Friday, August 31, 2012

One Bad Raspberry

During the big oatmeal craze that started back in 1988 I made the decision to include that whole grain in my diet.  Back then I planned to live forever and still do, in fact.  Being much younger and with a less developed palette I started eating it raw right out of the Quaker container.  I was able to keep that up for about a month before reaching a point where just the thought of oatmeal would make me gag. 

Fast forward to 2002 - I decided again that I would pick up the habit.  By then I was married, luckily to someone with gourmet tastes and the skills to back it up in the kitchen.  We planned to eat a bowl of oatmeal three times a week for breakfast.  Our experiments in toppings included white sugar (too sweet), brown sugar (too boring), and bananas (too carb-y).  Finally my wife came up with a brilliant solution.  She figured out that if she used a three-fruit combination of blueberries, raspberries, and strawberries with a little Splenda thrown in, the dish would never get tiresome.  And here we are, ten years later and still putting down the oatmeal three times a week, 52 weeks per year.

It's obvious by now that we are not going to talk about technology in this post.  Like finding the best combination of ingredients for a dish, putting together an effective team requires a lot of skill, patience, and effort. It's not always about having the best tools or equipment when it comes to having a highly effective IT organization.  As it always does, the "secret ingredient" of every great organization is having great people.  And it's not just about having great people, it is also about making sure that they work well together and that you can keep them. 

Superior performing organizations have many characteristics including diversity of talent.  Think of it this way: Michael Jordan is arguably the greatest basketball player of all time.  So naturally if you put five identical MJ's on the court as one team they would also be the greatest team of all time, right?  Wrong.  Basketball and IT organizations both need role players.  On the court a team needs tall centers, short point guards, deadly shooters, and ferocious rebounders.  In IT you need highly technical network admins, business savvy analysts, introverted (but talented) DBAs, friendly support technicians, etc.  Maintaining just the right mix of differing talent is a delicate but highly necessary juggling act.

Recruiting talent is a very difficult and time consuming task.  If it wasn't, there would be no such thing as a staffing agency - whether it be a small, local shop or a gold-plated international recruiting machine like Korn/Ferry.  Therefore, once you have put your great team together it becomes paramount to keep it in place.  If you don't, failure is just around the corner.  That failure will come packaged in many forms.  Sometimes it will be obvious in terms of major system outages that cannot be quickly remediated.  Other times it will manifest in the inability to rise to a new challenge that could greatly support the company's business strategies.  Or, as in many instances, you will be unable to establish a consistent, winning culture because the players keep changing (through attrition).

The format for this blog doesn't allow for me to cover all the areas that, as a leader, you need to keep track of in order to maintain your high performing team.  Instead, I'll focus on just one thing that can really help you be successful.  I want to relate this one thing back to my little story about oatmeal.  Part of what I like so much about the oatmeal we eat at home is the fresh fruit. There is just something magical about opening a small carton of fresh raspberries.  Seeing the ripeness of each berry, the juice just waiting to burst out, and the feeling of eating "pure-ness" when I pop one in my mouth is just wonderful.  This all comes with a catch.  Raspberries are usually the first fruit to go bad in our refrigerator.  I have to look at each berry carefully because mold in a whole carton inevitably starts in a singular berry.  Unlike cheese where the whole thing gets moldy at the same time, with raspberries the mold starts as just one small dot on one berry.  If I catch that berry quickly, I can remove it and the rest of the raspberries will be fine for another day or two.  If I don't pull that raspberry immediately, the whole carton will go bad in about another 12 hours.

Like cartons of raspberries, organizations of people can get moldy too.  Remember, we're all humans with feelings and emotions.  Just like raspberries, people will become disaffected or "moldy" from time to time.  I'm not referring to people having a bad day or occasionally getting into a funk.  I'm talking about people who become chronic complainers, malicious gossipers, start feeling entitled, or just "check out" mentally.  Another type of "mold" that I look out for are people who sabotage the work of others, yell/scream and generally treat others with disrespect.  Many times these behaviors start with just one person.  Ironically, it starts as much at the upper levels of an organization as it does at the lower end.

As a leader, you have to keep inspecting all of the people in your organization just like you might look at raspberries in a carton.  You must have the courage to remove these types of people quickly.  If you don't, your whole organization will most certainly begin to take on the same characteristics, just like mold running rampant through a full carton of berries.

Effective leadership of a sustained high performing group means acknowledging that sometimes people no longer fit on your team - whether by choice or circumstance - and that your continued success depends on having a willingness to be quick and decisive when that happens.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Technology, Billionaires, and "Trust"

In the United States and throughout the world, certain family names have become synonymous with power and wealth.  In North America when we talk about rich people we often discuss people such as the Rockefellers, Waltons, Carnegies, even those new to the scene like Mark Zuckerberg.  Because they live in huge mansions, drive fast cars, and travel the world in private jets we believe them to be rich.  But the truth is that if we looked at how much money each one of these individuals had that was theirs personally, the picture might look astonishing.

