A tale with a list and a plea not to be silent.
The highly experienced and respected Chief Information Officer had just finished her presentation on the IT Strategy.
It seemed to make sense. After all it was well supported with some beautiful slides with amazing graphics. It clearly showed the IT strategy flowing directly from the business strategy. The presentation slides were on brand too. But it was VERY complicated. And expensive. Plus the Jargon was next level. But it is Technology right? No-one understands this stuff unless they’re an expert. Right?
It was a multi year roadmap to a bright future where the organisation will be “digitally transformed”
The first year plan was very urgent, very complicated and very expensive. Because apparently everything is broken and the risk is extreme. And it was going to be at least two years before the business saw any customer or business benefits. And in the last stage of the roadmap, “Horizon 3”, the organisation will be digital at last.
It was time for questions. The usual suspects spoke up: the new recruit who’d worked in a tech company, the executive responsible for transformation. And always the dude with an opinion about everything. But that was less than half the group around the table. And those that commented were complimentary and expressed appreciation for the work. The only questions were straightforward ones.
There was limited probing of the CIO
There was no exploration around additional options, or strategic choices that the roadmap would enable. No customer problems to be solved. No benefits were mentioned. No conversation about how this roadmap enabled competitive advantage. No challenging discussions about opportunity costs, creative ways of mitigating risks, or options for bringing forward customer and business value.
Strategy is about choices. But there were no choices put on the table. The choices would have absolutely been there. But they weren’t transparent.
The executive sharing his frustrations with me paused in his story while he ordered another coffee. He told me that this wasn’t the first time this had happened. But it wasn’t a lack of intellectual rigour, or strategic capability. The CEO and his management team regularly had robust, high quality strategic conversations about many other complex topics. He sighed, and asked me:
“Why is it, when the subject is Technology, that the non Tech leaders stay silent?”
My colleague’s experience is not unique. I too have sat in many Technology strategy conversations over the years at Board and executive level, and repeatedly seen the presenting Technology executives not subject to the level of scrutiny that other presenters routinely receive. The presentations commonly include the following things:
- Lots of jargon
- Complex “stacks” with lots of lines and boxes
- Lots of Very Serious Things That Could and Probably Will Go Wrong if we don’t do this
- Possibilities of Great Things happening after the early phases are done
- A request for a large amount of money
Technology often seems like a black box with only the experts able to see inside. It’s on us as leaders to make sure it doesn’t stay that way.
It can be scary to engage and risk appearing that you don’t understand something that you worry might be obvious to everyone else. In our minds, technology conversations can seem like minefields scattered with dumb questions. Directors’ heads spin as they grapple with what questions to ask, fear that Bad Things Might Happen on their watch if they don’t approve the strategy, and fear of being seen as out of touch if they step on the “dumb question” mine.
All too often, leaders give in to these fears and absolve themselves of responsibility. IT leaders get a free pass. And our strategies, businesses and customers are worse for it.
I see many similarities between the medical and technology professions
Medical language is often impenetrable. We have all spoken with doctors who communicate in ways that we don’t understand. It leaves us feeling confused, powerless and sometimes even scared. But the best doctors know how to communicate complex topics and make them accessible. And of course, these days there is so much quality information that is accessible to help build our health literacy. We can use this increased knowledge to come up with a series of informed questions to ask the doctor at our next appointment.
So too we need to build our technology literacy. Just as a good patient advocate won’t be silent in the face of a doctor who is not a clear communicator, leaders should not be silent in the face of Technology leaders who don’t clearly inform and educate their colleagues.
You don’t need to be an expert to see into the black box
Non Tech Leaders don’t need to become technology experts, but in this digital age ALL leaders need to become tech savvy. And we need to hold our Technology leaders to higher communication standards.
Technology is getting more complex. So is medicine. But the best doctors continue to be great communicators. And the best Technology leaders are also business savvy and ensure that the technology strategy is clear and transparent. They play key roles in ensuring that the strategy is as transparent as possible. They know how to effectively communicate in ways that inform, educate and engage with non Technology leaders.
If the Technology strategy in your organisation isn’t clear enough, and you’re not convinced that the trade offs are well understood, or that sufficient options have been considered, then you need to take action.
There is no time to waste
Here’s three things you can start doing now to shine a light inside that black box.
- Resolve not to be silent in Technology discussions. You have a role to play in stopping Technology from being impenetrable.
- Get educated. It doesn’t matter where you start, once you do, you will find lots of things you’re interested in exploring further. This Week in Tech is a useful podcast for keeping on top of Technology news. Read the Technology section in your regular news service. Set up Google alerts for topics you find interesting. Search hashtags on LinkedIn and Twitter looking for people who post interesting content. LinkedIn Learning also has some good content and if you are a Premium LinkedIn user you can access it all for free.
- Develop some excellent strategic questions to ask. Good questions include my favourite: What problem are you trying to solve? What risks are being mitigated by this approach? What risks increase by this approach? What other options have been considered?
What strategies have helped you to see inside that Technology Black Box?