I’m Reading… “A Seat at the Table: IT Leadership in the Age of Agility” by Mark Schwartz

In summary: IT leaders want to be regarded as real business leaders, to be invited to the top table, and they are told that they should act in a particular way to get that seat at the table. Mark Schwartz argues that that the traditional approach is completely the wrong way of going about it in a world that is changing rapidly.

I’ve read a number of book on the changing landscape of business and, in particular, the radically changing role of technology within businesses. You may call this change Digital Transformation (personally I think that we’ve passed the point of meaningless for that particular term).  This is a book for the people who are being expected to lead through that change:

A Seat at the Table

“I’ve read a number of books on IT leadership and how to be a good CIO. None of them mention the major change of the last two decades: the rise of Agile and Lean practices for IT delivery. I’ve read plenty of books on Agile and Lean practices for IT delivery. None of them explain the role of IT leadership in an Agile world. The two domains are evolving separately: the field of IT leadership continues to frame its problems in its same old ways, oblivious to the deep changes brought on by the Agile revolution, while the Agile world, ever suspicious of management, proceeds as if it can manage without the involvement of IT leaders.”

The most common thought I had while reading this book was: “Yes, that’s it! I’ve seen that.” This was particularly true throughout chapter 2 where Mark outlines the history that has resulted in the situation that many organisations find themselves in and the behaviours that continue to reinforce this situation. This is a situation in which IT is regarded as separate from the business and is handled by contractor-control methods that spawned the whole outsourcing market in which I have worked for many years:

Thus, a distinctive way of thinking about IT was born, and has determined the course of IT since. First of all, we came to speak about “IT and the business” as two separate things, as if IT were an outside contractor. It had to be so: the business was us and IT was them. The armslength contracting paradigm was amplified, in some companies, by the use of a chargeback model under which IT “charged” business units based on their consumption of IT services. Since it was essentially managing a contractor relationship, the business needed to specify its requirements perfectly and in detail so that it could hold IT to delivering on them, on schedule, completely, with high quality, and within budget. The contractor-control model led, inevitably, to the idea that IT should be delivering “customer service” to the enterprise—you’d certainly expect service with a smile if you were paying so much money to your contractors.

There are many challenges with this approach, not least the challenge that a contractor-control relationship requires a level of stability and certainty that IT is not and should not be in a position to predict. Don’t get me wrong here, there are facets of IT provision that should be contracted, that’s what the who cloud change has been about, but that’s not where the business value is and that’s where the IT leaders should be focusing. Rather than subscribing to the “IT and the business” contractor-control model, Mark Schwartz sets out a different approach based on Lean and Agile thinking. I’d be reproducing the book if I tried to summarise all of the different ways in which Mark sees this playing out and that’s not the point of a quick review.

Some key stand-out thoughts for me though:

Planned Approaches v Agile Approaches

Planned approaches may have given us a perception of control, but that control was just an illusion. There were always too many unknown factors to really have control. Using Agile approaches allows us to continuously correct the course as we discover things helping us to navigate the unknown.

Enterprise Architecture in an Agile World

There are many fascinating insights into the role of Enterprise Architecture in a world where Agile is the way to deliver.

I have said that we need to stop looking at IT delivery in terms of projects and products. With what, then, shall we replace them? I’d like to suggest that the enterprise architects have had it right all along. We manage an enterprise-wide asset with an “as-is” state and a “to-be” state. We groom this asset in perpetuity—as the company changes and develops—by adding, removing, and improving its capabilities. We try to build into it agility and options, risk mitigations, and usability. The totality of our IT capabilities is an economic asset that will be used to derive profits or accomplish mission, and we might as well just call this the Enterprise Architecture.

As architects we need to move quickly away from our roles as the occupiers of the “land of the template zombies” and step into our new role as members of the business community who manage the IT economic asset. I wonder whether the term “Enterprise Architecture” is already too closely aligned to the “template zombies” to be redeemed, but that’s just the title and it was never really about the title.

Risk

We need to think very differently about risk, risk logs have never worked. Our plans require us to accurately predict the future, and we’ve never managed to that either. The way that we control risk is to make changes as circumstances develop. Creating experiments to help us understand how to navigate the risks is going to be the new skill that we all need.

