Saturday, October 29, 2016

Play the Disruption Game

Do you ever go down memory lane and think about all the things that were normal then that are very different now or gone completely?  I find myself reflecting on the past while I consider the present and how different the future will be.  We live in truly interesting times don't we.

I haven't been writing in this space much in the past few years.  I kind-of lost interest in writing about what I've been up to, what I've been thinking, or what I've been speculating about.  However, I was watching an interesting clip from Doc James Whittaker @docjamesw recently where he talked about the past, present, and future and it inspired me to write again.  I don't know that this will become a habit again but there is this post at least.

James mentioned playing the disruption game.  This game involves taking an industry and thinking about how it could be disrupted in the future by technological advancements.  As you know, technology is probably the most disruptive phenomenon weaving through history.  In our life time it has been the digital form that has relentlessly disrupted everything we know.  A quick side story... my wife and I just underwent a little kitchen reno replacing counters, sink, faucet, and installing back splash.  When the contractor came to estimate the back splash he asked if we wanted
to cover over the jack for the phone.  Even though we had switched from 'home phone' to iPhone a few years ago, it did cause us to pause before answering.  We knew we would never use it again but when we sell would the new owners care?  We decided 'tough luck' for them :-) and had the back splash cover over the jack.  This is just a small example of disruption of the traditional phone business.

It was only a few years ago that I wrote about autonomous cars, back when there wasn't a lot of buzz about this.  Fast forward to today, and many people are writing about, speaking about, and speculating about the future of this disruption.  I read recently that Tesla is installing in all future models all the hardware and sensors necessary for fully autonomous driving.  Over time, their software will be updated and delivered wirelessly to gradually transform their cars from human driven, machine assisted to machine driven, human assisted to machine driven and likely human hands-off.  I mention this idea to friends, colleagues, and family and most are not comfortable with the idea and say they will never let a machine drive.  I say that will be a gift and make our roads far more safer and driving, er, transporting, more productive with our time.

So, imagine with me the future where cars drive themselves and humans are mere passengers.  I get up, get ready, have breakfast, brush my teeth, grab my lunch and coffee and head out the door.  I get into my car, and sit down for a relaxing drive into the office.  My car detects that I'm ready to go and quietly starts off (it's all electric by the way).  It auto connects with my smart device (aka phone), looks into my calendar and sees that I am indeed headed to work.  It calculates the optimal route given current weather conditions, traffic patterns, and known accidents.  The car can see all routes simultaneously to my office in Vancouver including every vehicle on the road, how fast they are traveling, what road work is going on, etc.  It has 360 degree visibility all the time.

I arrive at my office and my car parks in one of the spots and 'reaches out' it's plug to a charging station.  I head into the office.  30 minutes later, my car 'wakes up', unplugs, and heads out of the garage.  Where is it going you might ask?  Well, my car is registered into the VanCity Car Share Coop and someone asked for a car with the # of seats mine has available and my car was the nearest one available.  Off it went... my car picked up and delivered passengers throughout the morning parking itself on side streets here and there when it wasn't needed.  Knowning from my calendar that I have a 1:15 appointment at a school, it arrives back at the office out front, messages me 5 minutes before arriving, and waits for me to get there.  I get in and it takes me to my appointment.  It sees that I plan to be there an hour so makes itself available for callouts in the area within a 10km radius.  And so the typical work day goes - I make money from owning a car rather than just spending money and leaving it idle 90% of the time!

With autonomous driving vehicles, many things will be disrupted.  There will be far fewer (if any) accidents which will lead to very low cost insurance or will there be none and a small residual is built into the price of the car and the rental callout fees?  Fault of course will be the car manufacturer, not the owner.  Fault is an interesting problem here.  If a human is driving and a dilemma occurs say where two small children run out in front of you and on the right is a cliff and the left is a crowd of 12 people, what decision will the human make?  Will they stay the course and kill the two children, swerve left into the crowd perhaps killing and injury many, or sacrifice themselves off the cliff?  What would an autonomous car decide?  Great question...  it's dilemmas like this that need accepted solutions before the autonomous car will be accepted.

