around being:
  • Reliable – seen as dependable, trustworthy, accurate, and infallible
  • Consistent – seen as adhering to the same principles, actions, and outcomes
  • Proactive – seen as prepared and controlled, especially when things are not going well
  • Responsive – seen as responding in a sympathetic or favorable way
Martha Heller (@MarthaHeller) talks about the paradoxes of IT leadership – and one that our reading group has identified involves one of the basic challenges of our profession; that is, from the viewpoint of IT professionals, service-oriented cultures are about IT services that are reliable, consistent, proactive, and responsive. But from the viewpoint of those who work outside the IT organization, service-oriented cultures are about IT staff support that is reliable, consistent, proactive, and responsive. We might call this paradox the Operations–Concierge Divide because efforts directed at the latter, if performed absent sound operating principles and practices, has the potential to disrupt the former. That is to say, IT organizations under pressure to be immediately responsive to unregulated end user requests can find it more difficult to deliver IT services that are reliable, consistent, proactive, and responsive.

The story of The Phoenix Project speaks to this paradox. The driving force behind missed deadlines, service delivery failures, or unmet expectations is not technical incompetence, lack of supervision, or poor leadership, but unregulated work in progress. Failure to properly manage demand for services through sound project, change, and demand management techniques will create the conditions for poor service delivery. Every IT professional has felt the tension between working on planned tasks versus having to immediately respond to someone who has screamed loudly or dropped the name of someone high above the CIO. That pressure is doubly worse when one has to drop planned tasks to respond to an outage or to fix a major service defect.

The paradox of the operations–concierge divide is that efforts to be immediately responsive to unregulated end user demands results in a reactive IT culture whose performance spirals downward because of the cycle of over-commitment and underperformance. The only way to escape this downward trend is to place a moratorium on the introduction of new work into the system, so that the entire system can catch up and reduce the amount of work in progress. That typically requires an intervention of some sort – either new leadership or executive support that comes right from the top.

The trick to building a proper service oriented culture – one that is characterized by reliable, consistent, proactive, and responsive IT services – is to avoid spiraling into the cycle of over-commitment and underperformance in the first place; and the way to do that is to not say no over and over, but build into the organization the proper project, change, and demand management processes for regulating the flow of work. That means investigating and learning about ITIL and other standard processes, and applying some of the lessons learned from The Phoenix Project. These include:
  • Recognize that performance improvements are truly possible only when applied at the constraints that are negatively impacting the flow of work through the organization. Improvements at other places will do little to improve overall service quality.
  • Identify and protect the critical resources in the organization, and do everything possible to make sure they are not dragged into serving ad hoc requests on demand. 
  • Control the flow of work by proactively deciding what work that is to be accomplished, as opposed to letting that be dictated by the tone and volume of ad hoc requests. That requires governance, which is key to deciding which projects should be deferred.
Controlling the flow of work throughout the IT organization is the key to building a service-oriented IT culture that is well regarded for reliable, consistent, proactive, and responsive IT services. Resolving the operations–concierge divide is another one of those paradoxes of IT leadership that are crucial for IT leaders to learn to overcome.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Computers are no substitute for good teachers . . .

Or, a more adept phrase might be – what I’m thinking about as I prepare for EDUCAUSE next week. When reviewing the conference program, one can’t help but be struck by the degree to which the agenda is dominated by topics covering the (potential) impacts of technology on learning. I’m pretty sure that many attendees would agree with the statement that technology itself is no panacea for the present challenges of higher education – equality of access, adequate preparation of incoming students, escalating costs, and graduate preparedness. When thinking of these challenges, my mind harkens back to my own higher education – an experience where good teachers were absolutely critical in providing me with support and mentoring, and that experience was a very big part of putting me on a path of lifelong learning.

Because of my experience, as well as the sociological lens through which I tend to view things, I have maintained a healthy sense of skepticism regarding the potential for technology to “disrupt” higher education, at least in the sense that technology can easily lower costs or produce better and more scalable learning outcomes. Over the past couple of years there has been significant collaborations focused on these questions. As the evidences trickles in there is plenty of data to support my skepticism.
As a traditionalist, I believe that the most important opportunity for impacting college students lies in the student-faculty relationship. It is through that collaboration that we can impart not only knowledge but also the processes by which knowledge is created – which helps students become creative thinkers and lifelong learners. Far too many online programs are built on an industrial, one-to-many approach that focuses on using technology to increase the scalability of content distribution at the expense of traditional collaborations between students and faculty. Ultimately the traditional approach to online education opts for a focus on convenience, efficiency, and scalability at the expense of what the Internet is truly about – massive social connectedness.

What’s exciting to me is that the most forward-thinking individuals today working in this space realize that the traditional approach of online education is the path of commoditization  - one that reduces learning processes to their lowest common denominator and undermines the traditional student – faculty relationship. A more enlightened approach, a many-to-many approach, focuses on connectivity and community, as it is the relationships between students and faculty that drive the development of critical thinking skills and the creation of knowledge. Such processes can and should be enhanced by the connectivity made possible by the Internet as students are empowered to be both content creators and subscribers simultaneously.

