Technology, IT Performance

Do your homework!

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“Success always comes when preparation meets opportunity”--Henry Hartman


I have an acquaintance that works in the news business.  He recently bemoaned how lazy most reporters have become in the current age of instant information and in a world where political parties, special interest groups and others send them a generous dose of “talking points” daily.  “Most don’t spend time doing the hard work of investigative reporting anymore,” he said.  “They don’t search for the facts themselves. They have become lazy.”

In my last post on Leading When You are Not in Control, I  wrote about the importance of maintaining ones technical proficiency.  For today’s CIOs and IT leaders maintaining technical proficiency increasingly means understanding the wealth of emerging new technologies and the application of these and how they fit, either now or in the future, into the workplace in general and your organization specifically.  Too often we are tempted to give the same old worn out excuses for why the latest or most promising innovations won’t work in our organization instead of doing the necessary homework to learn the facts.  As leaders you must set the tone with your organization. 

When the iPad hit the market I bought one of the first ones (so did my CEO!).  Shortly after receiving them and having some time to check them out we had a lengthy conversation about some of the possible uses, especially in sales and in the booths we set up at medical conferences.  Several of our sales people were also early iPad customers and also grasped the potential. When I asked some of my staff to check it out I immediately got the usual. “It’s a consumer device.”  “It isn’t robust” (whatever that means). “It isn’t secure” (the standard objection when you don’t know what else to say).  “How do you know?,” I asked given that I was the only person in the room who actually owned and had used one.   I instructed them to go to the Apple Store which was less than a quarter mile from our office, buy a couple of them, and check them out (more about this exercise later).

New technologies, especially disruptive ones, have caused rigid, process-oriented organizations, which describe most IT organizations, problems for years.  In the 1980s many organizations attempted to address the whole innovation issue by implementing “Advanced Technology Groups (ATGs).”  Now doubt some of these were successful but many were not.  The reason?  Most often they pursued the wrong things.  Instead on looking at potentially groundbreaking, transformative technologies, they tended to keep a very narrow, inward focus on things that would fit into their “standards” or “architecture.”  Disruptive innovations are usually not respecters of convention.  That is why they are disruptive.  In the end we had ATGs that focused on and recommended such winners as OS2 and Vax Stations (anyone remember those two?).

In the work I do now with start-up companies we place a great deal of effort, both on the start-up side and on the funding side, in the area of due diligence.  Basically doing your homework.  Is there a market?  If so, how big is it? Who are your competitors?  Can your intellectually property be protected?  How much funding will you really need? Can the product be manufactured at scale at a reasonable cost?  You get the message.  Before someone starts a company or before an investor puts money into that company there is a lot of up front homework that must be done.  It is the same with advances in technology.  CIOs and IT leaders simply must do the hard work of due diligence to get the facts.  You can’t be lazy like the reporters my acquaintance complained about.  If you don’t do your homework someone else in your organization will and you will come out looking foolish, or worse.  The ability to objectively and critically evaluate emerging technologies may be the single most important technical skill CIOs need in the years ahead.

So, how does one go about developing or improving these skills both personally and within your organization?  Let me suggest two broad areas of focus along with some specific actions.

First, learn to spot potential opportunities. One very important point here,  I am not suggesting that each and every new product or technology is worth expending resources to evaluate.  The key is to be able to sort out potential winners by evaluating them against criteria that are meaningful for your organization and the business you are in.  Knowledge of your business, your company’s strategy, the competitive forces impacting you and your customer’s “pain points” are critical for doing this evaluation well.  Remember, this is about the USE of technology, not about the technology itself.  The technology can be very cool, but totally useless.

Here are a few suggestions:

