Tuesday, 8 August 2017

The Four Pitfalls of Digital Transformations

Today is my first day at InfoTech Research Group! I have been hired to lead their Application Development and Portfolio Management research practice. Last week I had the opportunity to meet with the team and see them define their next research projects. I was impressed with the structured approach they took to analyze the topics and identify the  research content they will develop for InfoTech’s members.
Their interest in the subjects was delightful.
I am shocked every time people describe application delivery as a dry subject. While it can be a challenge to make the topics exciting, it is one that I have been fortunate to be up to according to my colleagues. However, one of my critics also accused me of getting people overexcited when change is so hard. Here is why; the organizations we work for spend billions on IT and application development.
If you’re not excited about better development, someone else will be.
Every one of the organizations I have worked with in the past few years is in the midst of an IT transformation. It might be Agile, Lean, Digital, DevOps, or something else, but the times they are a changing. There are many voices clamouring for our attention, usually offering a silver bullet for the ills of your IT organization. The drive for change is there, and you cannot allow yourself to be bored. Consider Digital Transformation.
If you are not part of one, you will be soon.
I have seen many organizations take one on without a common or complete understanding of what they have gotten into. That is not surprising. As Shahyan Khan found in his Ph.D. on the subject, few agree on what a digital transformation is. However, most agree that it is the primary challenge leaders face in organizations today. Khan also found that leadership literature is mostly silent on the subject of digital trends despite the profound effects they are having on our professional and personal lives. I have been fortunate to be at the intersection of these topics and seen approaches that have worked and failed. In my experience a Digital Transformation is one of the most complex changes organizations can undergo. Traps and pitfalls abound, and here are a few you must avoid at all costs.
Avoid Local Optimization in a Vacuum.
Sure, you can take your team Agile and start churning out working software every couple of weeks. This works for small software companies, why shouldn’t it work for you? If you spin up one cog in a large organization then the gears with gnashing teeth will grind it down because they are still working in the old way. DevOps is in part a response to the need for operational IT departments to react to more rapid development and deployment cycles. Even that is often not enough. One of the leaders I have worked with walked away a change I recommended that would significantly improve the efficiency of a part of his organization. While he saw the benefits of the change I proposed, he simply said, “We’re not ready yet.”  
Do Not Oversimplify.
Many consulting companies understand the need for broad solutions when you transform a large organization. Unfortunately their prescriptions are often, in the words of a colleague leading a transformation here in Toronto,  “An inch deep and a mile wide.” A Digital Transformation requires a deep understanding of the interactions in your organization. To be successful you need to change how multiple disciplines work and collaborate dramatically. Practitioners cannot just lob documents over the wall to your peers and hope for the best (and point fingers when they do not) any more.
Break Free from Tunnel Vision.
 The most common and glib comment I hear about digital transformations is that it is a culture change. Sure, and while never easy, culture change is only a piece of the jigsaw. Focus on culture at the expense of methods, tools, skills, policies, standards, education, politics, and more and you may well find that everyone is nicer, but they still do not get anything done. As I have written before, a holistic approach is required to drive success
Get Out of the Ivory Tower.
I once saw a well meaning PMO lead develop a new application development method based on industry best practices for her organization in isolation. Despite warnings the new method ran head long into the capabilities and current practices in the organization and stopped dead. No matter how good a practice is you cannot simply implement it and expect it to work. You need to understand the current way (or ways) of working in your organization in order to map out a path forward. Often you need to start with baby steps. While in principle Agile teams should be self organizing, most teams need to start with a standard process that is designed to work in their organization. They can begin to self organize once they understand how to work effectively in a new method.
If you have not started what are you waiting for?
While a Digital Transformation of your IT practice is not simple, it is urgent. Your competitors will (or have already) embraced new ways of working as a competitive advantage. Whatever your concerns, you are not alone. Everyone is struggling, often alone. It does not have to be that way. Help is a phone call away. 
What do you think?

