Now that they have a seat at the table, Greg Meyers, CIO of Motorola Solutions, urges his IT executive peers to always be asking 'why'.
It's a great time to be in the IT profession! Never before have corporate boards, CEOs and CFOs fully appreciated the potential that technology can play in driving top and bottom line growth, and transforming businesses, if not entire industries.
For years, CIOs aspired to have a proverbial "seat at the table" - a key role in driving business strategy. Now that we have it, we are confronted with a brutal truth: Most IT leaders aren't prepared to take that long coveted seat.
Why is that?
For most of our careers, our relationship with change (a.k.a. projects) has been about three things:
- deliver on-time,
- deliver on-budget, and
- deliver on-quality (or against requirements).
Nowhere in these three commandments does it say anything about delivering what the company really needs.
With the benefits of the seat at the table comes the burden of responsibility to ensure that the right choices are being made about what we do, how we do it, and most importantly, WHY we are doing it in the first place. To my mind, the single largest factor impeding our ability to make these choices is, in a word, curiosity.
In fact, there are three different types of curiosity that we all must posess as IT leaders in order to fulfill our responsibilites, now that we have a seat at the table.
1. Curiosity About the Business
We must be genuinely curious about how the business works. And also about what works well, and what’s doesn't. I don’t mean just listening to peoples' complaints, but actually seeing for yourself what’s happening. IT is one of the few, if only, functions that has the benefit of seeing the business end-to-end. We are uniquely qualified to have a point of view about where technology can best be applied to create the 10X breakthroughs, versus where technology is simply a solution looking for a problem.
"Curiosity is lying in wait for every secret."
-Ralph Waldo Emerson
Over the years we were asked to simply collect “requirements,” and when we delivered as many solutions as possible, on-time and on-budget, we'd done our job. As a result of this do-loop, we find ourselves doomed to deliver on ideas that produce only marginal improvements for the business. These projects make up most of IT demand, but when it comes to business outcomes, they barely move the needle.
We can do better. By being curious about the company and its inner workings, we can create possibility from nothing. We can make breakthroughs in the way people work. Curiosity about the business is about asking why. Remember - while many people saw apples falling from trees, Isaac Newton was the one who asked why.
2. Curiosity About Technology
Technology is moving fast. Today’s Machine Learning is yesterday's Big Data, and if we aren't paying close enough attention to the outside world, we will miss the opportunity to see key trends before others do. Or worse yet, we will be distracted by over-hyped trends-of-the-month that aren't applicable to solving real problems.
Being technically curious means being committed to experimentation, and seeing for yourself how well the ever-growing array of technology choices at your disposal apply in solving the real-world problems.
Being curious about technology also overcomes one of the biggest self-limiting factors IT people face: legacy myopia. It's too easy to look no further than your incumbent vendors and think, "well if our ERP, CRM, or Cloud vendor doesn't have it, it doesn't exist."
It takes a lot of time to be curious about technology, but we all need to make the investment. Meet new vendors. Take the time to understand open-source. Don't ignore all those cold-calls, and finally, don't dismiss start-ups. Remember that Google, Oracle, Amazon, Apple and Salesforce were all start-ups at one point.
3. Curiosity About a New Future
For years, it has been ingrained in us that bureaucratic constructs like "governance" are the key to demand management. We've been taught that if we just slot in as many requests as we can get, and displease as few people as possible, our future will be much brighter than the present. Yet, no matter how hard our teams work, the well of requests has no bottom, and the villagers remain thirsty.
As humans, we are linear thinkers, which means the future is almost always a marginal improvement over the past. In the IT world, activity can often be diguised as results. We take comfort in project dashboards that read all green.
To create a non-linear future, with extraordinary results, we have to be curious about what an extraordinary future might look like. By asking ourselves, "what is possible?", we can create a clearing where an audacious future can show up - even if it doesn't seem reasonable at the time. But once a compelling future shows up, it’s amazing to see the endless distractions and activity we once accepted give way to much bigger ideas that move the needle for our businesses, our careers and our people.
Having a seat at the table is hard. It means prioritizing thinking before doing, and being curious about our business, the outside world, and possibility. All of us have it in us, to be extraordinary IT leaders who can drive extraordinary results for our organizations. But to be extraordinary, we must be willing to forgo the ordinary.
Be curious. Find the secrets. Be extraordinary.