So, less accidents will mean less health care for accident victims.  This will lead to fewer clinics, fewer hospital beds, fewer nurses, doctors, and other health care workers.  Fewer painkillers will be needed.  People might drink more alcohol after work because they don't have to drive.  There will be no taxi drivers, Uber drivers, bus drivers, truck drivers.  Car ownership in cities will likely be non-existent.  Why own if you have on demand access?  There will be fewer fuel stations.  With fewer car owners there will be fewer parking lots, spots, and garages.  Fewer meter maids, fewer traffic cops, fewer court cases and thus fewer lawyers and judges.  There will be fewer car washes, tire shops, automotive repair garages, and fewer dealerships.

I wonder if there will be dealerships?  People that do buy will likely do this online.  I bought my last two vehicles by picking models, colors, and options online and emailing back and forth with a salesperson.  Why not do it all online.  Perhaps test drives will be done with Oculus Rift, HoloLens, or some other virtual or augmented reality experience.  This will lead to fewer sales people, business managers, etc.  Someone will still need to repair and service the cars, at least until robots are capable.

You get the point... one quite miraculous change... the autonomous driving car, will disrupt many associated, loosely or otherwise, businesses and occupations.  I wonder what new jobs might be created as a result.  You watch, I bet some version of this story will play out over the next 10-20 years.  20 years from now someone will read this blog post and think 'wow, that was prophetic!' :-)

Monday, February 8, 2016

People Process Technology, The Triple Play

I often think about how to create an environment where the velocity can increase for how things get done.  I used to think technology was the main answer, just put in new tools, expect people to use them, and more stuff will get done.  I learned that adding technology on its own will often cause velocity to slow.  Most people need help seeing their way through the learning curve new technology brings.  So if adding technology isn't the answer, I thought 'what about better processes'.  If we could just design better ways of working, we will get more stuff done.  Well, this outcome really depends on who the people are and what their mindset is.  If people are not engaged in their work, see it as 'just a job', are not connected to the organization mission, great process won't really make a difference either.  Okay, so that just leaves the third element, people.

Over my career, I have learned a lot about myself and about the diversity of people and how they think.  I used to get frustrated when I would eloquently communicate direction to my team and some would be enthused, some ambivalent, and others resistant.  I would think to myself 'what is wrong with these people, don't they get it?'.  Well, I've learned that as a leader or communicator, it is my job to figure out and understand people and how to tailor my messaging to better fit each type of person.  In some cases this will require 1:1 communication fit for a person.

I wrote previously about how I was working to better understand my team and help them understand each other.  In December last year my whole team and I responded to a profile survey created to produce a personal profile report on each of us.  It was very interesting to see how everyone was reacting to their reports.  Some would say how it described them to the letter, others argued that it was no where near accurate - ah but they asked their spouses or kids and they confirmed it.  In early January we had a facilitator come in and take us through the material to help us understand how it works and how we can use it for more effective communication and relationships.  We will bring her back for three more sessions over the next year to help us learn how to read people and tailor our ways of working with each other to a better result.  My goal in this is for people to appreciate and leverage their differences for better communication.


Knowing your people, investing in and supporting them, spending time with them, coaching and mentoring them, are all important steps.  With a large team it may be difficult to get to know everyone personally but by mentoring your direct reports to know their direct reports and so on, you can get a pretty good picture of your overall team.  From that you / your leadership team can design teams with optimal balance to set them up for better success.  You can use your limited resources wisely and support people where they need it most.  Essentially, by knowing your people better, you can be more strategic in how you help them grow and thus get more stuff done.

It's not all just about people however.  Your people may be your greatest asset but you can amplify their success with great process and fit for purpose technology (tools).  You can design processes that accommodate different working, thinking, and communicating styles.  When you add technology to their toolkit, make sure to invest in training them how to use it effectively.  Our front line support technicians were given Mac computers and expected to just learn them to they can support their customers.  You can probably guess how well that worked for most.  Not everyone has a natural tendency to self-learn.  Once we started training them properly on the tools AND the technical processes, their ability to get stuff done and support their customers with their new tools was improved dramatically.  The other interesting fact is that when you provide good tools and design and teach good processes, your people feel more confident and capable and they, wait for it... get more stuff done.  They also feel better about themselves which can improve team work, morale, etc. and help people, get more stuff done.  A positive feedback loop emerges.

