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I wrote a book on this subject but it focused on the management and leadership aspects of IT — not the technical stuff. Now I’m looking at doing a two-day class on IT for business executives. I’ll include the stuff from my book, but I’m trying to identify the technical topics that I should also include in the class.

What technical topics do you feel are important for business executives to understand? What should your CEO know about IT?  Here are my initial thoughts:

1. Technology trends that are changing the nature of best IT practices

Getting Ready to Move using Push and Pull

My wife and I have decided to move. We originally picked our home location because it was equidistant between my work and my wife’s work. But I work from home now and my wife is retiring, so there’s no longer a good reason to stay here. Instead, we’re going to be looking for a house that’s closer to our grandkids.

We’ve been living in our current house for sixteen years — that’s the longest we’ve ever lived in one place during our entire lives. But there’s a real downside to living in a single place that long: During the next few months we’re going to have to go through sixteen years of accumulated stuff and figure out what we really need.

I’m a process person by nature, and so naturally my thoughts have gone to how I can set up a process to make this weeding-out challenge easier. I’ve mentally categorized my stuff, and I’ve made some initial conclusions about how to deal with each category. But in thinking about all this, it struck me that the main decision I have to make is whether I’m going to use a “push” process, a “pull” process, or a combination of the two.

Push versus Pull
A push process starts with the stuff I have, and then pushes each item through a conceptual sieve, eliminating the things that aren’t as important and allowing only the truly important things to pass through to the new house. A pull process, on the other hand, starts with the new house and defines all of the things that I will need. Then [click to continue…]

I’ve previously written about why you might want to be a manager and the 13 skills needed by a manager. This article explains the seven biggest challenges faced by a manager.

1. Achieving a Stretch Goal
The organization you’re managing is responsible for something — whether it’s performing a business process, supporting some other organization, developing a new product, or getting new customers. There are goals associated with your objectives, and if your organization is aggressive then those goals require more than the typical amount of effort. It’s going to take some careful planning for you to figure out how to apply your organization’s people and resources to achieve an aggressive goal. You’re going to have to motivate people, remove roadblocks from their path, and focus them on the things that are most important. It’s a stretch goal, but you can achieve it — maybe even surpass it.

2. Bringing Out the Best in Your Employees
All employees have good days and bad days. Some of the causes are out of your control. But it’s important that you [click to continue…]

Last week I met with a client to discuss a presentation I’m going to do for his company. The client company has a good process in place for business strategy, and they have the beginnings of an IT strategy. But they’re having difficulty connecting the business strategy and the IT strategy, and they want me to help them.

There are a lot of reasons companies have difficulty connecting the business strategy and the IT strategy. Here are eight:

1. Strategy is a Secret
Business executives often keep the business strategy a secret, and don’t share it except on a need-to-know basis.  So [click to continue…]

I lived in Boston during the height of the Bobby Orr days, and I got caught up in the enthusiasm that Boston felt for their Bruins. I had never seen ice hockey before I moved to Boston, and I learned the game by watching the Bruins win the Stanley Cup.

One of the intriguing tactics used in ice hockey (just called hockey in Boston — the ice is implied) is the practice of “pulling your goalie.” The game is played with six players per side on the ice at any point in time (minus any in the penalty box). Normally one of those six players is a goalie who stays in front of the goal net and stops any shots on goal from the opposing team. But in certain situations when a team is losing a game and desperate for a score, the team may “pull its goalie” and replace the goalie with an attacker to improve the team’s chances of getting a score on the opponent’s goal.

Pulling your goalie is trading a defensive player for an offensive player. It intensifies your attack but it can critically weaken your defense. Any random shot by the opposing team in the direction of your goal can score a goal for your opponent because of your open net. It’s a risk that you might take when you are sure that you’re going to lose the game without desperate measures. It’s a last ditch effort to win something that otherwise might be lost.

Why talk about hockey?
In our current economic situation, we have a lot of companies who are cutting back on expenses in extraordinary ways. Millions of people have lost their jobs, and thousands of companies have closed their doors. But not all businesses are equally desperate. Most companies have suffered losses in revenue, but many businesses have solid foundations that can withstand temporary losses and then recover when times get better.

The economic turndown has affected IT organizations along with the rest of the business, [click to continue…]

We’re All Biased — Learn from It

Last week I posted an article about whether younger “digital natives” or older “digital immigrants” are better at IT. In responses I saw on Reddit or that I received directly, I noticed a pattern:

1. A lot of people were disappointed (to put it mildly) that I didn’t draw a conclusion in favor of one group or the other. They didn’t like the fact that I saw the issue as shades of gray rather than black and white.

2. Some readers thought that the article was biased toward one group or the other. Interestingly, the younger readers thought that the article was biased toward the digital natives. And the older readers thought that the article was biased toward the digital immigrants.

One of the readers in particular thought [click to continue…]

I was asked this question at a recent speaking engagement in Utah, and I’ve thought about it a bit more since then. “Digital natives” are people who grew up using digital technology; they used computers as children and so they never lived in a non-computer world. “Digital immigrants” grew up in a world that didn’t have computers, and they made the leap to the digital world as foreigners.

Each group brings its own advantages to IT.

Digital natives:

I’ll be speaking Thursday, October 8, 2009  at a lunch meeting of the Society for Information Management (SIM) in Salt Lake City, Utah.  The topic is “How to Demystify IT for your CEO,” and I’ll be going over a lot of the material from my book.  If you’re in Salt Lake City and you want to better align your IT with the business, come to this session.  And bring your CEO with you.

For more information, see the SIM UTAH web site.

10 Ways to Find the Truth

In my previous post I talked about the problem of determining the truth in current events (and in other areas) when we’re faced with conflicting views from thousands of media and Internet sources. In this post I’ll offer some advice for dealing with the problem:

1. Become more conscious of the assumptions that you’ve been making about truth. Most of us bury our truth assumptions so deep in our subconscious that we don’t even realize what we’re assuming. We accept things as the truth because people around us believe them or because we were “brought up that way.”  That doesn’t mean those things are really true. They might be true, but it’s important for us to decide for ourselves.

