5 big IT leadership mistakes to avoid in 2018

CIOs: Want to avoid common pitfalls in the new year? Read these lessons from IT leaders
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Hopefully, your 2017 “success” column runs longer than your “regrets” column. But we all make mistakes, and by reflecting on the past, we can limit unnecessary mistakes in the future. So, as you get ready to turn the calendar page and kick-start your 2018 IT strategies, we’ve identified five pitfalls to watch out for in the New Year.

1. Taking a reactive approach to automation in lieu of a proactive strategy.

Automation should be treated as an opportunity, not a boogeyman.

Let’s start with increasing automation in the software development lifecycle, including infrastructure and operations. To ignore it is to ignore opportunities, both in your applications and infrastructure and in your talent.

“If you’re spending time doing manual tasks, you’re setting yourself up for failure by exhausting your resources and potentially introducing errors in your processes,” says Brian Wilson, chief information security officer at SAS. He advises fellow IT leaders to invest in automation and related areas like orchestration, adding that the returns can be significant, especially for your talent.

“You’ll enable your staff to gain the new, rewarding skills required to automate and also give them opportunity to adopt and adapt to changing architectures,” Wilson says, pointing to technologies and practices such as containerization and continuous integration as prime examples.

Indeed, the overarching mistake to avoid here as an IT leader would be to not address it head-on with your team. Consider other forms of automation, such as machine learning, AI, and robotics. For your team, those rapidly emerging fields may sound like existential threats.

“Many roles face the possibility of being replaced by bots utilizing AI and machine learning. Start working to identify those roles early, then you can begin to train employees on new skills to help them grow through this transformation,” says Cindy J. Ford, VP and general manager, US & LATAM at Cogeco Peer 1. “This will also go a long way towards assuaging any employees’ fears of the negative effects automation will bring. Be proactive and define your organization’s automation narrative; don’t wait until you have to be reactive to rumors.”

2. Ignoring revenue-generating opportunities for IT.

IT leaders in the digital age increasingly need to be seeking out revenue-generating opportunities as part of their company’s digital transformation strategy. Continuing to sit back and wait to be told how best to “support the business” is likely going to come back to haunt you, especially with the lines between “technology” and “business” vanishing.

[Want quick tips on how to create a revenue-generating mindset in IT? 7 CIO tips: How IT teams generate revenue]

“One of the biggest mistakes an IT leader can make is not putting enough focus on the company’s digital transformation efforts and revenue-generating opportunities,” says Meg Ramsey, vice president, cloud services product management, Sungard Availability Services. “IT leaders need to become an enabler rather than a gatekeeper.” 

Nic Grange, CTO at Retriever Communications, notes that for many IT leaders, this shift from gatekeeper to strategic catalyst will require an interim phase of juggling budgets and priorities – a related issue to be mindful of.

“For most CIOs and IT leaders, their most important day-to-day focus is on supporting the current lines of business that are bringing in the revenue,” Grange says. “At the same time, they know that the impact of emerging technologies means that these lines of business are likely to get disrupted in the near future and that they need to accelerate their initiatives to innovate and help the business find new streams of revenue.”

He adds that opinions of when a particular revenue stream might be disrupted, for example, might vary widely even within in a single organization, something IT leaders will need to keep tabs on.

3. Chasing an undefined vision.

In this significant evolutionary phase for IT, you could easily fall into a trap of always chasing nebulous moving targets. Don’t confuse positive characteristics such as agility with not-so-great traits like ambiguity. Be clear about your vision and goals, or run the risk of all manner of negative outcomes, not the least of which will be problems with attracting and retaining IT talent.

“A lack of vision in leadership trickles down, causing other long-term issues to surface,” Ford of Cogeco Peer 1 says. “A lack of vision will result in unfocused projects, improper resources planning, inaccurate metrics for success, and a lack of buy-in from the rest of the organization. Leadership has to champion a vision that will align the entire organization, enabling them to effectively work together towards common goals.”

Here’s a prime example of how a popular term can be deployed as an inadequately defined goal: “Innovation.” Declaring that you want IT to become more innovative sounds good in the abstract, but the word alone does not come with prepackaged goals attached.

“Define what innovation in your organization looks like, work to clear away obstacles that impede innovation, but also set expectations and boundaries,” Ford advises. “While innovation needs to be fostered, clear expectations will prevent too much deviation from focusing on activities proven to grow the business. Helping your team stay focused on specific innovation initiatives will allow you test ideas methodically, without spreading innovation efforts so thin they can’t be tested or effective.”

4. Thinking you’re a DevOps shop because you slapped “DevOps” on a team or job title.

As more and more IT departments embrace a culture of DevOps – often to foster some of the key areas above such as digital transformation, automation, and innovation – leadership needs to avoid thinking DevOps is a matter of terminology. Just like declaring “innovation” a priority doesn’t guarantee results, nor does simply calling something “DevOps” make it so. In fact, it might even be detrimental to the actual goals of DevOps.

"One of the largest DevOps mistakes that is often made is creating a specific job title and team ‘dedicated’ to DevOps. That goes against one of the core tenets of the culture of DevOps, that being collaboration,” says Mike Kail, CTO and co-founder at CYBRIC. “IT leaders need to fully understand that DevOps starts with a cultural transformation where development and operations teams work together to automate everything possible as well as continuously measure results. Isolating that effort to a team will be a hindrance to both technology and cultural transformation."

[Get wisdom from your peers on leading DevOps teams: Culture, metrics, talent, and more. See our resource DevOps: The IT Leader's Guide. ] 

5. Not properly integrating new roles into the organization.

While we’re on the subject: The modern IT landscape continues to usher in a plenty of new job titles and functions.

While there will always be debate around some of these new roles and titles, such as the ongoing discussion around the title “DevOps engineer,” they often reflect the need for new skills and roles that can help organizations unlock the value of modern technologies such as cloud and containers.

[Check out our article, 12 emerging IT job titles with a bright future.]

As you introduce and expand these roles in your own organization, don’t assume they’ll just naturally assimilate into the rest of the team. In fact, for roles that involve multiple people, such as a cloud architecture or data science team, beware this key pitfall: Creating new siloes in the place of legacy siloes these roles were intended to knock down. (See also: #4 and the downsides of a “dedicated” DevOps team.)

“CIOs and IT leaders will need to help define new team structures to accommodate the new roles,” Grange of Retriever Communications says. “They will need to deal with the impact on the established roles from the often vastly different approaches taken by the new roles.”

Grange offers up data science and its relative youth in the history of IT as an example: Data scientists likely need to do a lot of experimentation and iteration, and IT leaders need to think through how that role integrates with traditional operations roles such as QA, or risk conflict, broken processes, and other unintended consequences.

Here’s a bigger picture example from Grange, one especially relevant in IT shops that are driving transformation initiatives with a hybrid cloud strategy, among other technological enablers. The mix of various environments across that hybrid cloud architecture can naturally lead to the proliferation of technical and organizational silos that hamper the actual business goals of that IT strategy.

“Instead of allowing the groups that own these various initiatives to operate in silos, IT leaders should ensure they're working together under a common management infrastructure,” Grange says. “As IT teams embark on or continue executing on digital transformation projects in 2018, they need to make sure the various architectures and technologies being used can integrate seamlessly with each other to deliver the agility and efficiency organizations need.”

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Kevin Casey writes about technology and business for a variety of publications. He won an Azbee Award, given by the American Society of Business Publication Editors, for his InformationWeek.com story, "Are You Too Old For IT?" He's a former community choice honoree in the Small Business Influencer Awards.