  1. 1. Read with an open mind.  Read a variety of professional and non-professional publications.  Stay abreast of what is happening in the larger world, especially with regards to trends impacting your industry, market and customers. Take time to think creatively about possibilities.  It was the light weight, small size, long battery life and multimedia capabilities of the iPad that sparked our interest in using it as a sales and educational tool.  The fact that it was made by Apple (we don’t have any Macs) and didn’t support Flash was irrelevant to us.  We could work around that.
  1. 2. Observe and ask questions. How do people in your company actually get work done? What are their pain points?  When was the last time you took a road trip with one of your company’s sales reps?  During my years as a CIO I used to make what I called “screen rounds,” the terminology originating from my medical training where medical teams made daily “rounds” to see patients in the hospital.  I would simply make time to walk around the building speaking to people and looking to see what was on their screens.  How did they actually use their computer to get their work done?  What applications did they most frequently use?  What problems were they having? You can learn a lot from simply walking around, observing and asking questions.  It is time well spent.
  1. 3. Consider forming an internal advisory board.  Many of us have participated in advisory boards for companies so why not have an internal one comprised of key people from within your company?  I have done this and find that, if you approach it with an open mind and listen to and act on what you learn, these can be extremely valuable.  The input will help you better understand the real challenges and opportunities and the participation by business colleagues is a great way to build better working relationships.
  1. 4. Think like an entrepreneur. Entrepreneurs find a problem or opportunity that excites them, pursue it with passion and take risks to be successful.  We need more entrepreneurs in IT leadership.

Second, be proactive with what you learn.  Do something! As we said earlier, the objective is not to implement every new technology that crosses your path, or to even evaluate them all.  The objective is to thoughtfully pick potential winners and then invest time and energy in them.  Not all will be successful.  Realize this up front. 

Here are a few ideas to consider:

  1. 1. Partner with key business colleagues who stand to benefit.  In the iPad example, we partnered with a very motivated team from the sales organization.  Your objective should not be the implementation or rejection of a particular technology but on making your colleagues successful.  If you focus on that, you will make the right decisions.
  1. 2. See if you can set aside some funds for an innovation fund.  Run it with a “board” of IT and business people, perhaps the advisory board I spoke of earlier.  The key here is to provide some “seed” money to fund initial research on promising innovations.  In the iPad example I provided the initial funds to purchase the devices for evaluation.
  1. 3. Set clear objectives for evaluations based on what you need to accomplish.  In the iPad evaluation we wanted our sales reps to be able to use these in the field and at conferences.  I gave the evaluation team four questions to answer: 1) Can we connect securely to our network from remote locations via VPN? 2) Can we secure the content on the device? 3) Can it handle e-mail and calendaring? 4) Can we push content to the device remotely and also delete content remotely?  These were basic things we needed to know.  Not being able to do one or more wouldn’t necessarily disqualify the device but it would give us facts to work with and clarify our options.
  1. 4. Finally, accept or reject based on empirical data, not opinions. Be objective.

We are entering an exciting and potentially disruptive time for IT organizations.  The future will belong to the prepared.  Be prepared. Do your homework!



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Jerry Mills 1 Point | Tue, 01/31/2012 - 22:46

Your points about keeping an open mind and doing the homework is critical.

What is the old axiom for writers - write about what you know about.  Couple that with the fear of failure, prophecies are self-fulfilling, pre-conceived notions etc.. and you have plenty of factors explaining why ATG's frequently miss the boat.  An open mind cancels all that.

John Dodge 1535 Points | Fri, 02/10/2012 - 15:07

Welcome to the ECF, Jerry. Here's another writer axiom...better to have written...

Pearl Zhu 90 Points | Tue, 01/31/2012 - 19:20

Hi, Joel, as usual, enjoy your leadership blog, this one you well articulate the innovation management scenario via your own well-blended life experience both at larger organization & startup. Yes, the radical digital technologies such as consumerization of IT, social/mobile/cloud., etc  present us the opportunities to use IT not for IT's sake, but for busienss growth and unleashing the human's potential, doing research, but keep open minded,  to quote Drucker: "The entrepreneurial innovation should be at very core of culture and service in any business today". thanks. 

Joel Dobbs 339 Points | Tue, 01/31/2012 - 19:41

Thanks Pearl,


One can never go wrong with Peter Drucker. As you point out, an open mind is essential in order for creativity and innovation to flourish.



John Dodge 1535 Points | Tue, 01/31/2012 - 20:09

an open mind is prettty key to everything....being open to an open mind? Sort of like checking on the condition my condition is in....ok, I'll stop.....  

Judy Redman
Judy Redman 55 Points | Tue, 01/31/2012 - 18:59

Hi, Joel.  I always enjoy your posts.  This one struck a chord with me because my first business mentor taught me a lesson that has stayed with me.  He taught me not to "do my homework" but rather to "do my staff work."  By this he meant to do the research, the background checks, the analysis and anticipatory thinking  before presenting an idea to leadership. When one does this, you gain respect and conviction.  The lesson of doing your homework or your staff work is one that holds true throughout a career cycle.