2. Accept the fact that different people will have different views on many subjects. Those different views aren’t necessarily right or wrong — they’re just different. Everyone is entitled to their own view, even if they disagree with you. Try to be open-minded and understand where the other views are coming from.

3. [click to continue…]

I grew up in the 1950s and 1960s when there were just three TV channels, two local daily newspapers, a few local radio stations, and no cable or satellite TV. There were no personal computers — let alone the Internet — and so our news sources were pretty limited. We each picked our standard of truth for current events, but the choices were limited. Some defined truth by Walter Cronkite, some by Huntley-Brinkley, some by the position advocated by the local newspaper or radio station.

There were people with radical views, of course: Socialists, communists, right-wing militants, and extreme environmentalists. But these people had their own ways of communicating: low cost pamphlets, local meetings, quiet get-togethers at the homes of their members.

We’re taught as children that there’s a difference between a lie and the truth. But it’s described by our parents and teachers as such a black-and-white difference that we attach an emotional significance to the words. “That’s a lie” is not just a statement of fact — it’s an accusation. Liars are despised, vilified and punished. But what is the truth? And what is a lie?

Absolute Truth?
There are few, if any, cases of absolute truth. If I drop something, it will fall — except [click to continue…]

Many years ago my sister Mary taught me a valuable lesson. At the time she and her husband lived in a very small apartment. But each time I visited her I was amazed by how neat everything was. There were no overflowing bookshelves, no overstuffed closets and pantries, and none of the usual clutter of everyday living. It didn’t look like my house at all. Instead there just seemed to be total order, with everything in its place.

I asked her whether she had some offsite storage location somewhere for all of the “stuff” that we all seem to accumulate during our lifetime. She said that everything she and her husband have is in the apartment, but that they carefully control the number of things they buy. Their simple rule is “for anything that comes into the apartment, something else has to leave.” [click to continue…]

Note: This article is intended for a business audience.  For a technical explanation of cloud computing, see the sidebar below the business article.

To the non-technical among us, “cloud computing” may sound like something vague and amorphous. After all, it’s a cloud, right? So that means it’s something that’s insubstantial, floating in the sky.

If you imagine clouds as the Internet, then you can imagine cloud computing as using computers over the Internet. That explains the origin of the phrase, but it doesn’t tell you very much about what cloud computing is – or why you should care.

Another Step in the Evolution of Technology
The concept of cloud computing is simple. It’s [click to continue…]

I talked about Due Diligence in a previous article, and gave you 13 ways to spot lies and deception.  Here’s an additional list that’s specific to Information Technology, although you can probably see parallels in other types of due diligence:

12 More Ways to Spot IT Lies and Omissions

  1. The current solution doesn’t scale up
    Maybe there’s a small-scale version of a certain capability working, but it’s not ready for the large-scale production you’re going to need.  For example, a certain process is done by hand, and isn’t yet ready for mass production.
  2. [click to continue…]

We all do due diligence.  Some of us do it in mergers and acquisitions (M&A).  Some of us do it when we’re getting ready to make a major purchase like a house or a car, or when we’re getting ready to sign a contract for major home repair.  Due diligence is the research you do to make sure that what you buy is what you think you’re buying.  It’s verifying that the “facts” are correct as represented by the seller.

When witnesses are sworn in before their testimony in a court of law, they swear to tell “the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.”  It’s the “whole truth” part that’s usually the problem.  The whole truth means that they have revealed all aspects of the truth — they haven’t just answered a question in a truthful but deceitful way.  This is also the primary area of concern in due diligence: someone may answer a question truthfully, yet they’ve held back the information that you really need to hear.  President Bill Clinton’s famous statement, “I did not have sex with that woman,” is an example of the truth but not the whole truth.  He interpreted the words the way he wanted to, and told the truth as he wanted you to see it.  And in due diligence that’s exactly the same thing that sellers are likely to do.

From my own experience in M&A due diligence for over twenty acquisitions, here is my list of ways to spot lies and omissions:

13 Ways to Spot Lies and Omissions

  1. Less detail in one area
    When information is provided to you, there’s a consistent amount of detail provided in most areas, but less detail is provided in a few areas.  There’s usually a reason they don’t want to go into detail in those few areas, and it’s in your best interest to find out why.
  2. [click to continue…]

IT Marriage Counseling

I’ve been comparing the IT/Business relationship to a marriage for a while now. In Chapter 12 of my book, I said:

Secret 28: The Information Technology organization is your partner in creating and managing systems and data, with shared responsibilities.

That partnership can be like a marriage, with both marriage partners working together to make a better life. But like all marriages, there are times when problems cause disharmony between the marriage partners, and if you’re not careful, that disharmony can lead to name-calling and blame.

Primary Causes of Business/IT Marriage Problems
I believe that problems in the Business/IT relationship stem from the same sorts of things that cause many of the problems in a marriage:

A runaway project is like a married couple on the brink of divorce.  There are two opposing points of view, both sides are usually angry, each side blames the other, legal action is imminent, and a lot of time and money is being wasted.

So why do projects go into a runaway mode? It’s usually because requirements are changing faster than the project team can keep up with them. It’s like swimming upstream in a tidal wave — no matter how hard you swim you still get swept back by the overwhelming water.

But that just raises a different question, doesn’t it? Why is it that requirements are changing so much? Shouldn’t requirements change the most at the beginning of the project while they’re still being defined, and then settle down once the requirements are written down and agreed to? Yes, of course, but that “normal” way to define requirements is usually based on some erroneous assumptions.

The Usual Erroneous Project Assumptions
Most runaway projects start by making one or more of these assumptions:

  1. It makes sense to freeze requirements at a moment in time and then stick to them, no matter what happens.
  2. [click to continue…]

Many years ago I did some work at a newly built manufacturing plant in Phoenix. The new plant was having trouble with its air conditioning system  — the administrative offices were too cold and the manufacturing shop floor was too hot. While I was there it was discovered that a mistake had been made during installation: the air conditioning system for the shop floor had been wired to the thermostat in the administrative offices, and the air conditioning system for the administrative offices had been wired to a thermostat on the shop floor. It’s funny in hindsight: the people in the administrative offices would be cold so they would turn the thermostat up. The people on the shop floor would be hot so they would turn the thermostat down. Thus the temperature problem was created by cross-wiring the two thermostats.