Monday, 24 July 2017

Resign, But Don't Say Goodbye

In my time at Blueprint Software Systems I have had the opportunity to close millions of dollars in business. I led teams that delivered enterprise solutions to tens of thousands. Blueprint provided the opportunity to work with brilliant people at many of the Fortune 100. My colleagues and I laboured tirelessly to ensure that we were the little software company that could be a true partner to organizations a thousand times our size. All of these things and more made my recent decision to resign all the harder.
I have always found it hard time to say goodbye.
It is not finding the right words; they have always come easily. The decision to break up relationships built over years is what hurts. For my own part it feels as if I set a saw to my good right arm and said, “Now cut it off.” Intellectually I know it is not that drastic. It is easier than ever to stay in touch with the people I have worked with. Might Kieran Gobey and I have the chance to debate what Agile method will solve a top 10 world bank’s problem again? Could Rob Elwell and I gleefully exchange profanities as we struggle to shift thousands of people into new and unfamiliar ways of thinking and working once more? Will Jamie Creed and I defy thelimitations of remote working to jointly deliver a resounding success in the future? Maybe, but the odds are not in our favour.
You cannot set foot in the same river twice.
Over the past twenty years I have only been reunited with an old colleague at a new company once. Jim Roper joined me at Blueprint after we both worked at Mackenzie Investments. We may never get the chance again, and the record of our time together will be reduced to a few words in a blogpost. Is it any wonder saying goodbye is hard? That said, we should do things not because they are easy, but because they are hard. We also need to do hard things the right way.
Run to something, not from it.
Every job has its frustrations. There will be people you struggle to work with. You won’t get the promotion you hoped for. I once worked over a year to influence a change of course by my superior, only to have them replaced, and start over at square zero. If you leave because of these things you may very well find your new job is the same old job with the same old problems. It is better by far to stand up and try to change what is wrong where you are than run away from it. If you are going to move, your new position should not be a rejection of the old, but an embrace of the new.
Work hard until the last seconds on the clock run out.
Just because you have resigned does not mean your work is done. You will usually be there for at least a couple more weeks. Even if you put ribbons and bows on everything the day you hand in your resignation letter, you must find something else to do. I closed a six figure deal with my offer letter ready for signature, traveled to participate in annual planning after I resigned, and prepared presentations for Blueprint’s annual kickoff on my last day. Remember, remember, people remember how you finished, not how you started.
Be grateful for the opportunities you had.
Every position has opportunities, even if they were not the ones you expected. While sales of ideas and products has always been an aspect of the roles I have played, I never viewed myself as a salesman. When Claytie Moorman made commissioned sales a primary part of my job it was a challenge. She also provided the opportunity and support that allowed me to excel in it. I also appreciated the opportunity to work more closely with the sales team. Thanks to working closely with people such as Gary Jackiewicz, Chris Bunn, and Ken Kane I now have a far greater appreciation of what they do and the skill it takes to be successful influencing others. This is just one example. When you leave make sure you look back and let people know how they helped you grow. Your gratitude is the foundation for whatever relationship you will share in the years to come.
The relationships will be the only thing that lasts.
Companies come and go. Only 12% of the originalFortune 500 are still on the list. Jobs change. People move for a multitude of reasons. If you say good bye and walk away the time you spent will be gone. On the other hand, lay a strong foundation and keep in touch with the people who have touched you and it will have been worth every second.
What do you think?

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

Why Should Leaders Care About Ethics?

Last week I shared how the discussion of ethics and leadership has grown dramatically in recent years. Books like Simon Sinek’s Leaders Eat Last and Kouzes and Posner’s The Leadership Challenge are only examples of the many focused on ethics and values based leadership. The topic is also current in the scholarly dialogue, with a popularity that is converging on that of strategy. There is good reason. Values based leadership has a profound effect on the long term success of organizations, the people who work there, and their shareholders.
Certainly this should be reason enough to subscribe to a leadership ethic. However, there has been far less discussion of ethics from the perspective of the leadership of change. Browse the web and you will find guides and advice regarding how to make change a painless experience. However, if you have been on either side of the change management equation your response to the idea of painless change might be, “wouldn’t it be nice?”
Painless change flies in the face of how the human brain works. Neuroscientists David Rock and Jeffrey Schwartz identified that change triggers the pain centres in our brain almost ten years ago. However, business gurus like Warren Bennis have erroneously dismissed the neuroscience of leadership as only confirming things they have always known to be true.
So what? You may well ask. Deliberately inflicting pain has ethical ramifications that cannot be ignored. Indifference to the suffering of others has been described by Auschwitz survivor and Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel as worse than anger and hatred; it strips us of our humanity. The knowledge that change creates pain calls for compassionate leadership of change. Change managers will probably exclaim, "But compassion is one of the four C’s of change management!" They are right; neuroscience confirms the received wisdom. However, compassion is difficult; you can’t fake it. It requires a trusting relationship, authenticity, and genuine empathy. Research has identified compassion as foundational to successful transformational leadership in organizations as discussed two weeks ago. If it were easy would the cries for more compassionate leadership in our communities, governments, and organizations be so loud?
None of this is to say we should shy away from change. After all, nothing endures but change! It is essential to our survival and success. However, it seems unavoidable that compassion is not just a good practice; it is an ethical obligation for leaders who would create successful change.
What do you think?
Post Script
In another thread Dr. Eli Sopow asked me to expand on the argument that we experience change as pain. I was introduced to the concept by Rock and Schwartz's Strategy+Business article, "The Neuroscience of Leadership." The article draws together research into the commonality between social pain (e.g. separation anxiety) and physical pain, the functioning of primitive parts of the brain triggers the amygdala in the face of stimuli that do not meet expectations, and the exhausting effect of having to process novel information. Subsequent work has also identified a commonality in pain responses when people are faced with threats to personal meaning and experiences that defy expectations. the good news out of this last study is that while the brain experiences changes as pain responses, Tylenol acts to moderate that pain. Better change through chemistry anyone?

