Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Building the Nimble Team - Retaining Talent

Over the years, we noticed a pattern where really talented, early career hires achieved success in the first 1 to 3 years, and then failed to thrive. It happened probably with less than 10% of hires in that category, but those staff members represented new skills, fresh perspective, and diversity of thinking.   It was not what we wanted to see; we want to retain new hires.  We have been thinking about this challenge and working to improve.

We generally notice the issue with the first technical or project transition. The individual will not successfully navigate to the next project or the next technical knowledge base. This is critical, because a technical career will require the ability to change directions many times over the life of the career. I noticed this blog presenting more of the perspective of the person who didn't succeed. There are perspectives specific to the Microsoft situation, but there are some general pieces I'd like to note.

The author, Ellen Chisa, is very frank about her experience.  She describes that she "put a lot of pressure" on herself to do well. She wanted to be excellent. The problem I see, from my very ancient perspective, is that this excellence demand totally existed in her own head. She didn't take in any information from other people about what excellent was, or even if excellence was something that management wanted to bestow on other people. A big red flag statement to me: "It's strange to feel like you're failing even when you're promoted." So the organization values you, gives you a promotion, but you cannot take in and absorb that success.

Note that she describes a "plummet" that starts when "it was time to move on to something else." She had to learn new things but "For some reason, that didn't happen."  This is the situation we've encountered as managers in our own organization.   As leaders, we need to learn to recognize it early and help people make transitions.

There are actions we should recognize.  A person who expresses fear that they are not succeeding, and does so periodically, even though the supervisor feels that the person is successful and the team respects the person's contributions. A person who becomes emotionally undone at their first failure should be a red-flag. A person who has been successful in their job, but with a change - a technology upgrade, a new project - is suddenly having problems. A person who has trouble starting on a new task. There are different types of initiative. You may see someone who can demonstrate initiative and self-start with something that they are familiar with, but become totally frozen when it is something new.

If you observe those changes, there are definite things we can do.  For one, we can emphasize values along with success and recognize those values in failure.  For example, one value is learning.  We can celebrate what we learned from failed projects.  Thomas Edison once said "I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work." If we want to encourage staff members to experiment and learn, leaders need to identify what we learned. Discovering what path not to take is very important to long term success. When an employee starts expressing concerns about failing, start emphasizing conversations about what has been learned so far in the effort and how the organization will benefit from that learning.

When an employee expresses the "feeling of failing" even when the employee is meeting all standards of success, we have more personal discussions.  I've found it useful to discuss the unique contributions the individual made to the organization, and how those contributions link to bigger goals and initiatives. This isn't one conversation, in my experience, but a way of working with that individual over time.  It helps to thank the employee for his or her contribution in very specific messages.

The book Leading Geeks has other suggestions. Author Paul Glen describes characteristics of information technology work.  He suggests that failure is normal, ambiguity rules, and figuring out what to do can be harder than doing it.  Those early in their career can struggle with these ideas.  After spending time in the classroom, I have some sense of why.  In class, students are often given a defined project to complete in 15 weeks.  If they follow the defined path, they will complete the project successfully, some with more success than others.  Then they come to work and we cannot tell them where to start or what done looks like on many projects.  We have to discover the path and conclusion in a way that we do not in a classroom setting.  There has to be some comfort in just diving in, and finding out two weeks later that there was a better starting point.  If we find a staff member showing signs of inability to start, it helps to pull up a chair and dive in together.

Leaders building nimble organizations need to identify people having these difficulties as early as possible so everything can be done to help and retain that employee.  I think important responses are to talk about all values, including learning and contribution, not just the value of completion success. Also, monitor inexperienced employees as they go through their first transition, whether it is a new technology, a major upgrade, a new project, or a new team assignment.  Talk about their responses to change.  When an employee is demonstrating what looks like a lack of initiative, pull up a chair and question details while getting hands on the keyboard or some similar engaged activity.  Have sincere conversations about contributions and values.  I've found these actions to help.  Please share any ideas you have.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Anchor or Wings?

Is your strategic plan an anchor or a set of wings?  This is a very important question for CIOs to consider if they are trying to be nimble, agile, and responsive to organizational change.

An anchor drags you down, locks you in place, and keeps you from drifting away.  This may be a good thing if your IT team feels overrun by requests, coming from all directions.  After all, our organizations cannot be all things to all people at a moment's notice.  A strategic plan that has broad organizational support can sift out the high priority projects.  A strategic plan provides focus.

But strategic plans are often another dot on a trend line of known items. If you created a five year IT strategic plan in 2009 and are just finishing that plan, your original plan probably did not address the impact of:
  • iPads, introduced in April, 2010
  • Server virtualization (major players introduced products in 2009-2010)
  • Educational model changes like flipped classrooms and MOOCs
That kind of long term planning had its place in the past, but it does not work in today's high speed change environment.  Our educational environments, and specifically our supporting IT organizations, are not in a position to reject game-changers like iPads or flipped classrooms.  Instead, we need to embrace change.

