3 truths for IT leaders navigating intense change

Today's IT leaders need honesty, humility, and an understanding of these classic principles, says Red Hat CIO Mike Kelly
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Crossing the gap to big data

Digital transformation is surely on the mind of anyone looking to help an organization become more effective, responsive, and successful today. But all this focus on change might have an unintended effect: It might make us forget about fundamental aspects of working in IT that haven't changed since IT departments became organizational mainstays roughly four decades ago. Keeping these facets of our work in mind is extraordinarily important as we make critical technology decisions that could impact the business in significant ways.

In other words, understanding where we've been is imperative to plotting where we're going. Here are three statements about our work and our organizational role that ring as true today as they did 30 years ago.

People who work in IT need to be ambidextrous

This means they must understand business processes, business value, business mission, and business strategy if they're going to determine how best to use technologies to solve business problems. They must be able to account for and reflect on the entire context of their work. IT teams are much less effective when they haven’t gathered and leveraged this kind of knowledge.

[ Want wisdom from Red Hat CIO Mike Kelly on culture change? See our related article, IT culture change: Bring your emotions, CIOs, or go home. ] 

IT's work needs to be digestible and predictable 

Even in light of all the ways organizations are changing today, most business leaders still expect their IT departments to complete work in a way that's comfortable for them. So even as they ask IT teams to innovate, they're asking those teams to do it in a systematic way that produces obvious and useful deliverables. They need IT to help them manage change, not introduce additional complexity into already complicated processes or bend timelines in unpredictable ways. (Oh, and everything the IT team delivers should also be on time and under budget — that's something else that never changes).

"Today's IT leaders must still possess both the unflinching honesty to call the good from the bad and the humility to recognize when their organizations need to pivot in new directions."

IT solutions need to work

This simple truism is deceptively obvious, but it's as important today as it ever was. Anything your team designs, produces, or implements must realize the concrete vision or satisfy the specific need that prompted it in the first place. Don't let yourself be seduced by the allure of new tools and adopt them for their own sake. And always help those around you cut through the kind of hype that might lead to overblown or misdirected expectations. We need to invent novel solutions when necessary — but always in operationally excellent ways.

Put all this together, and you get to the root of something enduring about IT work in any era:  It involves really understanding the problems an organization is facing, realizing technical solutions to an organization’s pressing business problems, developing those solutions in creative innovative ways, and tactically implementing those solutions in ways that move the business ever forward.

And that means IT leaders will need to recall something else that never seems to change: They still need to make tough decisions. Like their predecessors, today's IT leaders must still possess both the unflinching honesty to call the good from the bad and the humility to recognize when their organizations need to pivot in new directions. They must retain (as they always have) a deep understanding of the values and principles that make the organization what it is — must recognize that certain je ne sais quoi that can't be replicated but always preserved.

In short, they need to understand more than the technicalities of a given software or hardware implementation. They also need to understand organizational dynamics and interpersonal relationships, two more aspects of the job that aren't going anywhere. Our age of digital transformation might alter many things, but it won’t change that.

As Chief Information Officer, Mike Kelly is responsible for leading the information technology organization at Red Hat Inc., the world’s leading provider of open source solutions. Since joining the organization in 2016, Kelly has focused on leading the IT team as they provide the tools and technologies that enable Red Hatters every day.