I was thinking the other day that our world economic problems are similar.

On the one side we have the consumers who are being battered from every direction. They’re losing their jobs, their 401(k) retirement accounts have lost much of their value, gas prices are high, home values have dropped, and adjustable rate mortgages are increasing their payments.

On the other side we have businesses who are being battered as well. Consumers are spending less, so revenues are down. [click to continue…]

You’re trying to get a new project approved, and you’re having trouble. Or you’re trying to get an employee to do things your way, and the employee keeps fighting you. Both these situations are disagreements, and the process to deal with them is similar.

Why Do We Disagree?
Let’s start with individual disagreements. When two people disagree, it’s usually for one or more of these four reasons:

  1. Objective
    What one person wants to accomplish is different than what the other person wants.
  2. [click to continue…]

I Believe …

  1. The best businesses are honest with their customers and their employees.
  2. The best companies have a win-win relationship with their customers and with their employees.
  3. Management is about focusing the work of the employees by assigning tasks which best align the company’s interests with the employees’ interests.
  4. Executive management is about focusing the work of the company by setting objectives which best align the customers’ interests with the stockholders’ interests. These objectives define the company’s interests.
  5. Management and leadership are different. Management [click to continue…]

I’ve changed the tagline in my blog header. It used to be “Insight for Current and Future IT Leaders.” Now it’s “Insight for Current and Future Business Leaders.” I took out the word “IT” and replaced it with the word “business.” Here’s why:

For over six years I’ve been writing about lessons I’ve learned from my business IT experience. In looking back at what I’ve written, I’ve noticed that while many of the posts come from an IT viewpoint, most of the lessons are related to the business. In some of the posts there isn’t a single mention of IT or technology. Only a few of the posts are technical in nature, and even then there are business lessons in the article.

If I look at the most common ways that IT organizations fail, most of them are due to [click to continue…]

I’ve promoted scores of people into first-time manager positions. Some did well and some didn’t. Here are a few of their stories, with names changed and a few relevant facts altered to protect the individuals involved.

This was early in my career, and I didn’t have any experience in promoting people into management. But I was working for a rapidly growing company, and my organization had gotten too big for me to manage all by myself. I needed to add a manager below me to supervise some of the programmers.

Fred had already demonstrated project leadership skills, and he seemed to relate to people pretty well. I didn’t have a lot of other candidates in my organization, and I wanted to promote from within, so I decided to give Fred a shot as a new manager.

Two things sabotaged Fred’s chances from the start. First, [click to continue…]

Quotes of the Month – July, 2009

“Better be despised for too anxious apprehensions, than ruined by too confident security.”
Edmund Burke (1729 – 1797), an Irish statesman, author, orator, political theorist, and philosopher

“If I had to sum up in one word what makes a good manager, I’d say decisiveness. You can use the fanciest computers to gather the numbers, but in the end you have to set a timetable and act.”
Lee Iacocca (1924 – ), former CEO of Chrysler Corporation

“Most business problems are ‘shades of grey.’ Black and white solutions are neither apt nor valuable.”
Alan Weiss, consultant, speaker and author

“Don’t flail against the world, use it. Flexibility is the operative principle in the art of war.”
Sun Tzu (604BC – 531BC), The Art of War

“79 percent of respondents say they are going to do cloud computing. 100 percent say they are not sure what it is. Huh?”
Daryl Plummer, Gartner

The word “scalable” has been used in IT for over forty years. IBM used the word when they first talked about their 360 series of mainframe computers in the 1960’s. Since that time scalability has been a consideration in every aspect of computing: mainframes, minis, personal computers, servers, networks, proprietary systems, open systems, even smartphones.

But up until recently, “scalable” usually meant that you could make a system scale up — you could add more computing power and run the same application with much higher transaction volumes. That’s what most people were interested in: being able to reuse their application architecture for higher volumes as their companies grew.

We began to see the need for [click to continue…]

A lot of companies routinely use ROI (Return on Investment) to compare multiple projects competing for limited investment resource. But what do these same companies use during a bad economy when they’re trying to figure out where to make cuts? How do you compare multiple opportunities for cost cutting?

Recently I moderated a group discussion at an Atlanta SIM meeting on the topic “What do we do differently in IT as a result of a bad economy?”  Early in the discussion, I asked the question, “What process do you use for determining the areas to cut?” but all of the answers I received were very general.  It got me thinking that there ought to be a specific approach like ROI that can be used during a bad economy, so I set out to define such an alternative.

I decided that I’m looking for something that’s the opposite of ROI.   ROI is essentially Return divided by Investment. The opposite [click to continue…]

In a recent article I wrote about why you might want to be a manager. If that’s what you want, here’s my list of the 13 skills you’ll need:

1. Communication
There’s a lot of communication when you’re a manager. You have to communicate with each of your employees. You have to communicate “sideways” with your co-workers and customers. And you have to communicate upwards with your own manager or executive. You need some substance in the communication, of course — you need to have something worthy of being communicated. But substance isn’t enough — if you know what you’re doing and can’t properly communicate it to anyone else, then you’ll never be a good manager.

2. Listening Skills
This is a part of communication, but I want to single it out because it’s so important. Some managers get so impressed with themselves that they spend much more of their time telling people things than they spend listening. But no matter how high you go in the management hierarchy, you need to be able to listen. It’s the only way you’re really going to find out what’s going on in your organization, and it’s the only way that you’ll ever learn to be a better manager.

3. A Commitment to [click to continue…]

In March of 2009 I was the speaker at a SIM Meeting in Dallas. In the Q&A at the end, a young security manager asked me a question. He said that he has succeeded in making his company’s infrastructure good enough that they have no problems with security breaches, data leaks, viruses, or any of the other security issues that plague many companies. Now the security manager is having increasing difficulty in justifying additional infrastructure investment in the area of security.  He knows that continued investment is necessary — the bad guys get better all the time — but his business customers feel that their security problems are solved.  He asked me what he should do about this.