Black swan events, those unpredictable events that change our world, happen. If you hold firm to the multi-year strategic plan in order to control demands on your organization and provide resource alignment, you can become out of touch with technology directions, and miss opportunities to be nimble.
In his book The Black Swan, Nassim Taleb describes black swan events as having three principal characteristics:
  1. The events are truly unpredictable.
  1. Massive impact occurs from these events.
  1. In hindsight, we use trends, narratives, and history to make the randomness of events appear more predictable.
Taleb describes the "triplet of opacity" (p. 8):
  • "the illusion of understanding, or how everyone thinks he knows what is going on in a world that is more complicated (or random) than they realize;
  • the retrospective distortion, or how we can assess matters only after the fact....;
  • the overvaluation of factual information and the handicap of authoritative and learned people..."
We may get pulled into thinking that if we truly follow and better track the trends, and we plan more effectively, our IT organizations can feel less yanked around, less like a flag blowing in a strong wind. We can become enamored and protective of the plan, and closed to the idea of making changes along the way.

But perhaps instead, we should embrace that strong change wind and stop seeking an anchor.  Sailors constantly adjust their sails to changing wind directions and conditions.  Or let's think about the balance of forces needed for flight:  drag, gravity, thrust, and lift.  We just cannot be nimble if we only think about drag and gravity with our strategic plans.  We need to build in the balancing forces of thrust and lift.  We need to make sure that using a strategic plan as a project gate-keeper does not stop us from embracing exciting change.  In a recent NYT article Management Be Nimble, Adam Bryant identified six organizational drivers that are commonly described in cultures emphasizing innovation.  The first item was to create a "simple plan":  "One of a leader’s most important roles is to boil down an organization’s many priorities and strategies into a simple plan, so that employees can remember it, internalize it and act on it. With clear goals and metrics, everyone can pull in the same direction, knowing how their work contributes to those goals."  

Perhaps, then, it is our ability to lead through synthesizing ideas and breaking down complex plans. Those actions give us the thrust and lift needed to be nimble.  We need to be willing to change plans and directions, and do so quickly.  On our campus, we are experimenting with an evergreen three-year technology plan.  We will always be in year one of a three year plan; we will have the flexibility each year to visit our issues.  We see this working more like New Media Consortium's Horizon Report.  We will have to work to build ongoing technology connectedness, making sure projects come to completion, but we need to make sure we balance with action and lift - those things that provide a quick change in direction.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Sensitivity as an Organizational Resource

When reviewing articles about organizational nimbleness and agility, two factors that consistently emerge as positive response mechanisms are:
  • quick response to strategic opportunities, and 
  • integrating the customer voice.  
That means as CIO leaders, we need to develop staff members who recognize, inform on, and utilize strategic opportunities.  We need to identify and encourage staff members who discover and listen to the customer voice.  The most valuable team members are those who can see opportunities, hear what our constituents want, and connect the dots to build organizations that are ready to contribute to achieving university goals.  I call this ability "professional sensitivity."

The definition of sensitivity includes things like "an awareness and understanding of the feelings of other people" and "the capacity of an organ or organism to respond to stimulation."   Another reference suggest a definition of "readily or excessively affected by external agencies or influences."   These attributes can be a positive resource in an organization.  Teams that are sensitive to the feelings of people using technology are often more service oriented; we know, for example, that an important skill for service desk staff is empathy for the caller.  IT staff members that recognize new external trends early and quickly, like the impact of iPad introduction in educational environments, are more successful contributors.  If we combine the concepts of professional empathy, responding to stimulation, and readily affected by external agencies, we can see that this professional sensitivity is a positive asset in an IT organization.  An IT organization that is going to be agile in supporting the university must demonstrate professional sensitivity.

I'm sorry to use the phrase, but have you worked with someone with a reputation for being a workplace zombie?  Someone who just goes through the day and doesn't seem to know what is going on around them?  They may be able to contribute technically, but they are so unaware of what is going on around them that you have to constantly connect dots and describe rationale.  What they produce might work technically, but you find yourself asking "why in the world did you do it that way?" because the solution doesn't connect.  They make suggestions that seem out of touch with current workplace reality. 

To make sure we develop staff that demonstrate professional sensitivity, we can focus on three areas of skill development:  analytics, awareness, and negotiation.

Educause describes analytics as the tools, techniques, and solutions "used in a higher education environment to analyze various collected data points to gain insight and make informed decisions about complex issues." Educause presents a lot of material to support organizational development of an analytics culture.  For IT organizations, we can look at meaningful data collection within our organizations.  Also, participation in national surveys such the Educause Core Data Service survey and The Campus Computing Project survey, is important.  Encouraging staff members to analyze and comparing results of those surveys to their own environment is important.  Time is needed to develop skills that recognize data patterns and trends, and such analysis is often improved by group review and discussion. IT organizations that are fully analyzing and utilizing trends are better prepared to jump on new IT projects in effective and positive ways.