Tuesday, 7 October 2014

Is Leadership Really a Profession?

Readers were quick to agree that understanding leadership theory was important to the professional discipline of leadership after my last post. However, is leadership truly a profession? When I reviewed articles on the web the top posts were related to NeverWinter Nights, an online role-playing game! False positives from companies providing leadership and professional development services abounded. I could not identify a clear trend. In academia a different story appeared. Once false positives were accounted for, the discussion of leadership as a profession enjoyed as much discussion as transformational leadership for several years.
So, should we consider leadership a profession? Scholars such as Elena Antonacopoulo have argued that the combination of practice and ethics require us to consider leadership differently than we do today. On the other hand, Jeff Schmidt argued in his book Disciplined Minds that the way we develop professionals curbs their creativity, diversity of opinion, and leads to the resistance to change. Dave Snowden of Cognitive Edge argued that professional best practices and expert mindset is appropriate leadership practices in some circumstances, but not when navigating the complexity of human dynamics and change. There is also unsettling news related to how we develop leaders. MBA programs were found to have the highest levels of academic misconduct of all academic programs. When tested graduating MBAs were rated as less ethical than when they had started the program. While this was hardly a firm foundation for leadership, there has been some good news. There is an increasing focus on increased leadership training and ethics in many MBA programs. Students are more interested in ethically responsible work as well. However, the picture is not entirely rosy. Some business schools have opted out of the Aspen Institute’s ethical ranking of their programs. Business journals and papers have been challenging MBA schools to increase their emphasis on practical leadership, experience, and ethical decision makings skills. The scholarship bears this out; ethical leadership is as current and dynamic a topic as that of strategy and leadership.
It appears that there are both benefits and dangers to considering leadership a profession. Structured programs may limit a leader’s openness to change. While there have been improvements the argument remains; a greater emphasis on the development of practical leadership skills and the ability to make ethical decisions is still required in programs that develop leaders.
What do you think?

Tuesday, 30 September 2014

Who Cares About Leadership Scholarship Anyways?

My working title for this post was, “A Tale of Two Theories.” However, while discussing my recent posts with a colleague over lunch she asked, “Who really cares about the theories though?” It was a fair point. Theory can be esoteric and difficult to apply directly for the practicing leader. The popularity of “five things” posts on the web speaks to the interest in practical approaches to leadership. That said, the popular dialogue on the web also leans heavily on leadership theory as well. This brings me back to my tale of two theories, namely transformational and transactional leadership.
Transformational leadership, an inspirational, supportive, and individual approach has been identified as one of the most promising theories of leadership. It has been positively associated in numerous studies with exceptional performance, engagement, and retention in teams. It is almost always presented in relationship with transactional leadership, or a style based on exchanges of rewards and punishment based on performance. The two modes of leadership have an interdependent relationship. At the most basic level transformational leadership requires trusting relationships. Transactional leadership can help build that trust. It also reinforces the changes wrought by transformational leadership. Scholarship on these theories has increased significantly since the 2006 peak I previous identified. On the web there was a peak of interest in 2010. Since then popular discussion of these two theories has declined significantly.
A random sample of the popular discussion on these two theories revealed a problem. While many of the postings captured the nuanced relationship, some described an opposing relationship. Transformational leadership is good. Transactional leadership is bad. Misunderstandings such as these and the difference in the intensity in the popular and scholarly discussions highlights Harry Collins’ argument on expertise, namely that in order to be an expert you need to be engaged in the evolving dialogue of the discipline. Without the insight this provides it can be very challenging to discriminate between opinions and ideas in the popular dialogue.
So who should care about leadership scholarship? I believe as leaders we need to care. It allows us to make better decisions regarding how we will act and grow as leaders. Engineers, project managers, doctors, business analysts, and lawyers must keep their skills and knowledge current. Given that our decisions and actions as leaders affect so many should we expect anything different from ourselves?
What do you think?

