Thursday, September 8, 2011

BMW, Timespan, and Freddie Mercury

You are probably looking at the title and asking, "What do BMW, Timespan, and the lead singer of Queen have in common?"  Since he died before the first smart phone was ever on the drawing board, the easy answer would be "Not much".  But when I think about how to create a winning IT leadership team I often reflect back on a specific lyric Mercury, who would have turned 65 two days ago, wrote over 30 years ago.  It goes - "Build your muscles while your body decays."  I think Freddie was referring to the inevitability of life's struggle against the progression of time.  My thinking is much less grand, being drawn to the design, purpose, and functions of roles within leadership.

BMW is one of the most successful car companies in the world.  If you are buying a 2011 model today you can be assured that its design was being perfected back in 2005-6.  As I write this post today, BMW is working on its 2018 and 2019 models.  They know that their future, eight years from now, is being decided by the actions that they are undertaking today.  From this same principle we can begin to understand why companies have adopted the hierarchy of roles that look more-or-less like the following: CEO-SVP-VP-Director-Manager-Supervisor-Individual Contributor.  Each one of them has a part to play in the organization, from the most tactical to the most strategic.  Like genetics in nature, Corporate America has taken on the organizational characteristics that give it the best chance of surviving.  The design above is an intrinsic acknowledgement that, while day-to-day issues must be handled well, the foundations of future success are laid long before that success is realized.  And the organization must have people who understand this tenet and can be the forward thinkers who are so critical to ensuring continued existence.

For the sake of this post I'm going to focus specifically on one of the stalwart roles of any IT leadership team - the IT Director.  Depending upon the size of the company and organization, sometimes the director plays a supporting role, possibly leading a department.  Other times the director may lead the entire IT function.  In any case, a person in a director role must spend quite a bit of time and effort focused not on the present but what will be happening within IT and the company, over a minimum 3-5 year time horizon.  After all, with the way that technology is constantly changing and the time it takes to implement a significant project, if directors are not thinking about the future the business will always be playing catch-up and will likely be relegated to a permanent position well behind the curve of emerging technologies.  Not good if that business is trying to be competitive - and face it - aren't they all?

Applying the meaning of Mercury's lyrics to modern IT organizations, you might suspect that the concept of managing time spans is not on the mind of most people.  I see this play out  over and over when I have conversations with various leaders, most of whom repeat similar themes.  In these discussions I hear and see a lot of talk (quite proudly) about how they carefully focus on daily operational meetings, maintaining tight controls over tasks such as managing expense reports, and reacting to the daily break/fix situations.  When I probe further by asking about what will happen in IT two years out and how that might impact the finances of the company or competitive position, very often I am told by director-level managers that they are simply too busy dealing with current issues to engage in speculation about the future.

When you think about how important the future strategy of IT is to a company's success, you should wonder why a director-level employee would be focusing on tactical issues.  What value does a company derive from an IT director who never thinks past the next three months?  Should a director be great at handling daily operational meetings, signing expense reports, assigning tactical work tasks, or handling break/fix events?  All of these things are important, to be sure, but maybe for someone with a shorter time span.  A director who isn't fanatic about preparing for the future is probably just building their (organization's) muscles while their (company's) body decays.

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