Digital transformation: A manifesto for moving from good manager to true IT leader

Good management of technology and processes is now table stakes. To succeed with digital transformation, you and your teams must practice these new IT leadership skills
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Digital transformation means it no longer makes sense to distinguish “business” from “technology” or to seek alignment between those two functions. Today, business and technology are the same – you can't have one without the other.

It also no longer makes sense to charter and execute “technology projects.” Today, there are only business change projects. Achieving these business changes requires effective cross functional leadership.

Digital transformation success requires more than good management, it requires inspirational leadership.

Uncovering better ways of leading IT organizations is my passion. Having worked alongside and coached countless IT professionals over the years, I've found that being successful today requires more than good management, it requires inspirational leadership. To that end, I've crafted an IT leadership manifesto and some guidance for how to personally adopt it.

This manifesto is for you if you're:

  • Leading or supporting a digital transformation program.
  • A relatively new IT leader with only a few years of leadership experience under your belt.
  • Taking on a larger leadership role and want to refresh your practices.
  • Coaching your own managers to become more effective leaders.

The New IT Leadership Manifesto

Managers perfect "what is,"
Leaders create what is yet to be.

Managers address How and When,
Leaders address What and Why.

Managers shape people's performance,
Leaders inspire them to be their best selves.

Managers minimize risks and mistakes,
Leaders take calculated risks and experiment to learn.

Managers tell, Leaders ask.
Managers know, Leaders wonder.

Managers speak to,
Leaders speak with.

Managers prefer consistency,
Leaders relish ambiguity.

Managers "Have to … ,"
Leaders "Choose to … ."

Managers try,
Leaders do.

Managers strive to be right,
Leaders strive to be helpful.

Managers avoid and minimize discomfort,
Leaders seek it out and leverage it.

Managers manage their time,
Leaders manage their focus.

Managers believe in "outside-in,"
Leaders come from "inside-out."

Managers are uncomfortable with "No."
Leaders use positive "No's" to empower their "Yes'es."

Management is a role you play,
Leadership is how you are being.

Why this matters with digital transformation

While there is great value in good management, we value inspirational leadership more.

There certainly is still a need for good management of technology and processes within your organizations, but that is table stakes today. Being agile and transforming from project management to product management requires you and your teams to practice these new IT leadership skills. 

[ Get answers to key digital transformation questions and lessons from top CIOs: Download our digital transformation cheat sheet. ]

The many organizations that struggle to realize the value from agile and product management do so because they have not yet mastered these distinctions.

In order to thrive today, your organization needs great leadership to invent and create a sustainable, equitable, and profitable future for your organization, your team members, your clients and customers, and your communities.

How to use the new IT leadership manifesto

Most of you will respond more strongly to some of the manifesto's distinctions than others. Since most of these require changes in the way you think and behave, pick one or two that resonate most strongly with you and spend the next few weeks putting them into practice. Each month, pick a couple more and work on embracing those as well.

Also remember there will still be times when you need to be a manager in addition to a leader. These are not intended to be “either/or” distinctions. They are offered as “and/with” distinctions so you can enhance your team and organization's performance.

How to make the shift to true leadership

If you find yourself or your colleagues identifying with more of the manager actions than the leader actions, that's OK. This is a cultural shift and goes against many long-taught management principles. 

Achieving some of these requires a relatively simple mindset change. For example, asking versus telling, wondering versus knowing, speaking with versus speaking to – these are all things you can start doing today. Here are some examples of how:

Asking vs. telling: While you may know “an” answer, you may not always know “the best” answer. Cultivate a practice of asking your colleagues for their ideas before sharing yours. You may not only come up with better solutions to problems, you will also help your colleagues build their skills.

Wondering vs. knowing: As Mark Twain once said, “What gets us into trouble is not what we don't know. It's what we know for sure that just ain't so.” Be more curious about what could be true and learn to question your long-held assumptions.

Speaking with vs. speaking to: Most of the actions in this manifesto related to leadership are about enhancing relationships and engaging more fully with others via dialog. This means leaving space in your conversations for others to share what's on their minds, and making it easy for them to do so. 

Four of the most difficult changes to achieve

Some of these other items require more coaching, more dedication, and more open mindedness. For example, seeking out and leveraging discomfort is much more difficult than avoiding and minimizing it.

In particular, I consider these four more difficult to achieve. Here are a few strategies for achieving them. 

1. Managers perfect what is. Leaders create what is yet to be: This distinction is at the core of Digital Transformation. As we focus on process and product improvement, we can certainly provide incremental operational improvements. i.e., we can maximize our batting averages by hitting singles. But to hit home runs, we need to be taking bigger swings at faster pitches, which means striking out more often in order to get those big hits. This means creating a culture where it's OK to strike out from time to time, and not always get it right.

2. Managers address how and when. Leaders address what and why: Related to the above, if we are improving what already is in place, we focus on the mechanics or tactics of execution for what already is. While doing so adds value, it's rarely as impactful or as inspiring to others as crafting a compelling vision of what we want to achieve and why it matters so much.

As I've written before: Employees who understand and emotionally connect with the rationale for the change – why it's important to the organization and to them – feel inspired rather than manipulated, and will do all they can to creatively support and implement the target change.

3. Managers shape people's performance. Leaders inspire them to be their best selves: If you force every one of your team members to be mini-me's, your teams will only be as strong and creative as you are. You can't know for sure the best behaviors for capitalizing on every situation. Nor can you force others with different world views to behave just as you would behave in a similar situation. We all have the potential for greatness within us. Great leaders look for what unique perspectives and skills that others can bring to bear on any issue, and as part of speaking with rather than speaking to, draw on that diversity of thoughts and skills to enhance the team's performance.

4. Managers minimize risks and mistakes. Leaders take calculated risks and experiment to learn: This relates to continuous process improvement vs digital transformation. I would argue that if you're not making mistakes then you are not taking enough risks. While it is certainly required that your systems of record are at least 99.99 percent accurate, your systems of differentiation and systems of innovation (per Gartner's Pace-Layered Model) are best developed with agile product management methodologies. This means creating a set of hypotheses for each user story and testing them out in one or two sprints that deliver new working code that is then tested by users.

Per the scientific method, a successful experiment is one in which we learn more about our hypothesis. It does not require that we prove that hypothesis to be correct.

Share the new IT leadership manifesto

The more of us who are on board with this new IT leadership manifesto, the more powerful it will become as we invest in our digital transformation programs. Click to tweet the Manifesto. 

[ Culture change is the hardest part of digital transformation. Get the digital transformation eBook: Teaching an elephant to dance. ]

Bob helps IT managers and teams get more done while improving user relationships and reducing organizational conflict. He provides online training as well as group and 1:1 coaching programs that get problems solved fast.

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