(Washington Crossing the Delaware, by Emmanuel Leutze, 1851. The Metropolitan Museum of Art.)
During a recent conversation, a CIO was elaborating on his plans for change that lay ahead for his IT department. The program would tackle some very thorny issues of under delivery and poor IT reputation. To my question of capacity and capability of the current team came a response that is a measure of how the technology industry (for the most part) treats people.
His response: “They will buckle down and just get on with it if they know what’s good for them.”
This autocratic view on staff motivation and engagement is not unfamiliar in our world. Threats and fear have seldom been successful ways of getting staff on board yet it remains a default leadership style particularly for new leaders. In an increasingly matrixed and virtualized work place, the scary supervisor/boss is not an effective leadership style.
The change program mantra has always been to focus on the triumvirate of people, process and technology but let’s be honest and admit that we make a poor job of our focus on people. Lack of leadership and poor engagement with staff have an impact in the day to day running of any operation and also impact IT project successes.
The factors contributing to the failure of IT projects are innumerable but a review of the press suggests an increasing awareness of the role of the “soft stuff’ in project failures.
A McKinsey and Oxford University study reports that large software projects run 66 percent over budget and 33 percent over time and notes that a key cause is the focus on budget and scheduling to the exclusion of managing strategy and stakeholders.
Adam Thilthorpe, director at The Chartered Institute for IT (UK) notes that
“One of the major weaknesses uncovered is the total reliance placed on project and development methodologies. One explanation for the reliance on methodology is the absence of leadership within the delivery process.”
Alongside technology and strong project management capabilities, what can IT leaders do to develop a “people competency”? I propose that there are three behaviors worthy of investment that will allow you to better engage with staff, and to better understand and influence what motivates them.
- Listen more and talk less. A flaw of seniority is a love for one’s voice and one’s own ideas. It’s not that we start out like this but titles, position, and uncritical colleagues can corrupt our egos. Sit back more in meetings and listen to what is being said. I mean really listen to what’s being said and hold off on constructing your response until the person has finished talking (this is more challenging that it sounds). Also listen for what is not being said in the room. See this skill as an information gathering exercise that will inform your decision process. Know that being listened to is something most of us long for and will be an important factor in improving staff engagement levels.
- Communicate. Talk more about what matters to you and the company. Talk less about ROI and key performance indicators. Share the vision of where you are going, not the minutiae of how you are going to get there. Why is this change program important? Explain how each staff member contributes to this bigger picture. Keep communicating as things will change and this needs to be communicated too.
- Use a litmus test. We know every process needs a measurement point to provide information for any required pivot in approach. Don’t rely purely on feedback from reports. One of the problems of seniority is that no-one wants to deliver the bad news and it’s easy to live under an illusion that all is well. Find some way of testing staff engagement. There are simple on-line pulse checks of surveys like www.happinessatworksurvey.com or develop your own. When I managed a team, I’d ask them fairly frequently how happy they were on a scale of 1-10. This gave me insight into what was going on and option to do something about it.
These behaviors take time so I’d caution against the impatience of the task-focused leader. Listening and communicating as outlined above are not tasks on a to-do list. You can’t tick them off a list. It’s more useful to see these behaviors are part of how you show up at work.
With these behaviors will come better relationships with staff, and more information about potential project pitfalls, staff challenges and engagement hiccups. Armed with this data, the IT leader can be more certain of any required pivots in approach.
We can all agree that we face substantial change in the years to come as our industry modernizes and adapts to outside threats. And we can agree that our ability to manage change is not up to standard. As IT leaders, we are able to play our part in improving change program outcomes by focusing on the soft stuff.