None of these ideas are rocket science but sometimes we just need to be reminded that the three components of people, process, and technology are together a winning formula and separately you need to invest strategically for an optimal outcome.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

People are Different

As I've taken on leadership roles in different organizations I've learned a lot about people.  When I was younger and much less wiser, I used to get frustrated when people wouldn't respond positively to the direction or support I was so cleverly providing.  Some of my team members would respond very
istockphoto# 11806154
well, others so-so, and then another group that didn't get it or passively resisted.  Little did I understand at the time that 'people are different'.  Fast forward to my wiser self (from many schools of hard knocks along the way), and I believe I get it now.  I appreciate the differences I see in my team members.  People complement each other's performance with their differences when they understand each other better.

This year I am focusing on helping my team do some self-discovery.  I started with a simple activity at our last all team meeting in September.  The activity was drawn from Bruce Wellman's book Groups at Work on page 42 - it is called Compass Points (also see this resource) and is a great way for people to quickly recognize and appreciate their diverse personal working styles.  It is designed to help people understand their own preferred way of thinking and working and appreciate people (their team mates) that are different from themselves.  The activity was a hit and the team members got right into it.  The way it works is like this:

  • put up chart paper on the wall in four corners of a large room (2 or more sheets depending on the size of your team and how they cluster into the four choices)
  • provide color markers
  • describe the four working and thinking styles which are
    • North: Just get it done
    • West: Pay attention to detail
    • South: Caring about people's feelings
    • East: Think about the big picture
  • write the label of the working style on the top of the chart paper
  • ask your team members to contemplate which style they identify with the most and ask them to go to that corner
  • ask them to discuss these questions among their group members and to respond with 3 or four adjectives for each question using the chart paper
    • What are the strengths of your working style?
    • What are the limitations of your working style?
    • What style do you find the most difficult to work with and why?
    • List examples that people from the other styles need to know about you so you can work well / successfully together?
    • Bonus question: What do you appreciate about the other styles?
  • when they are done, ask them to nominate a spokesperson and then go around the room and ask the groups to report out on their discovery
My team clustered heavily on the 'Pay attention to detail' style, next the 'Just get it done', then 'Big picture', and finally 'Caring about people's feelings'.  This is probably not that surprising for a group of IT professionals.  I then asked them 'where do you think I would best fit?'.  First I said how about the 'Caring about people's feelings' and only a few hands went up - I said I was surprised and asked if anyone had a Kleenex :-)  Then I asked about the other styles and when I reached the 'Big picture' style, nearly all hands went up.  For me this was quite revealing as that is how I view myself as well so in a sense, my authenticity is showing through to my team which is a good thing.  I was actually surprised more didn't see me as caring about people's feelings because I do but it's probably how I come across - calm, listening, and advising, not emotional.

People have talked about this off and on after the meeting.  When in business meetings, often people will pipe up and say 'it's because I'm a get it done person, or I'm a detailed person', etc.  It's interesting to see them using the language of the working styles activity and seemingly appreciating their differences - this is a great outcome.

I introduced my team to the next initiative along this line.  I am going to have them go through the Insight and DISC profiling system.  We will use the Excel Group and a principal from a local school district that is certified in the technique to facilitate the process and follow up workshops.  Each individual will receive a personal report (example) after completing a confidential questionnaire online that is designed to capture personality traits sufficient to robo-produce a report about them.

I completed this back in 2010 in a different role and organization.  My report begins with "Brian displays a high energy factor and is optimistic about the results he can achieve. The word can't is not in his vocabulary".  Sure sounds like me...  There are other attributes and traits that the report claims about me, mostly true at the time, that I can see have dramatically been adapted over the past 5 years and more significantly with my newest role as CIO.  My DISC profile from 2010 is shown here.  When I undertake this again this year, I expect my adapted (the star) to move more to the 'promoter and relater area' given how I believe I had adapted.  A key insight from this process is that people have a natural profile and an adapted one that is based on their role and context.  This means we are quite elastic and capable of changing our default selves to better fit our circumstances - this is good news for many I'm sure.

We will receive an integrated Insights Wheel indicating where each individual lands on a spectrum in terms of their natural and adapted communications style.  This will give my team and myself great insight into people's communication styles and together as we learn more about this through workshops, we can improve our communication skills with one another and with our clients and other colleagues.

As leaders one of our number one responsibilities is to invest in our people.  By growing our people we multiply our capacity, happiness levels, quality, and productivity.  If you think to yourself, 'I don't have time for this', you are wrong.  We need to remove impediments for our teams so that they can flourish in your organization.  That is a gift we can give them and our organizations! 

Monday, September 7, 2015

There is no "i" in Team

I believe in teaching people to 'fish' rather than 'fishing' for them.  In practice I have found this philosophy when working with my staff and 'clients' to be a powerful way to grow people and their capacity.  It takes time and patience and you have to hold yourself back from just doing 'it' your self.

Some years ago, my wife Shelley decided to create an online business where she needed to learn a ton about a variety of technologies, in a hurry.  She would call me with lots of questions and although I think it frustrated her at the time, I would respond with questions, not answers.  I would ask her what she thinks she should do and in a round about way, help her get to the answer or possible answers.  It didn't take long for her to stop calling... :-)  I often do the same with my staff and the clients I support.  It would be so much easier just to answer the specific question or do it for them but then they would be dependent on me which does nothing to grow their expertise and skills.

(c) istockphoto.com #870829
I have found that the same mindset is helpful when thinking about how to organize my team members to perform at higher levels.  Individuals working on their own can only do so much.  They only have the expertise, skills, and knowledge that they have acquired and each individual is at a different level of capacity.  But, together they are far better, far better.  Teams are proven powerhouse structures, if they are setup well.  For teams to work effectively, there needs to be a high degree of trust between the members, they need to care about each others work, and ideally they care about each other as people.  When team members go through adverse situations together, their bonds grow even further and as individuals they become stronger and more capable.

I watched a great movie the other night: Coach Carter.  In the movie, a past basketball star and successful businessman who attended a low performing high school many years earlier chooses to take on the job of coaching the schools basketball team at his old school.  The team had a history of low performance, the players were generally low performers academically, undisciplined, and from troubled families.  The coach helped them turn things around in all these areas and the players developed trust and a genuine care for one another.  In one scene, one of the players, who had been kicked off the team, wanted back on.  The coach assigned him 1000 push-ups and 1500 suicides and one week to complete them.  When Friday came along, he hadn't finished yet - his team mates one by one said they would complete some push-ups and suicides to help him complete on time.  They choose to 'suffer' for one of their own.  That's a power stage in team development.

For our last team meeting of the school year in June, I designed an activity for my teams to experience.  I often like to include an experience for my team that involves using technology that they deploy for students in our schools.  The activity was digital story telling using claymation and stop motion.  I had them organized into their usual work teams (about 50 people) of 4 or 5 and they had to brainstorm together and write a script for their story about a real customer or technical service event or situation.  The next step was to use colored clay to create their 'movie' characters and scene props.  Then they had to learn (none had ever used this tool) how to use iStopMotion on iPads.  They had stands to mount the iPads to keep them steady while 'filming'.  They would then 'act out' their script using their clay characters and props, capturing each movement (like animation) using the app.  After they were happy with their capture, they had to add voice overs to their characters.  The culminating moment was when each team in turn air-played their movies to the big screen for all to see.  I had budgeted about 75 minutes for this but eventually skipped the rest of the agenda to allow them the couple of hours they needed.  I have never seen adults working so well in teams and being so engaged.  There was laughter, fun, serious design work, deep thinking, and emergent leadership within the teams.  A few of my staff afterwards said, "you had us doing a team building activity didn't you".  Well, they had me :-)

I have worked hard the past few years to add and build capacity in my team and to empower people to make decisions.  You are never quite sure if you are making progress, but this summer I saw the evidence.  I took a sizable amount of time off this summer for vacation and my team members worked through numerous significant projects and operational improvement work with vary little oversight from me.  I am proud of my team members and impressed with their accomplishments.  Secondly, one of our IT architects said to me when I returned that he and another architect were talking about why they work here.  They agreed it wasn't because the money is good (it truly is not - this needs to be fixed) but because they have the freedom to architect and invent our future and to make things better for so many.  Both of these evidences are powerful ahas for me.

One more sports example...  I like to watch professional golf and am so impressed with Jordan Spieth, a young 22 year old who has taken the golf world by storm this year winning two majors and coming in fourth in one and second in the last one after which he was declared the best in the world.  Whenever he is interviewed, he most often uses "we" when talking about his past, current, and future performance.  The "we" includes his caddie.  He recognizes that it takes a team effort to perform well.  Not all golfers appear to think this way.  This should bring to mind all those people in our lives, work and personal, that are part of our team and our success.  Be humble and realize who has helped you become successful.  As individuals none of us can go very far on our own!

Not to paint a perfect picture... we have some work teams that are not working as well as they could.  I own responsibility for this and plan to invest energy in helping them improve.  As a formal leader, I see my role as figuring out (observe, ask questions, listen) what my team members need and finding ways to get it for them, to remove obstacles where possible, and to invest in their direct leaders so that they are successful in supporting their team members.  I have work to do there as well.  It is definitely a work in progress but I am pleased with where we have arrived and look forward to helping my team members become even more successful and happy in the work they do for our students, teachers, and staff!

Saturday, May 16, 2015

The Chicken or the Egg, Which Comes First

Something has been on my mind as of late and I feel compelled to write about it.  I am grappling with why technology is so often pushed to the background into a supporting role.  I know, I’m biased right, I’m a technology advocate.  It’s true but that is not why I believe technology should always be first when considering an activity, a way of working, a way of learning, and a way of teaching others.

Way back in 1985, my wife and I got married.  We planned a honey moon trip to California.  We bought some paper maps and had access to, yes, an atlas!  We figured out our general plan then as proud BCAA members, asked for driving maps to be produced.  We studied and followed those maps carefully all the way down and back over the next couple of weeks.  Now fast forward to 2015, we are planning a trip to Spain.  iStock_000019171659XSmallShould we use the same approach with the same tools (technology) to plan a trip?  No of course not.  We are using Google Maps and other Internet resources to plan things out, much faster, in a far more informed manner.  The other day while using Google Earth I ‘visited’ Ronda in the south of Spain from where we will be starting a week long bike trip through the country side, village to village.  I was exploring the city and surrounding landscape, viewing crowd sourced photos, and ‘walking’ the streets, etc.  If I had used the traditional tools, this would be impossible to accomplish and experience.

When people set out to build houses 80 years ago, they had basic technology consisting of hand saws, hammers, nails, and wood.  It was a very manually intensive task and they had access to very little options in terms of materials.  Fast forward to 2015 and the saws are electric, come in many shapes and sizes, nails are ‘pounded in’ with nail guns, wood is screwed down with cordless battery screw drivers, and because of technology driven ways of using, creating, and manufacturing materials, they had amazing diverse materials available to them.  Go through the list of trades, business workers, medical practitioners, and other occupations and you see technology at the forefront in every case in a modern society.  Work practices and procedures are designed and planned with technology at the core – the technology is primary and the methods are wholly dependent.  And, what they are able to accomplish, would be impossible without the technology.

I remember (vaguely…) my high school years (1980-81) and how all knowledge and information was obtained from encyclopaedias, books, and our teachers.  We learned what we were told.  There were no other options or sources available to us.  We wrote papers, did worksheets, solved problems (on paper), all to satisfy our teachers and to get good marks on our report cards.  Fast forward to 2015 and classrooms are starting to operate differently for sure.  Teachers are adopting newer technologies, albeit slowly.  In most cases I encounter, the new technologies are still quite optional, are afterthoughts, are add-ons, are reserved for special projects, etc.  I don’t recall from 1981 that our books, encyclopaedias, and our teachers were optional, afterthoughts, add-ons, or reserved for special projects.  So why are new technologies treated so differently?  I think things are backwards…

I still see tweets, blog posts, and hear people say that pedagogy is first and foremost important and technology should be considered for ways it can support the pedagogy.  Pedagogy is really just a tool, a technology itself, used to teach and to cause learning to take place.  But how one teaches today should be fully if not now, when - questiondependent on the technologies available.  Why are so many schools still hanging on to the use of textbooks when not one of their students will ever use a physical book again as a reference or tool for learning once they leave school?  Why would a lesson be designed based on the absence of information technology and then add in that technology to enhance the lesson?  Doesn’t it make more sense to design lessons based on all the technologies at ones disposal, to the point where the lesson could not exist or be used without the technology?

It is true that technologies fail, let us down, and can be difficult to learn to use.  But this is changing rapidly.  I think the time is now to start with technology first and change-20272_1920consider everything we do from there.  Technologies bring game changer opportunities, better ways of doing, and open doors that were never before imagined.  In our work and in our learning, we need to maximize the use of the tools (technologies) available and keep our eye out for new ones, all the time.  The alternative is to wake up one day and discover that what we knew and held on to as our ways of doing have become rather obsolete.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Is it really cheating?

When I was a young student we had to do our school work mostly independently.  It kind-of matched to the workplace where people mostly contributed individually.  I remember in university one of my computer science professors would say “I don’t care how you get the assignments done but I will get you on teamwork concept on blackboardthe test”.  His point was that if you don’t do or understand the work that you turn in you will not be able to pass the final which was worth 50% of the grade.  I think things have changed where we value collaboration, reuse, and innovation more than just following the rules, doing it yourself, or doing it ‘my way’.  I certainly value a balance of this from those that are part of my team.  But, what do students in our schools today experience? 

I was speaking with some teachers the other day and the English department head asked about using a tool Turnitin.  This tool ensures that “[s]tudent work is instantly checked for potential plagiarism using pattern recognition algorithms.  An Originality Report is generated in a matter of seconds.”  It will also provide “rich feedback” on assignments that students hand in.  She is struggling with assigning homework to her students that involves writing as she is concerned about how easy it is to use work from the Internet as their own.  I responded that Turnitin is a powerful tool but asked whether it is mostly a band aide to a problem and perhaps there are ways to think differently about cheating?  It comes down to a question of what is important for students to learn which relates to what is assessed.  There are provincial curricular requirements and exams for English so the test is certainly something that teachers are faced with preparing students to do well on.

This may shock you but the world actually values cheating.  Innovation is all about using the work of others as input into generating incremental or revolutionarily new ideas.  One could argue that there are rarely original ideas anymore, rather just mash ups of existing ideas, to create something newer.  What if English students were allowed ‘to cheat’ on essay writing?  What if they were assessed on the process they used to source materials perhaps with a requirement to incorporate a diverse set of sources.  They could be expected to integrate diverse material into a finished document.  Perhaps some of their sources had to come from building connections to original authors through social media.  They would work in a small team where each person is expected to write iStock_000008393347XSmall(assemble) their essay from a different perspective (time, historical figure, take a side, etc.) to ensure effort from all.  The students could learn about efficiency through reusing work and applying it to a specific context.  Perhaps students would have to demonstrate their understanding of what they produced through 1-1 meetings with their teacher and a public presentation to the class.  We expect employees in modern work places to not reinvent the wheel unless that is the only option.  We want employees to leverage others work, with appropriate credit where due of course and with understanding of the outcome.

What does it mean to ‘learn English’?  There are the words and their meaning, grammar and other technicalities.  There is the skill of conveying ideas in writing, making it interesting, bringing something to life through words, building characters, writing for an audience and purpose, etc.  Why not leverage an app to learn words, grammar, form, sentence structure, etc. and free the teacher to facilitate projects involving flickr - langwitches - information fluency - 5603842003research and summary, audiences, writing with persuasion, writing short (or long) novels, etc.  Design learning that involves group and individual work, original thought, and public speaking.  Teach kids to communicate in various mediums that are formal and informal, verbal and written, audio and visual, video, blogging, tweets, etc.  Allow students some freedom to choose their final media which might be written text, a video production, or creation of their story or essay in an environment like Mind Craft.  I know that these are all ways that many teachers already incorporate but perhaps it could become more pervasive?

My wife and I are planning a trip to Spain for 2016 and are actively learning Spanish.  We are not taking a class but rather are using an app, Duolingo.  We set our own daily targets and the Duolingo digital coach will gently remind us to put in the learning time.  As it teaches us to translate Spanish to English, English to Spanish, speak it, choose the right words, it builds our vocabulary, grammar skills, and it keeps score and tracks areas of weakness to reteach.  I also use Google “spanish to english” to translate words and phrases or grammatical constructs I’ve forgotten.  Perhaps this is cheating but if it helps me to learn Spanish easier, why not?  The goal is to acquire enough Spanish this way to be able to converse, read, and write it somewhat effortlessly.  That’s the desired outcome.  With all the technology available to students and teachers today shouldn’t learning a language and all that entails be quite different, perhaps easier and more tailored to student needs, than it has been for the past decades?  Perhaps what was once cheating could be referred to as resourcefulness.  Share your perspective and ideas here on ‘cheating’ and I’ll pass them along to others as the opportunity arises.

Friday, January 2, 2015

Be Strategic

It is so easy to be busy in our jobs.  You know, doing email, returning phone calls, and having meetings.  Some days on my commute home I wonder what happened during the day.  Busy does not equate to progress and most definitely isn’t strategic.  What does it mean to ‘be strategic’?  Why is this important to making positive progress?  Is strategic planning still a relevant business function in this ever fast changing world?

IMG_0673My wife and I visited Greece this past year and saw amazing examples of architecture and focused energy in creating complex structures and infrastructure.  When you think of the resources they had at their disposal, it seems impossible that they could have done the things they did 1000’s of years ago.  Take the Isthmian Canal for example. It was created to replace the more difficult method of rolling ships across land on logs.  But, it took incredible focus and resources to complete.  It was a very strategic goal designed to make far faster and easier passage from one part of Greece to another.  Without intense focus, they would have never accomplished their goal.

“Strategy is important because the resources available to achieve these goals are usually limited. Strategy generally involves setting goals, determining actions to achieve the goals, and mobilizing resources to execute the actions. A strategy describes how the ends (goals) will be achieved by the means (resources)” - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Strategy (Jan. 2, 2015).

Leaders need to regularly assess the current state of their organization to determine what needs to be changed so as to make improvements or create game changers. To be strategic, they will be concerned with setting goals to focus effort and resources on specific actions designed to make the changes deemed necessary.  It would seem then that a plan would be important for documenting and tracking the assessment, the desired changes, and the specific goals and actions.

I have seen (and participated in creating) some poor examples of ‘strategic plans’.  You know the type, loaded with paragraphs of descriptive text, diagrams, and quotes, and an excessive number of goals and objections that tend to dilute rather than focus efforts.  As well, I’ve rarely seen a strategic plan be used to regularly guide an organizations actions.  Its completion (the writing) often serves as a proud culminating moment and then it is dusted annually for key people to write about their progress towards achieving the goals.

One of the realities that I think leads to loaded (unruly) strategic plans is how much consultation is needed to create them.  The (lengthy) consultation process often results in a lot of advocating by interested parties to have specific goals included and where there are many stakeholders involved, the plan can become unruly.  Also, ownership and accountability for specific goals is not always assigned.  It is important to identify who is expected to achieve each goal and what happens if they failed to do so in the expected timeline.  Regular review of and reporting on of progress is important to keep people focused on what’s been deemed strategic.

In my woriStock_000019296536XSmallk of late advancing the use of technology I have not pursued the creation of formal strategic plans.  Rather, I’ve found strategic IT roadmaps to be helpful.  A roadmap is guide based on a few key strategic themes.  It is designed for the same purpose of a strategic plan but is far more focused on critical specific needs.  The roadmap is used to generate specific initiatives to make specific progress, reduce risks, or solve problems.  A strategic IT roadmap could be the outcome of a lite weight strategic planning process that involves stakeholders in understanding the context, identifying areas of need, and setting direction.  A roadmap would forecast and translate this direction into actionable initiatives.  Stakeholders could also be helpful in fleshing out details, addressing obstacles, and reviewing progress.

For example, An organization that has fallen behind in their effective use of technology might have two foundational strategic themes such as Infrastructure (sub-themes: network, security, servers, storage) and Access Equity (sub-themes: devices for people to access online services and tools, and access to adequate support).  Within each theme/sub-theme, specific initiatives (connected to supporting the organizations evolving priorities) would be designed, proposed, prioritized, and funded.  A rolling five year forecast of budget needs would be developed for each theme to inform the organization of the commitments necessary to advance and maintain the roadmap.  The roadmap serves as a tool to signal the direction and magnitude of strategic investments.  It is a ‘living document’ in that for each budget cycle it is revised and updated so as to keep it adaptable to iStock_000008217437XSmallshifting organization and environmental priorities.  Once sufficient progress is made on foundational themes, additional strategic themes could be pursued and road mapped to rely on earlier themes.  Think of it as building a house on a solid foundation.  Sometimes though, organizational pressures require inclusion of progressive themes before foundational themes are adequately actualized.  Such is life in complex organizations.

Being strategic is important, a plan is helpful, but make it meaningful and consider using roadmaps as a tool to focus and actualize the work.  If you aim at everything you will hit nothing in particular!