Build v Buy

Mark makes an argument that the cost of building used to be so high that at always made sense to buy. The problem with buying was that you never quite got what you needed; you either got more than you needed or you got something that was only an 80% fit for what you need. This has all changed as the cost of building has reduced because of capabilities like micro-services which allow us to build something that is a 100% fit for what we need by plugging together a number of preexisting elements from cloud capabilities.

My personal perception is that this change is already taking hold – I’m seeing a lot more building going on.

The Role of the Senior Leader

Within this framework of change Mark outlines a new role for the IT leader, a role that has changed from be an enforcer of the contractor-control model to one whose role is to create an environment where self-managing teams can thrive. Mark summarises this change in a number of new roles:

  • Driver of Outcomes – taking responsibility for business outcomes.
  • Manager of Uncertainty – dealing with uncertainty has always been a part of IT leadership.
  • Steward of Assets – three critical ones the Enterprise Architecture asset, the IT people asset and the data asset.
  • Contributor – by being technical.
  • Influencer and Salesperson – stepping up to the “Chief” role.
  • Orchestrator of Chaos – businesses are complex systems that require a level of orchestration to truly sing.
  • Enabler – enabling activities rather than controlling them.
  • Independent Remover – “The best thing that a manager can do is to help the team do what it knows how to do by removing impediments.”
  • Manager of Managers – helping to manage other managers into an Agile mindset.

Conclusions

There’s a lot of focus on IT teams becoming Agile, but that’s only going to make a small change in most business. The real challenge is how a business becomes Agile, and that’s going to require a different kind of IT leadership.

This is a book I’m going to be coming back to.

Header Image: This is Lindisfarne Castle from Lindisfarne Harbour which is looking great after a number of years being surrounded in scaffolding for a renovation. 

I’m Reading… “When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing” by Daniel H. Pink

Why do you do what you do, when you do it? That is the fundamental question threaded throughout this book. The reality is, for many of us, we have unconsciously walked into a When of life that has little to do with productivity, performance or even well-being.

When - Daniel H. PinkWe have a tendency to treat all of our awake time as equal, we schedule our days around the priority of an activity and little else. We sit in afternoon meetings conscious of things going a bit slow, but choose to power through. We visit our doctor and expect the best performance from them whenever we go. We remember sitting in afternoon exams wondering why it was so hard. Yet, we all know instinctively that we have certain times of the day where different things are more enjoyable, and times when we are better at doing certain things.

In When, Daniel H. Pink, gives a framework for understanding ourselves, and those around us. As with many human conditions we all sit somewhere on a spectrum and not rigidly into any neatly defined box, but having the boxes helps us to understand ourselves and others. In When the boxes are:

Lark Third Bird Owl
Analytic Tasks Early morning Early to mid-morning Late afternoon and evening
Insight Tasks Late afternoon/early evening Late afternoon/early evening Morning
Making an Impression Morning Morning Morning (sorry owls)
Making an Decision Early morning Early to mid-morning Late afternoon and evening)

Most of us are third-birds – we’re neither extremely larkish or blatantly owly.

If you look through this table you may notice that the mid-afternoon isn’t a great time for anyone or anything and that’s because it isn’t. That post-lunch slump affects most of us and isn’t a great time to progress anything, which is why it’s the ideal time to take a break. Some cultures have breaks built-in with extended lunches and early afternoon naps. This was perhaps the case in the UK some years ago, but it’s certainly isn’t now. Most people have their lunch at their desk while covering their keyboard with crumbs. That, it turns out, is a massive mistake, we would be far more productive if we took a proper break and had a nap.

When is full of advice on how to take good breaks: micro-breaks, moving-breaks, nature breaks, social breaks, even mental gear-shift breaks. Pink’s exhortation is for us to get serious about breaks, to schedule them in and to stick to the schedule.

The mid-point slump, doesn’t just apply to our daily routines though, the same pattern applies to most things – we start and finish with enthusiasm, but struggle in the middle. Pink devotes a number of sections to this phenomenon and in his usual style mixes scientific research with concise practical advice for handling these situations whether that’s a mid-point in a career, in a project or even in a relationship.

I’m not going to cover all of the sections in When here, because there is a lot that I liked about this book and much to apply and the post would be too long if I did. The one remaining section I will touch on though, is the one on synchronising. Getting together with others and performing a task has a powerful impact on our mental and emotional well-being. Having sung in groups most of my life I recognise the power of it in that situation, but I’m predominantly an introvert and wouldn’t go out of my way to join synchronisation opportunities, that’s a challenge. I think that my first step on that one is to join a yoga class, I currently use an app on my iPhone to do my practice, but I recognise that this is robbing me of the synchronisation high that comes from being in a group.