As I walk the conference floor next week, I’ll be looking for presentations and products that focus on how social connectivity, in a many-to-many sense, can transform learning processes for the better. Some specific areas I’m looking for include the following.
  • The transformation of the classroom lecture. In a many-to-many world, the traditional classroom lecture goes out the window as students move beyond their legacy role as a content subscriber. I’m interested in seeing demonstrations of technology enhanced collaborations between students and faculty that focus on the processes by which knowledge is created as opposed to the distribution of commodity content created by others.
  • The evolving role of teachers and the art of teaching. Because power is shared equally in many-to-many relationships, teachers are no longer the authoritative center of the learning process. Gone is their traditional gatekeeping role as they become stewards and facilitators of learning, sharing power equally with students. I’m interested in seeing demonstrations of the evolving role of teachers that moves beyond the rote one-to-many approaches of traditional online education.
While I’m in Anaheim, I expect to enjoy a grand event. And that event doesn’t happen by itself, it’s the result of thousands of hours of hard work by professionals throughout higher education - including those professionals who work for EDUCAUSE. This week and next is the most important week of their year, as they work morning, noon, and night to ensure a great experience for all attendees – onsite and virtual. If you are attending the event, I encourage you say thanks to every EDUCAUSE staff member that you encounter, thanking them for their dedication to our discipline and their commitment to advancing what we all do each and every day. If you are attending virtually send them an email - they deserve our accolades.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Ben or Larry?

Over the past few weeks I have been reading news reports discussing potential candidates to replace Ben Bernanke, the retiring chairman of the U.S. Federal Reserve. One leading candidate, Larry Summers - a former U.S. Treasury Secretary and president of Harvard, is well known for being polarizing and sometimes abrasive. Summers has his fair share of supporters and detractors alike. What I have found interesting is the discussion of Bernanke’s leadership style and the contrast with that of his would be successor.

Regarding Bernanke. 

Every six weeks or so, around a giant mahogany table in an ornate room overlooking the National Mall, the 16 leaders of the Federal Reserve, one after another, give their take on how the U.S. economy is doing and what they want to do about it. Then there's a coffee break. While most of the policymakers make small talk in the hallway, their chairman, Ben S. Bernanke, pops into his office and types out a few lines on his computer. When the Federal Open Market Committee reconvenes, Bernanke speaks from the notes he printed moments earlier. "Here's what I think I heard," he'll say, before running through the range of views. He sometimes articulates the views of dissenters more persuasively than they did.

Contrast with Summers.

Summers rubs a lot of people the wrong way. But the part of Summers that rubs people the wrong way — or at least one part of Summers that rubs people the wrong way — is exactly what his admirers love about him. The experience of taking an idea to Summers, they say, is the experience of having the smartest person you’ve ever met focus intensely and seriously on what you just told them and then give you 10 reasons you never thought of for why it’s idiotic or won’t work or needs revision. And those 10 points are good points. And if you absorb them, and integrate them, you end up with something much better. The people who enjoy that process quickly come to rely on it as a necessary step in their work.

When it comes to CIO leadership, are you a Ben or a Larry? The truth is, that the personal styles of both Ben Bernanke and Larry Summers are a vital part of successful leadership. Successful CIOs are those who are capable of performing both roles while also possessing the emotional intelligence to know when each is appropriate.

But there is much more to successful leadership. As my colleague Hugh Blaine of Claris Consulting has put it – every high achieving team contains a mix of four different types of behavior styles that together create the right mixture for success.

The idea generator – the controller. Someone who focuses on bottom-line results, they have very high standards and are intuitive decision-makers who are often thinking several moves ahead of the rest of the team. Possessing a high need for control, this type of leader likes having options and knowing the results of each choice. Idea generators can be polarizing, as their weakness is listening and ensuring that others feel that their ideas are understood and respected.

The idea promoter – the persuader. Someone who enjoys being with and working with others, they are known for being enthusiastic, for sharing ideas, and for promoting the ideas of others. Seeking to be free of control, rules, and structure, idea promoters are motivated by praise, approval, and popularity. But being a “people person” comes with its own limits, particularly the lack of productivity and organizational confusion that can result from disregarding rules, business processes, and organizational structure.

The idea evaluator – the analyzer. Someone whose prime motivation is quality, accuracy, and perfection, their driving need is to always “get it right” and they use facts, data, and history to do so. Known for their high standards of performance, idea evaluators are precise, systematic, and often work to ensure quality control. Their quest for perfection has its own limits, particularly an inability to make decisions when faced with “gray areas” or an inability to complete work until it is “exactly right”.

The idea fulfiller – the stabilizer. Someone who is characterized by loyalty, dependability, and service; they strive for the approval of others. Idea fulfillers like things to be stable, predictable, and they derive their security from taking tasks from start to completion. But focusing on the needs of others has its own limits, particularly the over commitment that can result from an inability to “say no” when striving to please others.

Each behavioral style is critical for successful teams and together they form an essential ingredient for successful projects. When it comes to successful CIOs, they are the ones who have developed the capacity to perform these different roles and they know how to recognize the right circumstances for each. Good leadership is not a matter of choosing to be a Ben or a Larry, but valuing both approaches and knowing when and how to be the right type of leader that your organization needs at just the right time.