Awareness is observing what is happening around you; it seems so obvious.  But are all your IT staff reading a variety of news sources?  Are they participating in communities?  I remember having a staff member who was really struggling in producing quality work.  The work was done, but it didn't meet requirements.  I finally asked the staff member to write a self-evaluation describing each step he had taken; I was stunned when I read it.  The entire self-analysis was "I thought about this, then I did that, then I tested this."  In the entire self-analysis, there wasn't a single point when the employee had involved anything or anyone else outside himself.  There was no source of diversity of thought, including no involvement of the diverse backgrounds of fellow team members. Strong awareness skills develop when staff members can take those external sources and recognize patterns.  A good example of awareness that I've written about before is Bill Cunningham and his On the Street series in the New York Times. Intense observation adds greater perspective to analytics and trend analysis; observation and awareness can be current and forward-looking, while anaytics, with its data focus, can be looking backward and using a trend line.  A trend line would not have told us about the iPad impact, but observation and awareness does inform us.

Finally, professional sensitivity requires strong negotiation skills.  Negotiation skills involve empathy and a strong appreciation for another person's position.  We need to navigate decision processes by finding paths that allow everyone to win.  By being empathic, and finding win-win scenarios, we avoid wasting time on unimportant details and disagreements over direction.  This allows us to be nimble, moving in positive directions with speed.  Negotiation requires that we are successful in persuading others to appreciate our position as well.  An interesting recent article talks about how we need to think about our persuasion skills, for example, "When trying to persuade, a study says, stop at three claims." (The Power of Three)

Developing professional sensitivity as an organizational resource, something that we bring forward and utilize in projects, is an action a CIO or IT leader can do.  By investing in developing this resource, the result is that the IT organization improves its ability to be agile and nimble in change-disruptive environments. 

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Adaptability and Initiative Capacity as Resources

Earlier I suggested a model for leaders to use to assess agility and nimbleness in their IT organizations. To create the IT organizations that contribute to our higher education organizations in a time of significant change, we need to be fast to react, implement, and change in our technical environments. As a CIO, I cannot just say "think faster" and "respond quicker" and "change faster."  I need to identify and build the resources to enable that sort of nimbleness.  I suggested these resources needed to be identified and enhanced:  time, human capital, funding, space, knowledge, sensitivity, initiative capacity, and adaptability.  Some resources are easier to understand, like funding and human capital.  Other resources, like adaptability and initiative capacity, are harder to assess and develop.

As an IT leader, have you ever encountered that staff member who was enamored and protective of an IT system that had outlived its usefulness?  I have encountered this several times in my career. The first was a highly talented employee who believed that all MVS terminals should be under his control, even when the automotive employer wanted to distribute controls to speed growth. Then there were the developers who believed in continuing with full system development, even after the university decided that unmodified package implementation was the preferred direction. There were other developers later who insisted that only mainframe technologies were worthwhile and client-server had no future. There were talented staff members who simply could not adapt to changing technology frontiers.

Also, there have been moments when I've approached a team about what should have been an exciting new project, only to be greeted by silence and heavy sighs.  Fortunately, this has been rare, but it is very difficult when a high functioning, highly talented team lacks enthusiasm for a new project.  It seems to happen most when the normal cycles of project start, peak, fade are lost in a swamp of never-ending work.  When teams are stuck in the Star Wars scene where the characters are just trying to get on top of the trash pile, another exciting new project is just one more thing on a pile of stuff that is over-whelming.

As the CIO, I need to make sure that I take actions to develop adaptability and initiative capacity in the organization.  How do I do that?

Encourage staff members to develop personally, so that their identity is not wrapped up in one system or project.  Don't allow staff members to become so personally identified with a system or project that they cannot let it go without suffering abandonment and personal identity issues.   Encourage staff members to develop a full career, with a variety of tasks and projects.  We cannot just assume they understand that a project on which they spent hundreds of hours and achieved personal accolades will fade and die some day.  We need to help our staff members see that trajectory, and reaffirm their career value and contribution even when a system is eventually discontinued.

Reward change acceptance, even if it is just acknowledgement during reviews or public presentations.  Provide greater acknowledgement to those who lead change efforts.  And reward staff members who close down older systems and environments.  Recognition cannot just go to the start-up of something new, but it also needs to go to those who take on the important work of closing down and letting go of the old.

Assess the capacity for a team to engage in a project.  They may not have the energy or enthusiasm for a really needed project.  Can you rework teams to provide fresh energy?  I find adding student employees, for whom a project is new, can reinvigorate a team that is growing weary.  Timing a project can be key; capacity for a new project may not be there in December, but the same group may welcome it in May if there's a slow down in day-to-day tasks.  Perhaps some effort needs to be put into clearing the deck and finishing some projects, then allowing for a bit of a gap to breathe and think, to create mental and energy capacity to engage in some new critical endeavor.  We build in a day to pause at the end of December, as an organization, and I'm looking for ways to bring pauses into the year.

As a CIO, it is important to recognize that you may have the people, the time, the money, and the knowledge to engage in a project, but still not have adaptable staff with the initiative capacity to take on the work.  We need to make sure we assess and develop those resources as well.