The true secret of being wealthy is not in "owning" money but in "controlling" money.  Long ago, the families who are rich today had wise ancestors who set up living trusts.  You see, they knew that individually they would grow old and die as would their children, grandchildren, etc.  They also knew that the tax laws of most 1st world nations make it very difficult to pass wealth on from one generation to another.  So these wise people came to understand the value of control versus ownership.

(The concept is not really that much different than a car today.  If you buy a car, whether it is a purchase or a lease, the odds are highly in favor of you not owning that vehicle forever.  So in essence you are merely paying for the right to control it and not for the privilege of owning it.  You have great latitude over how the car is used but another entity, usually the bank, owns it.)

Rich people who want to maintain their wealth for future generations set up trusts of various formats.  Their descendents can control the funds to a certain extent but are usually not personally wealthy.

So how does this translate into technology?  Many IT and business leaders today believe that they must own all of the software and hardware that is used by their company/corporation.  These leaders feel that they must be able to see, touch, or otherwise be able to physically interact with the investments they make.  But that is a mistake that would be similar to having Mark Zuckerberg convert all of his stock in Facebook into cash so that he can stuff it in his wallet/socks/pockets/pants/car(s)/house(s).  (Face it, that would be a LOT of cash)

The whole and singular purpose of IT is to deliver solutions that aid a business entity in being profitable.  There are almost no examples where IT is a net revenue addition to a business.  So given that IT is always an investment center, we should all examine our thinking.  Is our goal to buy servers, laptops, and provision data centers so that we can run our software and plants while keeping our mobile salespeople well informed?  Or is our goal to find ways to give our fellow employees the tools they need wherever and whenever they want them?

Think about what I've said the next time you evaluate your PC and server refresh policy.  If you're going to implement an ERP system, do you really need to run the applications out of your own data center?  Lest we get too old in our ways of thinking, we should ask ourselves if we really need to "own" the infrastructure that serves our customers.  The answer is probably the same about the freeway that you commute on every day.  You don't own that pavement any more than I do, but it serves you day in and out, getting you to where you need to be.

Jump on Google and look up things like "VDI", "XenDesktop", "Rackspace", "Office 365", and "Amazon EC2".  Better service at 1/5th the cost makes for a long career in IT leadership.

I don't know about you but I would rather control $10 million dollars than own $5 million...

Friday, August 3, 2012

Time is Love

Many of you are probably wondering why I would title a blog, "Time is Love".  I heard it on the radio the other day when I was trying to get a little closer to my country (music) roots.  While I can't remember the specific lyrics, the title really stuck with me. 

There are many things in life that we hold as precious.  To some it's money, others titles - essentially take your pick.  But I can name one thing, echoed by the song, that is finite for everyone: time.  Each of us is born with only a finite amount of minutes in our time bank.  No matter what you do, the clock is always ticking.  Oh, by all means exercise, eat right, drink lots of water and take your vitamins.  Those things will make you healthy but won't add a single second to your life.  They may prevent you from losing time but won't give you any new net "tiempo".

So what does all of this have to do with IT or even business?  The answer is obvious.  Everybody has more to do each day than time to get it done.  Some of you are going to argue that you truly have nothing to do at all but that's just denial (Slackers!).  With this in mind the greatest advances in science over the past 20 years have been in areas of information technology.  Yes, automation is a subset of IT.  The worker of today, at least in the 1st world, is several orders of magnitude more productive than a worker of the 1960s, 70s, or 80s.  The answer as to "why" this is the case can be found in the proliferation of technology.  In 1990, no-one really had a cell phone, let alone a laptop.  Now every part of our lives is automated in some way.  We simply rely a lot more on technology to take away the drudgery of letter writing, copying, exchanging quotes & invoices, even driving.

The challenge to us as IT leaders is to begin to get granular on how we select tools and match them to strategic company direction.  Here are some questions that we should always ask ourselves:
  • In 2012 and forward, are we looking to shave hours, minutes, or seconds off business process execution with the technology we are dispensing?  In other words, does a cool new laptop that weighs 2lbs and takes 75 seconds to boot up help a salesperson close a deal more effectively than a tablet that powers up instantly?
  • Should I undertake a project that takes six months to deliver when business strategy varies by quarter?
  • Does my technology environment allow my customers (the old term is "users") to work when and where they are or am I forcing them to be slaved to the office?
  • Can I envision the future of IT as a collection of services or am I locked into a need to own/touch/see everything?  (Every piece of hardware you own requires, like a caged lion, time and attention in order to function.
    • Could I actually learn to be comfortable when/if I never physically interacted with hardware at all?
The list of questions could be tuned in innumerable ways depending upon the people and situation.  But the point I'm making is that we must be Great, not just "Good" (thanks Jim Collins). The way we accomplish that is to give back our customers every single second of time we can, every day and in every way.  Rather than being afraid of virtualization, mobility, and end-user empowerment try embracing each concept.  Of course we must be mindful of dollars, people, strategy, and the like.  But Time truly is Love. 

If you want to be loved by your customers, give them back their time.  They'll love you for it.