I’ve been pondering this question off and on for the last several months. Then I was reading a book, Brimstone by Robert B. Parker, and I ran across the following words: “safe is more how you feel than how things are … Safe and not safe is mostly in your head.”

Three Different Parts to the Question
When I read those words it struck me: There are three different things going on with the security manager’s question. First, there is the issue of making your business customers feel secure. Clearly, the Dallas security manager has been very successful on this front. Second, there is the issue of actually implementing an infrastructure that provides a reasonable level of security for the amount of money the company is willing to invest. The Dallas security manager seems to be successful in this area as well. Third, there is [click to continue…]

Why Do You Want to Be a Manager?

There are a lot of bad stereotypes associated with management — the TV show “The Office” illustrates many of the stereotypes on a weekly basis. But there are advantages to being in management, so I thought I would write a bit about management for those of you who are still in individual contributor roles. And for those of you in management roles, you can use this article to help you with career discussions you have with some of your employees.

Management Advantage 1: Scope
From my own experience the principal advantage of management is that you get to do bigger things. There are limits to how much you can do by yourself, and so by necessity you won’t be able to accomplish as much in an individual contributor position. Of course you can still be part of a team and contribute to a group goal (see my article “The Quest for a Quest” for more about this topic), but it feels different when you are in charge of a team and your team is able to accomplish something significant. Frankly, it feels wonderful.

Management Advantage 2: Control
The second advantage of management is control. This is a loaded word, and it can be used both positively and negatively. Let me first use the word in the positive sense: as a manager you have more control over some of the project decisions that need to be made. I won’t give you false hopes, though. As long as you report to someone else (e.g., a higher level manager, a director, the CEO, the Board of Directors, the stockholders), you never have complete control. But still, it’s generally true that you have more control the higher up you rise in the management structure.

Control means that you can envision a project result and actually make it come true. It means that you have [click to continue…]

Quotes of the Month – June, 2009

“People buy the shovel, but they want the hole.”

“It’s much easier to point out the perils of the gap than to contribute to building the bridge.”
Chris Brogan
on Twitter

“Confidence plus conviction equals huge influence every time.”
Alan Weiss

“Life is a moderately good play with a badly written third act.”
Truman Capote (1924 – 1984), an American writer whose short stories, novels, plays, and non-fiction are recognized literary classics, including Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1958) and In Cold Blood (1966).

“The person who smiles in a crisis has found someone to blame.”

I see and hear these words and phrases all the time, but it has gotten to the point where they’ve lost their meaning for me — maybe for you as well. Let’s start with some oldies but goodies then work up to something more current.

This used to be the consultant’s ultimate goal. Synergy is a type of magic: it’s creating something from nothing. Or to be more accurate, it’s creating something new out of two old things. Let’s say you have a company and it’s worth $x, and I have a company and it’s worth $y. Using synergy, our two companies together are worth more than $x + $y. That’s the theory anyway.

But wait a minute. Wasn’t there a benefit from two companies working together before the word synergy was invented? What about old phrases like “horizontal integration” and “vertical integration”? Weren’t they about synergy? Sort of. Most people tend to use horizontal and vertical integration as words related to an acquisition — one company actually buys another. What’s different today is that companies are more likely to try to partner with one another without M&A being discussed.

So synergy is like the polite way to do vertical or horizontal integration without all of the nasty complications associated with M&A. It’s like “friends with benefits” instead of marriage.  You can play together without the long-term commitment.

Paradigm Shift
The phrase was first used by Thomas Kuhn in 1962 in his book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Kuhn was describing a fundamental change in basic assumptions: something so significant that it created a whole new paradigm. Since then the phrase has grown so common that it has been used in marketing almost any kind of new product.

“Paradigm shift” is now used like any other set of magic words. We [click to continue…]

We all have a tendency to define ourselves by the roles we play. The first part of almost every new conversation between strangers is asking the question, “What do you do?” We then use the answer to that question to apply a stereotype to the person. If the person answers, “I’m a doctor,” then we apply the stereotype of a respected but conservative individual who works long hours caring for people. We also immediately associate the person with a higher income level and the advantages that come with it.

If the person answers, “I’m a CIO,” then we apply the stereotype of a corporate executive with an inner nerd — someone who spends his/her time overseeing major projects and spending long hours in corporate boardrooms.

Why Stereotypes?
Why do we use these stereotypes? Because it simplifies our lives. It’s complicated to truly understand an individual, and it’s a time-consuming process. We may not have time to [click to continue…]

How a New CEO Affects the CIO

A few weeks ago I ran into a CIO I hadn’t seen in a few months.  The last time I had seen him we talked about his job situation.  The CEO he worked for had just been replaced, and the CIO and the new CEO were butting heads.

This situation is pretty common and takes place all over the world.  A new CEO is brought in by the Board of Directors.  There’s a reason — usually it’s an attempt to take the company in a new direction or to pull the business out of a slump.  The new CEO knows that she only has a few months to make a difference.  That’s because after the first six months the board will begin to have second thoughts and will give the new CEO a tighter leash.

Two Approaches for the New CEO
Put yourself in the position of the new CEO.  What do you do?  There are a couple of basic approaches:

  1. Problem-Solving: Figure out what’s wrong, then fix it.
    This is a logical approach to improving the business but it demands patience and steady nerves.  You’re going to need to talk to key customers, key employees, and anyone you can find who can give you an impartial opinion.  The evidence will conflict.  There will be a lot of finger-pointing.  You will hear a lot of “noise” — negative comments about things that are working well and positive comments about things that aren’t working.  A high level of judgment will be required, but if you can gain focus on the key issues, then you’ll be able to take clear, decisive action to solve problems quickly.  This approach is like diamond cutting; it requires a lot of study and then nerves of steel when making the change.
  2. Organization Transplant: Replace the old organization with a new one that’s worked for you before.
    This is a more brute force approach.  It doesn’t require great intellect or very much study.  The concept is simple.  You’ve run a similar organization before, and you have a list of people who have worked for you in the past.  When you’re hired into a new CEO position you just bring in your own people for all of the major roles.  You superimpose your previous business culture on the new company.  You discard all of the top-level executives reporting to the old CEO and replace them with people from your list who have worked for you in the past.  They run the new company exactly like they ran the old company you both came from.

