Friday, September 28, 2012

Play Your Subs (if you want to win)

Most people like to watch professional sports.  Just what that sport might be is highly dependent upon where a person lives.  If you're a sports lover in Latin America you would likely follow baseball or soccer (futbol).  In Ireland you might like either "curling" or "hurling".  Here in the United States, more specifically in Texas, Football is king.

At the professional level on an American football team there are generally 53 players.  Each one of these players is a specialist, playing either offense or defense.  Yes, there is some crossover on special teams (kickoffs, punts) but everyone has a role.  But even more specifically, every person on the team's roster actually plays.  Even the backup quarterback gets on the field as a holder on field goal attempts.  The management of these football teams look at hundreds of players before finalizing their 53 person roster.  They have to because the game is so violent and unpredictable that the chances are high that someone will get injured.  When that happens, other people have to step onto the field and produce at a high level.  If they can't, a loss is almost a certain proposition.

Let's shift from the professional level down to what we call "pee wee" football.  I have a seven year old son, soon to be eight, who is just this year beginning tackle football.  It's really cute to see these little men go out to learn the fundamentals of the game and actually play in real games.  I've coached in the past but now sit on the sidelines and observe everything as it unfolds.  As you might expect if you've read my previous posts, I definitely have my ideas on how the coaches should run things.  I might have even said something to them on how they could improve but I won't openly admit to that because it's against the "Parent's Code of Conduct"...

One of the most striking things to me about watching player rotations in Pee Wee football is that they are very similar to employee rotations that I find in poorly run organizations.  On my son's team they have about 15 players, only 11 of which can be on the field at any given time.  Game after game now I see a trend where the same 11 or 12 players on the field for both offense and defense for the whole game.  From a win/loss perspective I can't argue about the results because the team is undefeated.  But since I don't have to worry about coaching each play, I have been watching what is happening on the sideline with the kids who see very little playing time.  Can you guess what I see with them?  It's almost the same dynamic in every game.  The kids are excited for the game and can't wait to play.  Yet, as the game wears on the kids on the sideline become less and less engaged in what is happening on the field  After several quarters of no action their helmets come off and they hang out by the water cooler doing what 7-8 year old boys do - "horsing" around, squirting water at each other, and basically doing everything but watching the game.

Inevitably one of the 11-12 active players gets too tired or injured to play and has to come off the field.  One of the coaches then tromps over to sideline to get one of the iced kids (getting iced is a term for players who practice but never get on the field).  A lot of screaming and shouting ensues because the kids who have been ignored are not ready to go in and have to be assisted in getting their shoes tied, helmet back on, etc.  And so how do you think they perform on the field?  There are occasional flashes of excellence, but for the most part they don't do very well.  They are not in sync with the game, don't know the score, are confused, and make a lot of mistakes.  Of course, more yelling from the coaches ensues, but where does the fault lie?  Is it with the clueless player on the field or with the coaches for not keeping the whole team engaged in the game from the very start?  You know the answer.

So how does this tie into a lesson we can all take to heart as leaders?  It's simple.  When you have an organization, whether it's a single team, department, or division, you need very capable, engaged employees at all levels and positions.  Time after time in poorly performing organizations I see that they have one or two superstars and then just a bunch of other people who hang out, put in their time, and don't do much.   That's a really great gig for the superstars because they are constantly told how great they are, critical to the company, and "...how we just can't live without you."  There is a fallacy in all of this that most people recognize but do not want to admit.  It comes in the form of the axiom - "Nobody is irreplaceable".  Just like the first string football players, there *will* come a time when the superstar is not available.  Maybe they are on vacation, sick, or decide to move on.  If, as a leader, you have not invested your time in the organization as a whole you will immediately find yourself in trouble.  Yes, you'll likely have bodies to throw at problems but their skill sets and personal buy-in to perform will be so low that your organizational ability to function will be greatly impaired.

How do you stay out of this trap?  First, select people to be on your team that not only can perform but will clamor for "playing time".  Second, do not allow people to rise to the level of superstar in a way that excludes other members of your organization.  Sure, you can stratify your talent into different tiers - A, B, C and so on.  Just make sure that you have a good rotation in play.  Even if you have to allow people to make mistakes, it is wise and it is your job to ensure that anyone you have on staff can move your organization forward.

Just like professional football teams, you have to always work on the assumption that everyone on your team (organization) is going to have to get on the field at some point.  If you want to be a winner in business and leadership, play your subs.  At the very least, you won't have single points of failure.  At best, you'll have a team that can generate value from any position and any level.

Monday, September 17, 2012

The Carpenter or the Saw?

In this era where more of us do work with our minds and not our hands, we often hire others to do craft work for us.  If the sink breaks we call a plumber; tall grass merits a call to the landscaper; oil changes lead us to Jiffy Lube.  We use lots of different ways to pick the best service providers: Yelp!, word of mouth, Google searches/reviews, or advice from our friends.  In almost every case we choose providers based upon the results that they have delivered to others.  But do we ever ask the plumber what type of wrench he uses or the landscaping company what type of mowers they use?  Probably not. In fact, I don't think I've ever disqualified someone from working on my lawn because they use Toro mowers instead of Craftsman or John Deere machines.  The fact is that I don't care if my landscaper uses hand scissors just as long as the results are there and the price is fair.

All of what I've said about service selection seems pretty rational so far, right?  Well, I can guarantee that the same logic does not hold true when people calculate their worth in the realm of information technology.  Depending on your perspective and whether you have been inside or outside of IT during your career, you may either understand exactly what I'm talking about or not have a clue.  Let me explain further.

Within IT, many people identify themselves very closely with the tools that they use.  People who program for a living usually self segregate themselves by a tool or grouping of tools.  So you don't just hire programmers, you hire a(n) .Net/Java/SQL/J2EE/Cobol/etc. programmer.  You don't hire a plain database administrator, you (usually) hire someone with a specialty in either Microsoft SQL, Oracle, or DB2.  When it comes to ERP analysts, it *really* becomes complicated.  People in that line of work are specialists in one of more than a dozen different environments.  A subset of the plethora of choices includes:  SAP, Oracle, JD Edwards, Microsoft, Epicor, Baan, etc., etc. 

To be fair, there are a few reasons why people might want to specialize in a particular tool.  With a strong skill in a "hot" application, a person acting as a consultant can ask for and receive big money.  But it makes much less sense for someone building a career inside of a company IT division to strive for specialization.  Sure, getting better at using a tool (application, language, etc.) to solve business problems will help someone advance in rank, pay, and prestige.  But many, many people in IT tie their whole identity, sense of worth, and job security to just one or a small subset of tools.  In other words, they perceive that if that tool is no longer important to the company or in active production, everything up to and including their jobs are at stake.  I've seen this play out too often in too many places to believe that this belief system is not somehow embedded within the psyche of IT cultures everywhere.

As a CIO and senior leader, what I try to reinforce time and again is that successful IT groups are not tool specialists with a narrow scope.  They are problem solvers who are called on to support companies with ambiguous problems, needs, and circumstances.  I encourage people to see themselves not as saws but as the people that wield them - the carpenters. 

If you are reading this blog and still doubt where and how you provide value, please consider this thought.  Like people, companies change and evolve.  Sometimes the change is quick, other times it only creeps along.  Your greatest asset will always be in your understanding of the company and how you can position yourself as a problem solver.  Remember - unless you're a hired gun (consultant), the tool is just a means to the end.