Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Why Being Wrong Has Never Been So Right

When people think about being right, they often make a comparison to perfection.  Being right does not mean being perfect.  It just means...not wrong.  This is kind of an odd way to begin a post so let me talk about a couple of examples.

Example 1: Before this week my beloved NFL team, the Denver Broncos, had a perfect 6-0 record.  Was their approach to their previous contests and game plans "right"?  Although the record would say so, the fact that they had the worst pass defense in the league told a different story.  They were perfect, but not right.  Put another way, since they had won six games in a row, their strategy was not...wrong...but was it right?

Example 2:  I have noticed this phenomena three times in my life.  As a traffic light turns, a pedestrian starts to cross the street with a "go" signal from the other side of the street.  But failing to be aware of their situation the person does not look around.  Hence, they do not see the car barreling down the street with no intention of stopping at the red light.  Sometimes they do see the car coming and still go forward because they "have the right".  The pedestrian ends up getting hit, in some of the cases injured quite badly.  They were not "wrong" according to the traffic rules but got to spend time in the hospital and years recovering.  I bet that each of them had wished that they could do it all over again, being "wrong" according to the traffic rules but "right" in terms of an intact body.

Example 3:  I see this quite a bit in business, almost always from managers, executives, and people in charge.  Faced with a tough decision that requires decisiveness, the people opt to make no decision at all.  Hence, even though they might not technically be right, they sure as heck aren't "wrong".  In some organizations with long-tenured workforces this behavior is rewarded, or at least seems to be.  But if you look at the anecdotes about what causes most senior leaders to lose their positions, it is the fear of being wrong.  Thus when they can't be right, they do nothing at all.  Michael Heath has a good quote on his site (, "Your staff love a good decision; your staff can forgive a bad decision; your staff will never forgive no decision."

It is a fact that the entire human species has built a civilization that dominates the Earth through the product of one mistake after another.  Because of the way that we are all constructed, advancement can only come from failure.  If you look at the human body as a machine, what I've just said is true even down to the cellular level.  A person who wants to get bigger muscles must exercise.  It is through that exercise that muscles are torn at the microscopic level.  From those tears, the human body rebuilds muscles on a larger scale to "correct" the failings of the previous condition.  So, after a period of recovery what was, in essence wrong, now becomes right.

So many people and hence companies are afraid of being wrong that they have equated the absence of failure as being "right" and desirable.  What we as leaders must do is embrace the need for being wrong in lives and work habits.  Yes, being wrong is not always comfortable but it is the fastest way to get to the most correct, or right, condition.

I mentioned the Denver Broncos above.  If they had been able to go through the regular season beating everyone while giving up 30+ points, would that have served them well in the playoffs?  The answer comes from recent history and it's a resounding NO.  The failure that they encountered in Indianapolis will be the catalyst that lets them see how to move from "not wrong" to "right", well in time for January.

In business, leaders are almost always rewarded for risk taking.  Not always, but look at the heads of the firms in the Fortune 500.  Did their top leaders get to their positions by always trying to be right?  If you'll look, most likely the evidence will point to how their lives and success were influenced most often and profoundly by failure (being wrong) rather than a string of perfect achievements.  Even in the military, our greatest leaders were forged out of the mistakes that they and others made.  The American Civil Way is rife with those stories.

Perhaps the most interesting, and final, illustration of my point comes from the history of Robert the Bruce.  Most of you that do know of him remember the young Scottish Lord who ultimately betrays the hero William Wallace (played by Academy Award Winner Mel Gibson) only to gain final redemption.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Technology Value vs. Perception

When it comes to the world of IT, there are tried and true technologies and those that have yet to peak.  Those around me know that I am a big fan of virtualization, especially when it comes to the desktop.  Since there are so many devices today from which we access information, the concept of working only through desktops or laptops is a dated one.  On any given day I will access information through at least six platforms:
  • iPhone first thing in the morning and throughout the day
  • iPad (same as above)
  • My home PC
  • My work laptop
  • My iPad mini (for casual browsing and reading)
  • My Citrix XenDesktop
I do not want to have a completely different experience on each of the devices.  Yes, I do want some variation but I also want continuity as I move from device to device.  With a nod to VMWare, Microsoft, and a few other bit players I am a big fan of Citrix and their XenDesktop software.  Once implemented in my environment I can move across all my devices and never lose any data or continuity of experience.

Many of you may not know what I'm talking about in relation to Citrix.  Others may just be getting to the point of understanding the virtual desktop (VDI) concept but have not yet been given access to the technology.  In many ways, Citrix and their XenDesktop software, although having been out for over four years, are still on the cutting edge of technology.  Up until recently, Wall Street had rewarded Citrix for it's innovation and great product.  But then, Citrix got ahead of itself.

