Talking the Lingo
Analogies: they’re everywhere and I use them frequently when having discussions with my CEOs rather than try and explain the intricate details of the technology or service being provided. One I’ve used time and again suggests that the CEO is driving a car and systems and services that underpin his business are analogous to the engine, gearbox, axles and wheels that drive a car. It’s helpful when explaining risk too; if you tell a CEO they’re asking you to change a wheel whilst they’re driving the car at 70mph, it gives them a better perspective of a risk than any dry risk review meeting will ever do. Other common analogies I use range from Developers being the Artists of the IT world through to the networking engineers being the plumbers, although I’m not sure they’d be keen on the similarities being made!
Finding and using the appropriate language for our CEO engagement is a critical activity for CIOs and CTOs. We must step into their world where they and the board are comfortable; we cannot expect them to come and inhabit our world. We’re a relatively newbie at the top-table and we should acknowledge that and recognise that not only are we new, but our environment changes at high speed in relation to other business areas. The rest of the board are unlikely to be as comfortable as we are with the speed of change that exists in our sector, and neither is it their job to keep up with that technology change.
And this, in my view, is what marks out the best CIOs/CTOs from the rest. Their ability to handle business focussed commercial conversations with the leadership team, create technological visions for non-technical leaders in ways that make it real for them and encourage them to do more than they would otherwise have thought possible through great use of technology.
Of course, most boards develop their 3-year strategy as a team, and everyone walks away knowing what they need to do to deliver as part of that strategy. But it’s not at the strategy meeting where we should be laying out what can be achieved, it should be happening way beforehand. We should be engaging with department heads and helping them see how IT can make a strategic difference to their own delivery way ahead of any strategic discussion. That way when it comes to the actual strategy session, IT will hopefully be the lynchpin, not a footnote.
However, it’s very easy for a CIO/CTO to end up in a position where you’re perceived as the kid with the shiny toys. And it’s very easy to slip into this role; it’s comfortable and after all, it’s got shiny toys in it! However, if we’re going to have the influence we should now have, we must resist and instead be as good at understanding and knowing the business as the CEO or CFO. Fortunately, we’ve got a very powerful tool to hand; the company’s data; data now provides a better picture of a business than the money does. Even with that powerful tool, we should be developing deep relationships with the rest of the board and helping them see how far they can go with your help.
As a result, we have to increasingly take on the additional role of Chief Innovation Officer; we are the ones who should be drawing out the art of the possible so that the rest of the leadership team remain unencumbered by technology in terms of developing their own ambitions.
Powerful cars often have factory fitted limiters that restrict speed or torque; IT should never be that limiter. In fact, it should be the opposite, assisting with more power and always thinking of new ways to do better. James Allison, the Technical Director at Mercedes said: [The Technical Director] “tries to marshal all of the technical resources the company is able to provide, to maximise the possibility that you’ll win a championship in any given year.” Our driver, the CEO, should have us as their Technical Director delivering the art of the possible, giving them the opportunity to win. Unlike Formula One, with cloud services, the art of the possible doesn’t have to come with a significant price-tag! We may not be driving the car, but we can’t afford to be in the backseat playing with a pretend plastic steering wheel; we have to step up, engage and provide a vision for the CEO, the team and the wider audience. If James Allison’s quote doesn’t quite hit the spot, search out the 2019 film “Ford vs Ferrari” or “Le Man’s 66”. Go and watch it (it’s a great film anyway) but we could do worse than be Ken Miles. Maybe not in his blunt, rude style, but certainly in his appreciation and delivery of the art of the possible. Go be more Ken Miles.