How does leadership evolve in an IT organization? In the old days leadership meant saying, “Okay, here is our task for at least the next year, and here is the budget. Go build it.” And leadership was just managing against that. The new leadership really is not about command and control as much as it is about exciting the troops and getting a lot of volunteers motivated. It’s almost like an internal Kickstarter.
I coined a term recently that I use a lot. Success for us is not about return on investment; that is more of a Chief Financial Officer view. It’s about return on attention. Return on attention means that an end user or high-level decision maker who is benefiting from this application gets excited about it and wants to try it and test it. That’s how we get the next level of funding to develop a prototype, but it’s also how we generate excitement and motivation among our staff, versus a command and control model.
Leadership is managing innovation within hierarchy
In his book Accelerate, John Kotter makes the point that leadership has a dual structure. There is the innovation side, which is like a network and needs leadership, and there’s the hierarchical side, which is all about management. But the key to make a company or department work is that you have somebody at the top, a group of people, who are invested in both.
In a startup, you have a network structure. There is no command and control. The mentality is to run as fast as you can, and everybody talks to everybody. Over time, as you have to become more efficient, and you switch into more of a hierarchical structure. At that point, you can be much more effective and efficient at repeating things, but your rate of coming up with new things starts cycling down. Really, the magic is to be able to keep both management and leadership in play in these situations.
So what is the key to success? In my experience, it’s about applying the right amount of process at the right time. That means when you’re coming up with new ideas, let the ideas bloom with very little overhead, very little approval necessary, because it slows down the momentum. That’s the return on attention part. Don’t focus on how will we pay for this, or what the chargeback model is, or who is going to operate it. You don’t really want to think about that too early because the idea would just die. It’s too heavy.
The people who come up with new ideas aren’t necessarily attuned to these specific questions about operations and charges, so answers don’t come easily to them. Yet organizationally we’re so used to the hierarchy and having to answer to all those questions that it’s too easy to ask the detail questions too soon. The role of leadership is to enable and encourage those multiple flowers to at least sprout.
Here's how it looks in practice. We put together a passionate end user and a passionate developer and let them work in our analytics cloud so they can prototype without disturbing any operational systems. And then we look at the results to see if that makes a difference in JPL, whether that’s to a particular system, to operations, or to our future. If it doesn’t, we document it and we celebrate the fact that they tried it. If it does then we take it to that next level, which is probably the end user sponsoring.
At the end of the day, if you can marry up somebody’s passions with something we need, you don’t need to manage at all. And that’s leadership.
Tom Soderstrom serves as the Chief Technology and Innovation Officer, in the Office of the CIO at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Los Angeles, CA, where his mission is to identify and infuse new IT technologies into JPL's environment. He has led remote teams and large scale IT best practices development and change efforts in both small startup and large commercial companies, in international venues, and in the US Government arena. Some of the companies he has worked for include Telos, enterWorks, User Technology Associates, Digital Island, Exodus, Cable & Wireless, and Raytheon.
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