Which Approach is Better?
I guess it depends on your point of view.  The Board of Directors want a change, and either approach will lead to a change.  The Organization Transplant approach will probably produce faster results if — and it’s a big if — the new transplanted organization is actually appropriate for your business.  But there’s a catch: the kind of organization that can be transplanted is usually bureaucratic and mechanical.  You can transplant a heart but not a soul, and an organization transplant tends to snuff out the cultural spark that may have existed in the company prior to the transplant.

On the other hand the Problem-Solving approach, when it’s successful, is able to save the existing cultural spark in a company and focus that spark in a new direction.  Problem-Solving removes the things that were preventing the spark from growing, and fans the existing sparks into bright flames of growth and development.

So the choice of approach comes down to the question, “Is there something in the company worth saving, or should we just overlay the company’s culture with a new one?”  And if we choose the latter approach, what donor do we use for the transplant?

What if this happens to you?

Put yourself in the position of the existing CIO.  You get a new boss and you obviously want to make a good impression.  You also want to keep your job.  What do you do?  [click to continue…]

I went to my grandson’s piano recital last weekend.  He’s just seven (almost eight) and he’s really good for his age.  His part of the recital was only a few minutes, but the entire recital lasted two hours so we listened to a lot of other kids before and after my grandson.

What struck me in listening to all of these kids is how few of them actually produce something that feels like music.  They can put the notes together in a way that sounds like music, but there’s no feeling involved.  Most of them are in the early stages of learning and they’re still focused on getting the notes right.  If they trip over a note, they just back up and play it again, sometimes two or three times.  There is music to enjoy somewhere underneath the notes they’re trying to play, but only a few of the kids actually convey the spirit of the piece they’re playing.

I see the same thing happening in many business organizations — both in IT and outside of IT.  We have a tendency to get so caught up in our day-to-day activities that we (a) stop enjoying what we’re doing and (b) [click to continue…]

The Quest for a Quest

I’m fond of fiction; I read a lot of books and watch a lot of movies. I think that a large part of the appeal of fiction comes from the single-minded focus of the principal characters in the plot. When the hero of the book or movie is trying to track down a secret or elude his pursuers or find the murderer, he is solely focused on the task at hand. You seldom see the hero stop to pay his bills or clean up the house or even go to the bathroom. No, our hero has only one goal for the duration of the book or movie, and he is totally absorbed by the effort of achieving that one goal.

This single-minded focus sometimes occurs in real life. I’ve been involved in a number of projects over the years that made me feel like I was part of something bigger — the kind of thing that they make movies about. You get a wonderful feeling when you’re part of something like that. You start each day at work knowing your purpose and knowing what you’re supposed to do that day. You see the goal in the distance and you see your team getting closer and closer to the goal as time goes by. You feel the excitement as the goal approaches. You don’t stop the everyday stuff — caring for the kids, mowing the lawn — but you go through those things on autopilot because your thoughts and attention are focused on the goal.

A Quest gives you Productivity
Whether it’s putting a man on the moon or something much more ordinary like delivering a new software product, the focus of a quest seems to boost your concentration and fuel your productivity. Petty issues get resolved quickly and smoothly when everyone understands the real purpose of your mission. When your entire team is heading in the same direction there is far less disagreement over mundane trivia. With a quest comes a new perspective, a different frame of reference. Everything is defined in terms of whether it takes us closer to our goal or further away from it. Life is simple — at least for the duration of the project — and decisions are easy when the objective is clear.

A Quest gives you “Flow”
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi talks about “flow” in his books and articles. He describes an altered sense of time where we get so caught up in what we’re doing that we don’t notice time passing. We start working on something and then “wake up” hours later, wondering why it’s so dark outside. Flow comes from focus, total involvement, and deep concentration on something that completely absorbs us. Flow is part of the reason that a quest is so appealing. We go into a flow mode when we’re working on something associated with a quest. Flow is enjoyable; it feels good to be so focused.

This focus also lets us use both our conscious and subconscious mind to deal with challenges we encounter during the quest. We work on a problem during the day, and finding the solution to the problem becomes so important to us that we devote our subconscious to the task as well. We have ideas while we’re sleeping, while taking a shower, or when we’re doing something that has nothing to do with the quest itself. Thus the quest helps us devote some of our subconscious energy to the achievement of our objective.

How to Lead a Quest
It’s really pretty simple to lead quests of your own. Here’s how:

1. [click to continue…]

Quotes of the Month – May, 2009

“The only lifelong, reliable motivations are those that come from within, and one of the strongest of those is the joy and pride that grow from knowing that you’ve just done something as well as you can do it.”

Lloyd Dobyns and Clare Crawford-Mason, Thinking About Quality

“Innovation has nothing to do with how many R&D dollars you have. When Apple came up with the Mac, IBM was spending at least 100 times more on R&D. It’s not about money. It’s about the people you have, how you’re led, and how much you get it.”

Steve Jobs (1955 – ), Fortune, Nov. 9, 1998

“It comes from saying no to 1,000 things to make sure we don’t get on the wrong track or try to do too much.”

Steve Jobs (1955 – ), BusinessWeek Online, Oct. 12, 2004

“Depression occurs when one looks back with no pride, and looks forward with no hope.”

Robert Frost (1874 – 1963)

“What if this weren’t a hypothetical question?”


Have you ever played Jenga, a game marketed by Hasbro? In the game you have 54 wood blocks and you start by stacking them in rows of three at alternating right angles to build an 18-level tower (for more details and illustrations, click here) . Then you take turns removing a block from a lower level and adding it to the top to make the tower taller. Eventually the unstable and weakened lower levels won’t support the height of the tower, and the whole structure falls over. The loser of the game is the person who made the tower fall. The winner is the person who played just before the loser.