There are certain books that you read and wish that you had read them earlier, this is one of those books. Although, as I reflect upon it, as someone who in many ways is in the middle of things, perhaps it’s best that I read it now, when I need it.

I’m reading… “Hit Refresh” by Satya Nadella

How do you bring significant change to an organisation? Particularly a large, multi-national organisation?

Where do you start once you’ve decided what it is that you want to change? How do you make change that is sustainable?

This is no ordinary organisation either, this is Microsoft, an organisation that has some huge fans, but also massive detractors. It’s an organisation that has made some very public missteps and become regarded as arrogant, but is also one of the most valuable organisations in the world.

How do you revive a giant?

Microsoft has, for a long time, had a reputation for being an organisation with an interesting way of working. This is something that Nadella refers to early on in the book by using a cartoon from Bonkers World that depicts Microsoft’s organisation structure as being one of a set of warring factions:

While it’s a cartoon, it has meaning because it is based in a truth. Moving away from this situation required a significant change of culture and to use Satya’s words for Microsoft to find its soul.

This book is partly an autobiographical telling of how Nadella got to be Microsoft CEO, it’s partly an outline vision for the future of Microsoft and partly a discussion on some of the opportunities and challenges currently facing the wider technology industry.

I found the autobiographical parts the most interesting, but I like biography. These sections give some insights into how someone born in Hyderabad becomes the CEO of an organisation that has had a dramatic impact on the world that we know. There are part of these sections that are very personal, particularly when he is talking about his son Zain who suffered in-utero asphyxiation during his birth which caused severe brain damage and left him with cerebral palsy. This isn’t one of those management books where someone tells you how brilliant they, there’s more humility than that.

Nadella describes the role of CEO as “curator of culture” and it’s clearly culture that he regards as the primary change required. Speaking as someone who works in the technology industry, Microsoft is an organisation that divides opinion, and it takes people a long time to change an opinion. Nadella took over as Microsoft CEO in 2014, since then Microsoft has sought to show a very different culture, embracing many things that previously would have been regarded as red-lines. Two words that Nadella uses several times in the book are listen and empathy neither of them words you would have associated with the Microsoft of the Steve Ballmer era.

The CEO is the curator of an organization’s culture. Anything is possible for a company when its culture is about listening, learning, and harnessing individual passions and talents to the company’s mission. Creating that kind of culture is my chief job as CEO.

The culture change I wanted was centered on exercising a growth mind-set every day in three distinct ways. First, at the core of our business must be the curiosity and desire to meet a customer’s unarticulated and unmet needs with great technology. This was not abstract: We all get to practice each day. When we talk to customers, we need to listen. We need to be insatiable in our desire to learn from the outside and bring that learning into Microsoft.

Still, many responses to the recently announced purchase of GitHub reflected suspicions of the arrogant Microsoft. I suppose it just goes to show that 4 years isn’t a very long time in people’s memories.

The third section, on some of the opportunities and challenges facing the technology sector are also interesting, but for a different reason.  These sections aren’t as insightful into Nadella’s thinking on a particular subject, but feel more like the thinking of the broader Microsoft organisation. There wasn’t, for me, any particular revelation here.

Summarising: Nadella is an interesting character with an interesting background. He seems to me to be taking Microsoft in the right direction, but it will be interesting to see where he gets put when the history of the current age is written.

I’m Reading… “The Diary of a Bookseller” by Shaun Bythell

I didn’t actually read this book, I listened to it on Audible, which is deeply ironic, but I didn’t realise that at the time.

The Diary of a BooksellerShaun Bythell’s diary is an autobiographical look at his life running a bookshop in the Scottish market town of Wigtown which is Scotland’s national book town and home to the Wigtown Book Festival.

In choosing this book I seem to have cemented myself into a series of autobiographical books about people and their occupations for which I present as evidence:

This is not a complaint, just an observation about a genre of books which I have loved, much to my surprise.

Anyway, back to the irony of listening to this book on Audible. Bookshops have been closing across the UK, including the obliteration of at least one major chain. What’s the primary driver behind this shift in our buying habit – Amazon. The number of books that we buy has been about the same for a number of years, the difference is that we no longer buy them on the high street, we either order them from Amazon, or download them to our Kindles. Shaun Bythell loves the Kindle so much that he has one which he peppered with a shotgun mounted as a trophy on a wall in the shop.