Tuesday, 23 September 2014

Leadership on the Web: A Cautionary Tale

The irony of a post cautioning readers in regards to leadership writing on the web is not lost on me. That said, the decline I found in scholarly publication related to leadershiphas been accompanied by a erratic but increasing trend in web publications on leadership. There is more material on the web than scholarly sources by more than an order of magnitude. The 6.5 million pages from 2014 alone represent more than all of the scholarly articles ever published... Leadership lessons from Captain Kirk, Jimi Hendrix, and Scooby Doo anyone?
Amidst this deluge of information how is a leader to decide? Human nature inclines us to select material that tends to agree with what we already know. This is called confirmation bias, and in practice it tends to play out like the old saw of, “to a hammer every problem looks like a nail.” There is also still new leadership scholarship related to outmoded theories. As a result the complex nature of the academic discourse make it impossible for someone on the outside to judge what is currently viewed as viable as social scientist Harry Collins has recently argued. Anti-vaxvers, climate change deniers, and creationists are all symptoms of this problem. Polarized topics such as these are also easier to navigate than the dozens of current theories and topics related to leadership.
If you cannot trust everything you read in a scholarly journal what does that say with regards to the web? Every person you interact with may have a completely different idea of what constitutes good leadership. If that person is your boss what seems like an exciting new article on leadership to you may fall flat in the face of their beliefs. If you lead others they will likely respond differently to new ideas on leadership as well. Your own bias may also lead you to reject something you read as well.
So what is a leader to do? Given the complexity of the situation, an act of inquiry may be the only undeniable act of leadership. Reflect on what makes you agree or reject a post. See what the scholars say, and explore the responses of those you live and work with. Out of that dialogue a shared understanding of leadership can be developed. This not only opens the door to new material, it can also enable you to lead more effectively!
What do you think?

Tuesday, 16 September 2014

Leadership Scholarship: Finding the Focus

Since I wrote regarding the significant decrease in scholarly leadership articles since 2006 some interesting possibilities arose in the feedback. While the expansion of the grey literature, web publication, and self publication are indeed on the rise, evidence that they are the smoking gun is not apparent.
With one exception articles related to the theories identified in Avolio, and Walumbwa, and Weber’s 2009 survey, “Leadership: Current Theories, Research, and Future Directions” increased significantly. While publication related to global leadership peaked in 2012, as a whole these topics have expanded by an order of magnitude from 2% in 2006 to 20% today. When the hot topics of the neuroscience and gender were included the portion rose to 30%. Clearly there is an increase in the focus of scholarly attention on these topics.
A random sample of the articles being considered did not reveal any victims of this focus that may have resulted in the decline. However, the question of strategy wove its way through them all. Strategy recurred so frequently it was impossible to analyze it as a distinct category. This led me to consider it as an overarching theme. My expectation was that articles related to strategy and leadership would show the same increasing trend, and the decline in scholarly publication would remain a mystery.
I could not have been more wrong! In 2006 over 120,000 articles were published representing 35% of the total publications. The surprise was that articles related to strategy had dropped approximately 80,000 articles! There was 25% of the overall decrease in one place! However, a closer look revealed that while the total may have dropped, the question of strategy appears in over 60% of the scholarly leadership articles published. So while there is a significant decrease in numbers, it is clear that the question of strategy lies in the focus of the lion’s share of scholarly publication.
Considering the data holistically it seems reasonable to argue that the increase in attention on these theories is related to their role in enabling strategy. Upon reflection this seems appropriate. What is our purpose as leaders if it is not to define a vision of a better future, and engage others in a strategy that will achieve it?
What do you think?

The Four Pitfalls of Digital Transformations

Today is my first day at InfoTech Research Group!   I have been hired to lead their Application Development and Portfolio Management rese...