I see a lot of parallels between this game and our current situation in IT. In a bad economy we have to survive with a lower budget, yet the demand for IT projects hardly slows down at all. The only way we can extend our IT capabilities is by cutting back somewhere else in our budgets. So we cut back on maintenance or on infrastructure or maybe on support, and we hope that we aren’t weakening our IT organization too much. Just as in Jenga, we take something from a supporting area and then try to extend our IT capabilities by building on that increasingly weak area. The tower grows taller, but since the number of blocks hasn’t changed, the tower structure gets weaker and weaker.

So what’s the equivalent in IT of our tower falling over? Sometimes it’s catastrophic: our systems fail at a critical time, we have a major security breach, or a critical person leaves the company and we don’t have a backup. That’s when we see how thin and frail our capabilities really are. That’s when we see the error of playing Jenga with critical parts of the business.

Just as in Jenga, the loser is the person who was in charge when the tower fell over. But the winner isn’t his or her predecessor. No, in the business version of Jenga there are no winners. Everyone loses – the business, the IT organization, and your customers.

You wouldn’t play Jenga with a real skyscraper. You wouldn’t deliberately sacrifice strength in the lower levels of the structure in order to make the building taller. So why would you sacrifice strength in an IT organization in an attempt to “satisfy” the business needs of your company?

You’ve got to recognize that there is a limit to how much you can safely cut back on mission-critical areas of your organization. Your CEO won’t know what that limit is – you’ll have to determine the limit yourself. But a CEO can definitely understand that there is a limit, just as there’s a limit in other parts of your company. A key aspect of your job as a CIO is to assess those limits, and to make sure that you don’t weaken your organization or your infrastructure too much.

4 Things IT Should Do in Bad Economic Times

Here’s my advice for bad economic times:

1. Deal with the situation as best you can.
If you’re asked to cut your budget, then do so (see tips in my August, 2008 newsletter article, “9 Ways to Reduce Business IT Expense”). But don’t go too far (see the Jenga discussion above), and watch out for things that will cut IT costs but raise costs in other parts of the business. A smart corporate cost-reduction plan will look at the big picture and not just impose a standard percentage cut on every department. If you’re forced to make an arbitrary budget cut, make it clear what services and projects you’re cutting back as a result. Be transparent – don’t take a cut without passing some of the pain back to your business users.

2. If resources allow, then [click to continue…]

Sponsors Wanted

Along with the blog comes an opportunity for sponsorship. I’ve had a few sponsors on my site all along. I have links to Amazon for a few books that I’ve found useful, occasionally I’ll recommend a product that I’ve enjoyed like the Amazon Kindle. And I’ve hosted a few Google ads here and there.

I’m now opening up the site to a few additional sponsors. If you’re interested in sponsoring parts of my blog or my web site – or even my speaking – send me an email. I’m pretty open to different types of sponsorship, so give me your ideas. You should know up front, though, that I will only accept sponsors if I really believe in your product or service, and if your product or service is going to be useful to my readers. Others need not apply.

I’m switching to a blog format

With this issue I’m starting my seventh year of writing monthly articles for CIO’s. In those seven years email newsletters have become less common, and blogs have taken over. [click to continue…]

Quotes of the Month – April, 2009

“The game of life is not so much in holding a good hand as playing a poor hand well.”

H. T. Leslie

“The loftier the building, the deeper must the foundation be laid.”

Thomas Kempis, (ca.1380 – 1471), a late Medieval Catholic monk and author of The Imitation of Christ, one of the best known Christian books on devotion.

“The game of life is the game of boomerangs. Our thoughts, deeds and words return to us sooner or later, with astounding accuracy.”

Florence Shinn (1871 -1940), an American artist and book illustrator who became a New Thought spiritual teacher and metaphysical writer in her middle years. She is best known for her first book, The Game of Life and How to Play It (1925).

“If all economists were laid end to end, they would not reach a conclusion.”

George Bernard Shaw (1856 – 1950), Irish playwright, and the only person to have been awarded both the Nobel Prize for Literature (1925) and an Oscar (1938).

“It’s only when the tide goes out that you discover who’s been swimming naked.”

Warren Buffett (1930 – ), an American investor, businessman, and philanthropist. He is one of the world’s most successful investors and the largest shareholder and CEO of Berkshire Hathaway.

Video of Comedian Louis CK on Late Night with Conan O’Brien

Hilarious and so true!

I was having dinner with a CIO who had retired after a long and distinguished career. The conversation had been mostly small talk, but suddenly a thought occurred to him, and he sat up straight in his chair.

“Why is it,” he asked vehemently, “that CIOs have to work so much harder than every other executive at making their role in the business understood?”

It was a rhetorical question, but I made an attempt to answer it anyway. “It’s partly because of the ‘magic’ around IT that I’ve described in my book,” I said. “Business executives don’t have a fundamental understanding of what IT is all about, and they compartmentalize IT and use the CIO as an intermediary. They talk to the CIO, and they rely on the CIO to translate what they need into the technical double-talk they think is used in the IT organization. It’s like the wizard role I talk about in my book; the CIO is perceived as the chief wizard, but everything inside the wizard’s organization is too mystical for business people to understand.”

“But that’s crazy,” he answered. “You don’t see the same sort of attitude toward other complicated parts of the business. Business executives go out of their way to learn all of the important aspects of finance and accounting. They don’t view the CFO as an intermediary – they know what the CFO has to do and they hold the CFO accountable for doing it. Finance is just as complicated as IT, but business people take classes in it until they understand it.”

I paused to reflect on his statement. He was right – you never hear about CFO’s looking for “alignment” with the business, nor do you hear about alignment issues in other parts of the business. I searched my brain for an answer. What’s fundamentally different between finance and IT?

I thought about the classes he mentioned. “I don’t think the classes in IT really teach the right things to business people,” I conjectured. “Introductory finance classes cover fundamental accounting principles, income statements, balance sheets, double-entry accounting, budgeting and capitalization. The more advanced finance classes cover sources of business funding, and the use of various approaches to underwrite the day-to-day financial needs of the business, and to reduce business risk through diversification and the use of offsets.”

“IT classes on the other hand,” I continued, “cover things like [click to continue…]

Quotes of the Month – March, 2009

“The character of a man is known from his conversations.”

