Monday, November 4, 2013

Cassandra's Curse

While this is a post about, ultimately, managing morale within an IT organization, let's start with a little history.  Forgive me if I throw in a little mysticism, magic, and lore.

Almost everyone in the world that has a high school (or equivalent) education knows at least a little about the Trojan War.  After 3000 years it still holds enough interest and popularity that Brad Pitt, Eric Bana, Diane Kruger, and a whole other bunch of stars made a movie called "Troy" about 10 years ago.  Even Kobe Bryant knows a little about the subject, having torn his Achilles' heel ligament in the 2013 NBA playoffs. 

King Priam was the monarch of Troy and had many children.  We know about Hector, Paris (he stole Helen), and even Aeneas, who the Roman author Virgil credits with being the founder of Rome.  What many people don't know or have just vague details about was his daughter Cassandra (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cassandra).  As a princess of Troy, she was famed for many things including being almost as beautiful as Helen herself.  (Move over Scarlett Johansson)  But perhaps the most interesting and famous attribute of Cassandra was her prescience.  She was a prophet, imbued by Apollo, who could see the future with absolute clarity.  Sounds great, right?  The problem was that absolutely no-one would believe her.  She predicted the theft of Helen, the death of Hector and Priam, the purpose of the Trojan Horse, and her own capture/enslavement/death at the hands of Agamemnon.  Cassandra was the one person who could see everything and could have prevented the fall and destruction of the Trojan empire.  But absolutely nobody would ever take a single word she said seriously.  Is it any wonder that she always bordered on the edge of insanity?

So how does this relate to the world of IT?  Let's take a broad look at the whole function.  As a function, an IT group can and does see what happens in every single part of a company.  This is true from the smallest to the largest of entities.  As a matter of fact, it is required that IT has this purview because in this century all company/corporate functions are facilitated by technology.  Since IT is a service provider it is involved, intricately, in each business unit because the technology used by each area must continually function in order for business continuity.  That doesn't mean that IT knows the "secrets" of these areas but it doesn't need that information to be aware of what is happening at any given moment.  Additionally, unlike other parts of a company/corporation, IT can see the interrelations of each business unit, one upon another.  That is because people in IT can see how business processes move through the company's unit from start to finish.

Given what I've said, one should (or could) assume that IT staff and leaders are called up to collaborate deeply on strategic issues.  Right?  After all, that makes perfect sense because IT personnel are uniquely positioned to comment on the strategic ramifications of a given action plan.  From the purview of IT, these people will see the whole-company effects of a strategy. Yet, despite all of that, most IT leaders and talented staffers, if asked, would say that they are rarely (if ever) consulted on strategy.  The default approach to involving IT in strategic discussions, with a few exceptions, is treat them like a homeowner would treat a plumber.  When there is a leak, bring 'em in fast to fix the problem.  After the issue is resolved, put them back from where they came.

I am not exactly sure why things have developed this way in business.  But I see the ramifications.  Recently my friends at Computerworld shared the results of a survey they conducted on IT employees across a range of businesses.  One salient question that they asked:  "Do you aspire to be the CIO someday?"  The answer range came back - 32% Yes; 55% No; 13% Not Sure.  More and more IT people, especially younger managers, are beginning to see that IT careers do not lead to the top of companies.  The payoff, more and more, is that IT people are in demand, but as practitioners, not strategists.  Practitioners can make a lot of money but tend to be quite transient.  Several months back I wrote a blog about this called "Why IT Will Outsource Itself in 20 Years".  Practitioners of IT will always find work but, like law firms, their roles will be to deal with discrete problems, not ones in the abstract.

This brings us to the final point of this post.  From what I've said, how do you keep up morale within an IT organization when you're trying to grow strategic capabilities within people who are valued for their tactical execution?  First, contrary to the "institutionalized" model of management that calls for hierarchy, become an "organic" manager.  Especially as a CIO, spend a great deal of time on a personal basis with your staff.  That means inside of work, not outside.  Be prepared to over communicate and show emotion so that you can be viewed as a real person, more than just a title that resides higher on the org chart. 

The benefit to getting closer to your staff is that they will respond with greater loyalty, performance, and commitment.  The last quality is incredibly important in these days where IT tenure can be measured in months rather than years.  When the company/corporation does not nurture the strategic side of your team, that role falls to you.  With the right care and attention, you can still put the strategic capabilities of your team to use for your firm.  And by listening, unlike poor Cassandra you can help them keep their sanity.  When your team is "sane", you get the chance to build long-term, high performing teams.  We can all see the benefit in that.

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