Embed from Getty Images

For those of you still looking for the irony, I should point out that Audible is also owned by Amazon.

This Diary of a Bookseller is partly about the daily interactions between a bookshop and the Amazon gorilla, and partly about the daily interactions with visitors to the bookshop. One is strangely faceless and bleak, the other portrays the British public in their eclectic and eccentric diversity.

Amazon has become so pervasive that there’s no way of avoiding it and Shaun is no exception listing many of his books there. This puts him at the mercy of the Amazon algorithms and creates a constant need for good reviews and high fulfilment ratios.

Sometimes the eccentricities of the British public are wonderful, at other times they make you want to scream. From the people who expect to pay the sleeve price for a book that is labelled in shillings and pence, to the people who are delighted to have found a book for which they have been on a long search. From the people who order books from a secondhand bookshop who complain that the book was indeed secondhand, to the people who sit by the fire in the shop building a pile of books which they then buy. This books is about a bookshop but, for me, it was primarily about these interactions.

I liked this book, a lot.

I’m reading… “The Shepherd’s Life: A Tale of the Lake District” by James Rebanks

It seems appropriate to start this post by defining my own relationship with the countryside. I am basically a townie, but it’s more complicated than that.

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I’ve never been a city person although I now live in somewhere called a city. I have always lived in towns, and nearly always on the edge of towns with a significant amount of countryside around them. The secondary school that I went to was a combination of town people and country people; we mixed quite well and I would cycle out of town to visit a friend who lived on a farm. My first experience of driving was in a tractor.

I’ve always loved to be out in the countryside, as you may have picked up from my instagram timeline, but I’ve never regarded the English countryside as a picture-postcard place, I’ve always seen it as somewhere that has been crafted and maintained by generations of people. This crafting is especially true of the English Lake District where I love to walk.

My wife’s family are lakeland people, her father was born in a small hamlet above Derwentwater where her grandfather was a fell farmer. There are relatives who live and make their livelihood there to this day. I’ve walked the fells around the farm with my wife’s dad and soaked in the stories of the life that they led there; stories of harsh winters, stories of dry-stone walling, stories of hunts, stories of visiting catalogue salesmen, stories of pig slaughter and blood for black puddings, and stories of summers spent sleeping in the barns so that paying visitors could have a bed in the house. In short, stories of a countryside shaped by people and a people shaped by the countryside.

James Rebanks (Herdwick Shepherd) is the son and grandson of lakeland fell farmers. Farming is in his blood and was all that he wanted to be as a child. He lives a way of life that has existed in the northern Lake District for centuries, taking on changes as they have been needed, but continuing to use many of the tried and tested practices. The traditional Herdwick sheep, which he shepherds, characterise the Lake District for many, but they aren’t there for show, they are people’s livelihoods and have been there (probably) since the Vikings brought them over in the 10th or 11th century.

This book is an autobiographical walk through James Rebanks his own upbringing whilst also stepping through the shepherd’s year. I love to read books about other people’s lives, it opens my eyes to the diversity of our ways of life are. Herdwick Shepherd lives just over a hours drive away from my home and yet he lives a life that is in so many ways different to mine. I’ve never rescued a sheep from a snow drift, participated in a livestock auction, delivered a lamb or judged the quality of a tup. Yet, there are many connections with my own story, that of my father-in-law and other lakeland folk that I know. I suppose that’s the power of biography, the differences that interest us and the similarities that connect us.

This isn’t a sanitised, National Trust, portrayal of the Lake District, this is a book that talks about the tragedies of life as well as the wonders of the environment. The sections that talk about the foot and mouth outbreak in 2001 are bleak and nearly had me in tears. The descriptions of times in the fells are wonderful.

Many of us have lost the connection between the food that we eat and the farmers and land that produce it. We see so much of our food as a commodity that we want to be cheaper each time we visit the supermarket. One of the lessons from this book is that our drive for cheap risks the very things that we value.

If you are one of those people who love to visit the Lake District, and millions do, then you will learn a lot about what makes this place what it is and it will improve you appreciation of the place on your next visit.