Menander (342 BC – 291 BC), Greek dramatist

“When you really trust someone, you have to be okay with not understanding some things.”

Real Live Preacher, Real Live Preacher weblog, 07-08-04

“Much learning does not teach understanding.”

Heraclitus (ca 535 BC – 475 BC), a pre-Socratic Greek philosopher, in On the Universe

“My goal is simple. It is a complete understanding of the universe, why it is as it is and why it exists at all.”

Stephen Hawking (1942 – ), British theoretical physicist

“Finance is the art of passing money from hand to hand until it finally disappears.”

Robert W. Sarnoff (1919 – 1997), Chairman of the RCA Corporation

How to Buy an IT Product

Suppose your IT organization is in the market for a new IT product (or service, but I’ll use the word “product” here to simplify the discussion). It could be a computer, network device or other hardware item, or it could be a software package or SaaS (software as a service). Regardless of what you’re looking for, you’ll probably go through a process that you’ve used over and over again for product selection. And there’s a good chance that your process is flawed. You won’t select the best product, and you’ll be burdened with having to support the wrong product for years to come.

It doesn’t have to be that way. In this article I’ll go through a list of common criteria for IT product selection, and I’ll give you my recommendations for change. Use this article to fine-tune your product selection process, and the result will be the selection of a product that’s a better fit for your true business needs.

The Most Common Product Selection Criteria

Here’s my list of the most common criteria for product selection, in descending sequence by the popularity I’ve seen. There’s no science here, and I haven’t taken a survey. These ratings are based on my own experience:

1. A checklist of “requirements”
This sounds like it ought to be a good way to select a product, but unfortunately the checklist is usually based on a wish list generated by the business users, with no distinction among what’s essential now, what’s important in the future, and what’s a nice-to-have. In simple pass/fail product selection, you narrow your list of product candidates by eliminating all candidates which have omissions on this checklist. The vendors know how this game is played, so most vendors have included capabilities in their feature lists which match the most common checklist items. Unfortunately, the vendor need to provide these checklist items is so great that most vendors stretch the truth. If their product really doesn’t provide a certain capability, they’ll figure out a narrow case in which the product sort-of fits the checklist description. Or they’ll provide a clumsy workaround to address the need, and then claim to have the capability.

My advice: Using a checklist of requirements is fine if, and only if, you:

  • Limit the requirements to what you really need, plus what you think you’ll need in the future. Include nice-to-have features in a separate list if you want to, but don’t use the nice-to-have items in your product selection process to eliminate potential products.
  • Push the vendors to show you exactly how each checklist item is provided by their product. If the explanation seems the least bit contrived, then talk to current customers of the vendor who are using the capability the vendor claims to have. Make absolutely sure that the vendor isn’t trying to satisfy the requirement in name only, with no commitment to provide the complete capability in an easily usable way.

2. The one your boss wants
This is the second most widely used selection criterion. It might even be a good way to pick a product, but [click to continue…]

Quotes of the Month – February, 2009

“We must give lengthy deliberation to what has to be decided once and for all.” [like cornerstone architectural products]

Publilius Syrus (~100 BC), a Latin writer of maxims

“When it is not necessary to make a decision, it is necessary not to make a decision.”

Lucius Cary, 2nd Viscount Falkland (c. 1610 – 1643), an English politician, soldier and author

“Dark and difficult times lie ahead. Soon we must all face the choice between what is right and what is easy.”

J. K. Rowling, (1965 – ), British author, best known as the creator of the Harry Potter fantasy series, in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire: The Movie

“It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.”

J. K. Rowling, in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

“If toast always lands butter-side down, and cats always land on their feet, what happen if you strap toast on the back of a cat and drop it?”

Steven Wright (1955 – ), Academy Award-winning American stand-up comedian, actor, and writer

IT Alignment is Simple, Part 2

In a previous article I talked about business/IT alignment, explained the problem, and gave you the 7 criteria for achieving IT alignment. This month I’ll give you some tips for better and easier IT alignment.

I’ll start with a five-step process to change your IT budget to better support alignment. First, let’s clean up maintenance and infrastructure so they don’t distract us from our project budget.

Step 1. Follow the advice in my book, and organize your IT budget into separate categories for infrastructure, projects and maintenance.
Over time the percentage of an IT budget devoted to infrastructure and maintenance tends to rise because of the increased ongoing cost of all of the projects you’ve completed. So breaking out your budget into these three categories makes your budget more transparent and understandable to business executives. When they see that the percentage of money available for new projects is declining, they’ll better understand why you have trouble delivering more projects as time goes on. And they’ll be more receptive to increasing your total IT budget to fund additional projects.

Step 2. Now focus your maintenance budget on software maintenance.
Put hardware maintenance under infrastructure where it belongs. Also move to infrastructure the cost of certain software contracts that are required to make the infrastructure work. This includes server operating systems, database and network software licenses that are required by existing systems, and the cost of user software licenses like Microsoft Office that are installed on user PCs.

Step 3. Make your maintenance budget even clearer by [click to continue…]

Quotes of the Month – January, 2009

“Cui Bono Fuerit” (“Whom did it benefit?”)

Gaius Cassius Longinus (before 85 BC – October 42 BC), a Roman senator, the prime mover in the conspiracy against Julius Caesar, and the brother in-law of Brutus

“He is great who confers the most benefits.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803 – 1882), American essayist, poet, and leader of the Transcendentalist movement in the early 19th century

“Another flaw in the human character is that everybody wants to build and nobody wants to do maintenance.”

Kurt Vonnegut (1922 – 2007), American author, in his book, Hocus Pocus

“Some couples go over their budgets very carefully every month, other just go over them.”

Sally Poplin

“The [United States] budget is like a mythical bean bag. Congress votes mythicals beans into it, then reaches in and tries to pull real ones out.”

Will Rogers (1879 – 1935), American comedian, humorist, social commentator, vaudeville performer, and actor

Bonus quote:

“Sure [Fred Astaire] was great, but don’t forget that Ginger Rogers did everything he did, … backwards and in high heels.”

Robert Thaves (1924 – 2006), in his May 3, 1982 “Frank and Ernest” comic strip.