Joel Dobbs 339 Points | Tue, 01/31/2012 - 19:38

Indeed it does!  Nothing beats preparation.  One thing that I hope the many people who have worked for me over the years have learned is the importance of discussing every problem in the light of one or more well thought out possible solutions.



John Dodge 1535 Points | Tue, 01/31/2012 - 20:28

Will, energy, brains/knowledge and committment...indeed, the keys to getting things done and done right. The fact is CIOs like anyone working in the enterprise have varied priorities in difference phases of their careers. On one end of the spectrum, consider the enthusiastic college grad who just a got a job and will do many things to impress, please, accomplish and get ahead. On the other end is the close-to-retirement, keep thy head down, not much vested anymore lifer....

Anyone who can consistently apply will, committment and energy across the span of their career is truly amazing.

BTW, did anyone get annoyed or paranoid when you were sneaking peeks of their computer displays. How often did you catch someone playing solitaire? I assume your visits were unannounced.

I wonder how you'd characterize the pharmaceutical industry in encouraging your advice such as acting like entrepreneur or asking a lot of questions. Pharma has a lot of very smart and supremely educated people...fiercely scientific and competitive. 


Joel Dobbs 339 Points | Tue, 01/31/2012 - 23:51

One of the things I have found is that as people rise in their careers and attain more status, money and perks, there is a natural tendency to “play it safe” so as to not put those things at risk.  Ironically, it is these seasoned leaders who need to be the most comfortable taking prudent risks as they have the knowledge, experience and wisdom to make the right calls on where to focus. Sad that so many retire in place as you point out.

Interestingly, no one ever reacted negatively to my roaming about, perhaps in part because I tend to be friendly and, as a result, not very threatening.  Don’t recall many solitaire players but a lot of personal e-mail.  In fact, when we analyzed our web usage at my last company, external web mail was frequently the top usage category.

The pharma industry is an interesting case.  In fact, I am doing a seminar for the department of biomedical engineering here at the medical school this Friday on the subject of entrepreneurship and its importance to innovation in the pharmaceutical industry.  Most of the large pharma companies are looking externally to smaller companies for much of their early phase research these days.  Large organizations tend to have a hard time innovating….…but that’s another story.

John Dodge 1535 Points | Wed, 02/01/2012 - 14:39

Ahhh, personal e-mail. I should have known. Solitaire just looks too lazy and a bit brazen. I think being friendly dovetails with keeping an open mind about ideas and people.

I was an editor at Bio-IT World and Health-IT World in the middle part of the last decade and covered a lot of pharmaceutical companies...and research. Back then, the hunt for blockbusters was still on amid absolute panic that the cost of research was hitting astronomical levels...and usually for no return. Bio tech start-ups were still hot and there was an obsession with genome decodiing. 

The industry was almost all IT of one sort of another, arrays and specialized machines to analzye proteins, DNA, compounds etc.     


John Dodge 1535 Points | Wed, 02/01/2012 - 14:39

Ahhh, personal e-mail. I should have known. Solitaire just looks too lazy and a bit brazen. I think being friendly dovetails with keeping an open mind about ideas and people.

I was an editor at Bio-IT World and Health-IT World in the middle part of the last decade and covered a lot of pharmaceutical companies...and research. Back then, the hunt for blockbusters was still on amid absolute panic that the cost of research was hitting astronomical levels...and usually for no return. Bio tech start-ups were still hot and there was an obsession with genome decodiing. 

The industry was almost all IT of one sort of another, arrays and specialized machines to analzye proteins, DNA, compounds etc.     


Paul Calento 255 Points | Tue, 01/31/2012 - 18:17

Joel, reading this blog, I'm reminded of another one of your posts ... "If you're at the table, BE at the table." Knowing what to do is different than actually doing it. The actionable suggestions at the end of the post are especially notable. That's what (I think) separates the best IT execs from merely the typical.

--Paul Calento

(note: I work on projects sponsored by and HP)

Joel Dobbs 339 Points | Tue, 01/31/2012 - 18:44

Hello Paul,

One of my mentors once told me that the greatest distance in the world is the distance between knowing what to do and actually doing it.  He is right!  The key I have found as I get older is that it is really the WILL to act that is often missing. Action usually involves taking risks and making a commitment, something many are unwilling to do.