Just as most people are awakening to the concept of virtualized desktops, Citrix jumped into the arena of mobile device management (MDM).  You might say that they did this in order to jump in front of a new trend, described by the acronym BYOD.  The term BYOD, or "Bring Your Own Device", refers to a trend where businesses allow people to use whatever brand of smartphone, tablet, or device they want.  The company doesn't buy the device or support it, but must connect to it in order to allow the employee to tie into appropriate corporate systems.  In theory,  MDM would allow companies and their IT groups to manage these remote devices and provision applications or any service to them.

There is just one big problem with all of that.  While it sounds really cool in a geekish sort of way, and you can ask Apple or Google how Wall Street rewards innovative/geeky tech, no company is really prepared or ready to use "BYOD/MDM" solutions.  And since they aren't ready, the corporate wallets are staying firming closed.

So why did Citrix jump so far out ahead of it's customers?  Take a look at how their stock was rewarded after they announced their new BYOD solutions (Worx-mobile) this summer:

Wall Street looked at the innovation of Citrx and said, essentially, "These guys are the first to market with an innovative product.  They can't help but make a killing!"

Yet, all of this happened during the third quarter.  Remember that the U.S. economy and thus the stock market run on a quarterly cycle.  When Citrix had to report its earnings at the end of the third quarter, in September, they had to show that no-one was buying their cool new products.  Yes, they were innovative, smart, and ahead of the curve.  But nobody was buying them so the hype that took Citrix's stock from $60/share to $76/share in just two short months fell flat.

Citrix had to tell it's investors last month that all of the positive press had never really translated to any economic benefit.  We can see how their investors and the market responded to that news:

The bottom fell out of the stock in just two weeks.  It is starting to stabilize at this point, but it serves as a lesson to anyone who falls too quickly and deeply in love with a technology.

In order for tech to be valuable, it must actually be useful in a meaningful way to the market for which it's intended to serve.  Don't buy into hype if you're looking for ways to innovate, invest, or improve.  Just because Wall Street and "experts" say something is great doesn't mean it's great for you.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Caveat Venditor

In a post last year I discussed the topic of vendor management.  From the perspective of the purchaser I listed how important it is to treat your vendors with care, respect, and diligence.  In other words, treat others like you want to be treated and you will typically have the basis for excellent relationships with your providers.

That is all well and good, treating others with respect and kindness, but consider this thought.  When you, as a leader in IT or any other function, engage a vendor/partner/provider, you are doing what I like to refer to as "domesticating the wolf".  Have you ever tried to make a pet out of a wolf?  Almost no-one does and for good reason.  The wolf is interested in several things:
  • Getting fed
  • Establishing a hierarchy
  • Building territory
  • Fighting for leadership
There is really no way to tame a wolf.  It is genetically coded to act a certain way and you can only keep it contained - never change it.
It may be a bit odd to compare vendors and wolves, but there are some real similarities.  Just like dealing with a wolf, to get good results from a vendor you have to constantly and continually reward good performance (behavior) and dis-incent negative actions.  This involves giving negative feedback and occasionally entering into conflict.  Yet it is an absolutely integral part of getting the best results from the relationship.

Always remember that even the biggest service providers are still made up of individual persons, each of whom have different personalities and agendas.  No person brings their "A" game every single day.  In fact, the larger the provider the more likely that they are filling out their workforce by "secretly" hiring 3rd-party resources to work under their brand name.  Do you think that these large companies are closely managing and coaching their consulting resources or the people who spend all their time on the road creating billable hours?  The answer, if you didn't already figure it out, is no.  So that means the burden for ensuring the best possible daily performance from your vendors falls squarely to you.

There is a six sigma (6σ) maxim that describes the behavior of people when it comes to dealing with bad service or performance.  Basically it goes like this: For every one person that complains, 26 people are dissatisfied and don't say anything (but take their business elsewhere).  Translating that into the business environment, what happens is that managers become dissatisfied with their vendors and just fire them.  They don't really give feedback, they just stop doing business with them.  While this handles the problem related to dissatisfaction, it doesn't benefit the company in the long run.

Back to what I said before, vendors are not "companies" per se.  Vendors are groups of people.  When you fire the vendor that is an action more against specific people than it is a singular (emotionless) entity.  If you want to be really good at vendor management you have to start focusing on the people representing the vending company and not the company itself.

Managers who are truly excellent at vendor management are actually handling the relationships with the people who are the "face" of the entity.  When you see the vendor as a group of people rather than a black-box entity it allows you a great deal of flexibility to improve performance and ultimately the relationship.  But what does it mean to get better?

Develop and nurture the relationships with the people you are dealing with on a daily basis.  Give continual feedback - tangibly reward great performance and specifically call out bad performance.  Rather than an all or nothing proposition, actually train your vendors how to best serve you.  By realizing that they are human and will be both good and bad at times, you can get in the mindset of reinforcing in the vendor what you need by coaching and mentoring their people.