I’m reading… “The Year of Living Danishly: Uncovering the Secrets of the World’s Happiest Country” by Helen Russell

I’m quite happy with where I live, but that doesn’t stop me wondering what it’s like for different people to live where they choose to live.

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I’ve been to Denmark several times, mostly to Copenhagen, and always loved the country.

Helen Russell is a lifestyle journalist who is, at the start of the book, based in London with her husband. They work, they eat, they sleep, and not a whole lot more. Then her husband gets a job in Denmark at that landmark organisation Lego.

This book documents Helen’s journey during those first twelve month of living in Denmark. Helen finds a country that works very differently to London, and it has to be said, to the rest of the England. I say England, and not Britain, because I think that there are parts of Scotland where much of what Helen found is present, but for the most part we operate very differently.

Not only does Helen find a country that works differently, but Denmark is also regularly ranked as the happiest country in the world, so what is it that makes it happy? Not surprisingly it’s not a single thing, it’s many things. I suspect that it’s all of it that makes it a happy country, I didn’t read something and say, “if we only did that in England we would be much happier”, but I did think, “if only we did that, and that, and that, and weren’t like that, then we’d be happier”. It’s difficult to change one thing in a whole nation, it’s almost impossible to change the whole thing. For starters, the population of England is nearly ten times greater than that of Denmark, there are one and a half times as many people in London alone, and population size is a factor in happiness.

Having said that, this book shines a light into some English orthodoxies that tell us “we’ll be happy if…” and exposes them as problematic, at best, and downright untrue at worst. In England we believe that long work hours show that you are committed to your work, and that has to be a good thing? In Denmark the working week is significantly shorter and yet they are significantly more productive than we are. In England we tend to believe in small government because we are suspicious of everything that government does, Denmark’s government is significantly larger than ours and yet they are happier. In England we downgrade tradition, always looking for the new thing, in Denmark tradition is highly regarded and seen as the bedrock of much of what they do. In England we regard the accumulation of more possessions as a good thing, it’s not the same in Denmark where things are so expensive that they focus on a few high-quality things.

We have much to learn.

I’m Reading: “Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy” by Cathy O’Neil

We are surrounded by algorithms. We are constantly being evaluated by criteria that is invisible to us.

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What I see on Google is different to what you see. What I see on Facebook is different to your perspective and not just because I have access to different thing to you.

I pay for insurance for a number of things, the cost of that insurance is governed by a set of parameters that are unknown to me; many of which I can’t change or even validate whether they are correct.

Weapons of Math Destruction explores some of these algorithms and their impacts on individuals and society in general.

Statisticians have known that many statistics have a dark side creating unintended consequences and perverse outcomes. As we increasingly use data, and the associated statistical algorithms, we need to understand the dangers of the perverse outcomes that we are creating.

Cathy O’Neil uses examples to illustrate the challenges that we are facing. The bulk of the book is examples of Weapons of Math Destruction (WMD) that already exist. There are examples for algorithms being used for politics, employee candidate selection, criminal justice, insurance, education ratings and advertising, to name just a few. The extent of these algorithms means that it’s unlikely that you haven’t been impacted in some way by one of them, but how do you know that the assessment of you is fair, or even accurate. How do you know what parameters have been used to calculate your insurance premium?

In many of the areas outlined in the book the unintended consequences lead to significant mistreatment of individuals and whole people groups. Many of these people groups being the same people groups that have been mistreated by society for generations – the poor, those living in certain neighbourhoods, ethnic minorities and women being particularly negatively impacted.

The book talks about a lot of examples and raises a lot of questions and concerns, the book doesn’t spend a lot of time exploring the potential resolutions to the issues raised. There are a few great thoughts in that direction but it’s not that primary topic for this book.

I’m quite sure that we don’t, yet, have the necessary regulatory framework in place for these algorithms. I’m also convinced that we will make progress towards the right framework, but in the interim, damage is being caused.

I read this book in the middle of a political and media storm about an organisation called Cambridge Analytica who collected data from Facebook on 50 million people. This story was pioneered by The Guardian with a lot of coverage on 17th March 2018 quoting whistleblower Christopher Wylie, but it’s worth noting that Cathy O’Neil’s book was published in September 2016 and contains many of the same details about Cambridge Analytica that we now regard as shocking. Perhaps news doesn’t travel as quickly as we think it does.

I was first prompted to read this book by Cathy’s TED talk which will give you an idea of the WMD that she has collected: