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No? No. No! April 22, 2009

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Leadership.
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There is a fatal trap into which all IT Leaders fall, sooner or later.  It isn’t a sudden trap, sprung upon you all at once, but a slow, gentle descent into a disaster that can break your career if you aren’t careful.

It starts by saying “no.”

Every IT organization in the world is understaffed with respect to the total demand for all IT projects contemplated by the business.  While we may have enough people to keep the lights on and systems running, we’ll never have enough people to execute every project envisioned by our peers in the business.  That’s the way it should be: not every project needs to be completed, no matter how badly it is wanted by its champion.

As the owner of scarce resources, IT can become the arbiter of what gets done and what gets ignored.  And therein lies the trap: for every project you accept, you are telling one or more people “no.”  Each person that gets turned away views IT as an impediment to their grand plan, a speed bump on their road to success.  Over time, you’ll wind  up telling everyone no at some point.  You’ll have accrued so much resentment among your customers that they will begin to bypass you to get things done.  When that happens, your effectiveness as a CIO has diminished, and your ability to serve your company has ended.  Soon after that, you’ll be looking for a new job.

There is a better way, and savvy CIOs know how to avoid this trap.  The key is to engage your peers to decide, among themselves, which projects should or shouldn’t get green-lighted.  IT has no business determining the ultimate cost and benefit of a project.  That’s up to the project champion and his or her peers, debating the project in the broader perspective of the business as a whole.  When they finish their debate, your job is to step in and make their collectively-chosen projects successful.  The animosity of those whose projects were declined can be directed at their peers who made that decision, not you as the CIO.

Every CIO needs to develop this governance process in their company.  Whole books have been written on how to gather projects into portfolios, build governance teams at various management levels, and facilitate the debate among business leaders.  The IT organization provides guidance along the way, with scope estimates, impact statements, and technology assessments.  This is done objectively to support the conversation, not to champion a particular cause.

But, some CIOs complain, change only occurs when I initiate it!  How do I get things to happen while being objective?

You have two choices.  The right way is to present your big idea to another business leader, convince them of the merits, and allow them to champion the project.  With them as champion, you step back into your role of objective facilitator and implementation expert.  The more difficult path is to advance the idea yourself, acting as a business leader and not as the CIO.  This requires a deft hand and can be fraught with peril.  Honestly, if you can’t convince someone in the business to champion your idea, why would you advance it on your own anyway?

Good IT governance is a crucial part of every successful company and every successful CIO.  It takes time to develop the culture and process for successful governance, but your patient efforts will be well-rewarded.  Good governance gets you out of the position of being the “guy who always says no.”  That’s important, because the “guy who says no” is soon known as the “guy looking for a new job.”

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Three Envelopes April 20, 2009

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Leadership.
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According to the apocryphal story, a person is hired to replace someone who was fired for poor performance.  Excited about his new job, he arrives in the recently vacated office to find the desk empty except for three envelopes left there by the now-departed predecessor.  Numbered 1, 2, and 3, a short note explains that they are to be opened only when the owner has really messed things up at work.  Our new hire sticks them in a drawer and forgets about them.

That is, until six months later, when he really messes things up.  Facing a tough situation, he remembers the envelopes.  He tears open envelope #1 to find a slip of paper that reads, “Blame your predecessor.”  Perfect!  He concocts a story that pins the problems on the previous employee and deftly sidesteps blame for the issue.

Another six months go by, and again our friend is in trouble.  This time, the envelopes are fresh in his mind, so he opens #2.  “Blame your coworkers,” it advises.  He does, and once again avoids taking the fall for a problem he caused.

It should come as no surprise that six months later, he’s in trouble again.  Fortunately, there is still another envelope.  He opens number 3, to find one last bit of advice: “Prepare three envelopes.”

A person’s character can be neatly judged when we see how they handle mistakes.  We are all human; we all fail.  When confronted with that failure, our next move paints a picture of how we handle responsibility and blame.  Do you step up and own the problem, or do you reach for an envelope?

Good people step up.  They acknowledge the problem, accept the blame, and work doubly hard to correct the problem.  It is a sad commentary on our world today that most people are pleasantly surprised when you do this.  While you may not be able to completely rectify the problem, you will earn some measure of respect by taking ownership of the issue.  The problem may not be fixed, but your character is intact.

Bad people step away.  They look to blame anyone except themselves, and will sacrifice anyone to protect themselves.  Blaming predecessors and coworkers will work for a while, but you will eventually run out of envelopes.  The problems remain, but you will not.  And your character will be irreparably tarnished.