Applying the quote to IT, we could say that, “Sure CEO’s are great, but don’t forget that CIO’s support everything that CEO’s do, … driving blindfolded and using troublesome technology.” Good luck with your IT/business alignment!

Results of the latest SIM CIO Survey were announced at SIMposium 2008. Once again, “IT and Business Alignment” was number 1 on the list of top IT management concerns (it’s been number 1 for a lot of years). [Note: as of 2016 it’s still number 1, and it’s been number 1 for ten out of fourteen years.] It’s amazing to me that CIOs haven’t yet learned how to solve the IT alignment problem, so in this article I’ll explain what IT alignment is all about, and in a  follow-up article I’ll explain in more detail how to achieve business/IT alignment.

Unaligned IT is like driving blindfolded
First, I’ll use a metaphor to describe the problem. Suppose you’re a CIO driving a car, with your CEO in the front passenger seat. But in this example you’re blindfolded behind the wheel and so the CEO has to give you extremely detailed instructions on how to drive: “Turn just a little bit left. Prepare for a right turn. OK, turn NOW. Slow down just a little bit. A little bit more. Now speed up.”

Do you get the picture? How frustrating and nerve-wracking would this be for you as the driver? And how would it be for the CEO? If you were CEO wouldn’t you be incredibly frustrated that you have to spend so much time telling the CIO what to do? Why can’t the CIO just figure it out for him/herself?

Now take the blindfold off, and do some advance planning. Suppose you – the CIO – get together with the CEO prior to your trip and make plans for your travel. Together you pick a destination, and you jointly decide on criteria for picking a route: fastest, most scenic, most economical, whatever is important to the two of you. Then you – the CIO driving expert – recommend a route that will get the two of you to the destination in the best way possible, optimizing those selection criteria on which you just agreed. You discuss the recommended route with the CEO, make changes as necessary, and then start on your trip. You’re in the driver’s seat, but you’re no longer blindfolded.

Along the way things will happen. Your destination might change. Your route selection criteria might change. You may have to revise your route to adjust to unexpected weather, bad roads or traffic. But you make all of these adjustment decisions jointly with the CEO, and so you both agree that you’re doing the best that can be done.

This second approach – advance planning with no blindfold – is an example of alignment, but the first approach – driving blindfolded – is an example of what most unaligned IT organizations do instead. IT is driving blindfolded because [click to continue…]

Quotes of the Month – December, 2008

“An intellectual says a simple thing in a hard way. An artist says a hard thing in a simple way.”

Charles Bukowski (1920 – 1994), German American poet, novelist, and short story writer

“After all, life is really simple; we ourselves create the circumstances that complicate it.”

Author Unknown

“Making the simple complicated is commonplace; making the complicated simple, awesomely simple, that’s creativity.”

Charles Mingus (1922 – 1979), American jazz bassist, composer, bandleader, and occasional pianist

“Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not one bit simpler.”

Albert Einstein (1879 – 1955)

“Life was simple before World War II. After that, we had systems.”

Rear Admiral Grace Hopper (1906 – 1992), pioneering American computer scientist and United States Naval officer

Turn Left at the Last Traffic Light

It happened a while ago – before GPS devices, and before Google Maps or Mapquest. I was trying to drive to an address in a small town and I did what reasonable people did back then: I asked someone at a gas station for directions. One detail from the directions stands out in my memory: the gas station attendant told me to “turn left at the last traffic light.” I was so astonished that it took me a few seconds just to react. Then I asked him, “How do I know which traffic light is the last one?”

Maybe you’ve never gotten directions like that, but I’ll bet you’ve seen or heard similar statements. Here are a few of my favorites: [click to continue…]

Quotes of the Month – November, 2008

“Traffic signals in New York are just rough guidelines.”

David Letterman (1947 – )

“Fortunately, the second-to-last bug has just been fixed.”

Ray Simard

“When anyone asks me how I can best describe my experience in nearly forty years at sea, I merely say, uneventful. Of course there have been winter gales, and storms and fog and the like. But in all my experience, I have never been in any accident… or any sort worth speaking about. I have seen but one vessel in distress in all my years at sea. I never saw a wreck and never have been wrecked nor was I ever in any predicament that threatened to end in disaster of any sort.”

E. J. Smith, 1907, Captain, RMS Titanic

“It is neither necessary or possible to educate someone who never questions anything.”

Joseph Heller (1923 – 1999), Catch-22

“Some men are born mediocre, some men achieve mediocrity, and some men have mediocrity thrust upon them.”

Joseph Heller (1923 – 1999), Catch-22

No Programmer Left Behind?

1. Tests
I’ve always been pretty good at taking tests; I guess you could say I have a gift for “quizmanship.” But on a 1 – 10 scale, I would probably rate myself a 6 or 7 on the geek-o-meter. I’m not up there with some of the kids I once went to school with, who, when the teacher lapsed into a personal recollection, would immediately stick up their hand and ask whether this would be on the mid-term.

The nice thing about taking tests is that you’re dealing with a fixed environment in which there are hard and fast rules. You know the subject area to be covered by the test, and you have a general feel for the types of questions that will be asked. Reality is different: there are no rules, and you’re just as likely to need some skill that you’ve long ago forgotten as you are to be asked to take advantage of some recently acquired knowledge

Tests don’t measure reality – they measure a miniature subset of reality projected into a multiple-choice, short-answer, true-or-false environment. In our quest to be objective about the measurement of learning, we’ve zeroed in on the closest approximation to objectivity that our teachers can find. But it’s a poor reflection of the reality that we all have to live with after we graduate.

2. Creativity

A couple of decades ago I taught a class to help people be more creative and to help teams work better together on creative solutions. The class included some exercises, and two of those exercises are applicable to my topic today. In one exercise we asked each person in the class to write down his or her best recollection of which letters are associated with each number on a phone keypad. This was in the days when phones were for making calls – not sending text or email messages – and so the exercise was difficult for most people.

After each person had recorded his or her own remembrance, we broke the group down into small teams, and each team was given the goal of developing a single “best answer.” Not surprisingly, [click to continue…]

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