Of course, there are times when vendors do need to be fired.  Relationships do not always stay positive.  But make those people manifest to you that they are incapable of being what you want.  Often you will find that vendors you thought little of actually turn out to be pretty good when they know exactly how to serve you.

Vendor management, when done right, is hard work.  But it is work that always pays out handsomely in the end for both your organization and theirs.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

The CIO Recipe

Humankind has come up with a great way to pass on knowledge.  Since the majority of the world's population are conceptual/literal thinkers, we have made things simple.  Here are some examples:

  • You want to cook an apple pie - here is a recipe for that
  • You need to get somewhere in your car - put the address in your GPS
  • You want to get educated - depending on where you go there are very specific instructions
  • You want to get thinner - follow this diet plan and workout regimen
What all of those examples have in common is a set of instructions. If you want to achieve some type of goal, society and your predecessors have already laid down for you the knowledge on how to proceed.  That knowledge has been processed in such a way that you just have to follow instructions.  How well you follow those instructions will have an impact on your overall level of success but at least you know what needs to be done.

Career progression in the modern 1st world has followed a very similar path.  In general, corporations have defined the top jobs in their organizations.  Typically the structure looks like a pyramid where the top job is singular where the ones below it may have more than one supporting role.  Let's examine the top titles:
  • CEO
  • COO
  • CFO
  • President
  • EVP of Sales
  • EVP of HR; sometimes referred to as CHRO
  • GM
  • CMO (Chief Marketing Officer)
  • CAO (Chief Administrative Office or Chief Accounting Officer)
Oh yes, there is also the CIO position, but we'll return to that in a bit.

 In each of those roles the progression paths are very similar.  Let's pick COO as an example.  This position is all about running the operations of the company.  So to get to the top, start at a line position performing a function that is probably labor-related.  Work up through continuing levels of supervision, then management, until finally (with a little luck and patronage) you get a chance at the top role.  The important thing is to become very good at operations and continue that until you rise to the very top.

For each of the other roles the same holds fairly true.  Get very good at the particular discipline and keep learning more about it as you progress further into management.  If you don't believe what I'm saying, consider these questions. (For argument sake, consider the CXO to be great at his/her role)

  1. Can your CFO understand and manage accounting and finance at least as well as the lower-level managers in place?
  2. Could your COO oversee supply chain, manufacturing, or some other fragment of the whole Ops organization if necessary?
  3. Could your EVP of sales go out and close on a regular deal - by herself?
  4. Could the Chief Human Resources Officer hire candidates or manage benefits at least as well as the director or manager in charge?
Some of you may so "No" out of spite but if we're honest, the answer to all of those questions is "Yes!".

So what about the CIO role?  This is the only role where being really good at managing a function within IT is likely to stall your career at the director level.  Within IT, up to the director position, you have to be very good at the work in your area - infrastructure, apps, project mgt, data management, security. be a good CIO you have to change 180 degrees.  If you try to be a "technical CIO" who operates from within the technology of the organization, you will be accused of "not knowing the business" - that's bad.  Therefore to become a CIO you have to become all about talent management, relationship stewarding, and the art of being a masterful communicator.

What I am saying should now be sinking in.  In every other company function, if you want to reach the top, you just have to get better and better at your function and carry that forward with ever developing "executive presence".  In IT, if you want to come up through the ranks to reach the top spot you better be adaptable.  For those who can successfully navigate the change, a CIO coming from a technical background must completely swap out their "tool kit".

Needless to say, this task is exceedingly hard to accomplish.  It requires a level of awareness and capability not required in other company functions.  It demands extreme adaptability and emotional intelligence.  And if you have all of that but not a good mentor, you are still likely to be doomed.

Normally I would try to include a large amount of supporting data.  Not so this time.  Just look around you and see if you can put a percentage to the number of companies, including your own, that always look outside when searching for new or replacement CIOs.  They typically look at the line management of IT and see them as only technical practioners.

There is a way out of this paradox.  Besides having a strong and capable mentor, CIO aspirants need to have some way to get the training they need and which I mentioned above.  I'm not thinking about Harvard or Gartner-type CIO "academies".  I am referring to a program where CIOs who have made that transition create a structured way to inculcate the same skills in others who have the right "clay" to make successful CIOs.  I'm not yet sure what that would be called.  The term "CIO Ludus" just doesn't have a good ring to it.

New CIOs are not likely to develop "organically" through a career in the various disciplines of IT.  They must be taken and re-forged into a whole new type of entity.  It can be done, but it won't happen through the mechanisms of modern corporations.

(If you are an aspirant and want to discuss more, give me a shout)