We all have three envelopes available to us, every day.  We’ll all make mistakes at some point.  When that happens, don’t reach for an envelope.  Own it, fix it, and move on.

When Vultures Circle January 21, 2009

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Random Musings.
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I spent fifteen years living in Florida. While some people view Florida as an idyllic tropical paradise of surf, sand, and perky rodents, I see it more as a modern taste of biblical Egypt.  While I left Florida before experiencing all ten plagues, I have actually lived through plagues of frogs, locusts, flies, and hail.  Some modern plagues filled in for the traditional ones; a plague of boils sounds bad, but a plague of tourists can be overwhelming.  Flash floods and brush fires are lovely, and you haven’t lived until you’ve discovered that a plague of wild pigs have uprooted your entire yard overnight.

I reached my tipping point one hot afternoon while trying to mow our yard. I recognize that “hot afternoon” translates to every day in Florida except for the tail end of January; this was actually a really hot day in August, with temperature and humidity both nearing 100.

The mower had broken down. I was sitting next to it surrounded by tools and mower parts, sweating and muttering.  As I wondered if a plague of mower problems was just beginning, I heard a “whoosh.” An enormous vulture landed next to me, no more than three feet away!

Vultures are huge, ugly birds.  Up close, they are even huger and uglier. They spend their days circling high above the Florida swamps, looking for dead things to eat.  In my current state, I attracted enough vulture attention to warrant a further look. The vulture and I sat silently, considering each other.  I could see, in his beady vulture eyes, the assessment occurring.  “Hmmm.  Not dead yet, but close.  Could be dinner tonight; definitely dinner by tomorrow.”

Mental notes taken, he flapped his gigantic wings and took off, leaving me with my mower. I was relieved that I had not warranted an immediate taste, but deeply concerned by the perception of my imminent demise.

We had had enough of Florida.  Soon after, we began looking for a new job and home, which has led to many wonderful things for me and my family.  While the vulture was not the single reason for our leaving Florida, I still think of it as a strong motivating event for finally taking action and getting on with our move.

When faced with difficult, potentially costly decisions, I am reminded of the vulture.  It was the sign that convinced me to get moving.  In our personal and business lives, we often avoid hard decisions and try to defer the pain.  Moving was hard, but staying in Florida would have been disastrous.

Sometimes, it takes a vulture to force the issue and get us moving.  Are you avoiding a decision?  Are you in denial about a looming change to your world? Do you need a vulture?

Slices Of Apple, Part 4 August 7, 2008

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Leadership.
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This is the last in a series of posts dissecting Apple’s recent misfortunes during the rollout of the iPhone 3G and related technologies.  You’ll find the first post here.

Avoid Denial

It appears that Steve Jobs has been reading these blog postings and taking my advice to heart.  Although he has not contacted me directly, he clearly agrees with my assessment of his recent misfortunes.  And, visionary that he is, he has actually started to act upon the advice I’m about to share, even before I posted it to this blog.

That guidance is simple: when you are having some sort of systems or project meltdown, own up to it.  The sooner you step up and take responsibility for the problem, the sooner you can move forward with fixing things.  The existence of the problem is not up for debate; if your users think you have a problem, you have a problem.  As I learned from my first boss in computer operations, the customer’s perception is your reality.  Accept that reality and deal with it.

In Apple’s case, their initial reluctance to admit that they were fallible only damaged their credibility even further.  They then began to split hairs: the MobileMe meltdown only affected 1, or 2, or 4 percent of the user base.  If you are among those 80,000 people, your perception is that it is affecting 100 percent of the users that matter. Offering statistical analysis of a problem is not a useful approach.  Apple is in a hole, and the rule of holes is simple: when you are in one, stop digging.

Given the lightning speed with which this all gets transmitted by the internet, Apple’s repeated refusal to acknowledge their customer’s reality only compounded things that much quicker.  Perhaps a general extension of the “avoid denial” rule would be “especially when your users are well-organized and digitally connected.”

Even with Steve’s “leaked” email, Apple is still in a bit of denial.  His email was sent to employees, not customers.  While there is no doubt that employees are getting hammered from within and without, the only people that really matter are the customers.  These people paid $99 for a service that doesn’t work.  To bring closure to the bad rollout and to move on to actually fixing it, Steve Jobs needs to apologize to his customers, publicly and sincerely.  Only then can he hope to rebuild the fractures that have resulted from his poor planning and execution.

I hope he’s still reading.