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My article on instigating change has been turned into a video by CBS Techrepublic’s Editor-in-Chief, remarkable Jason Hiner.

Click to watch the video

Even today, field work in geology involves a certain amount of old fashioned brawn. It was more so twenty years ago.

Back then, I was an applied math student and, by all accounts, I was expected to spend my summer months writing computer programs in a research lab.

Instead, I spent three summers prospecting and doing geological surveying in the middle of the Siberian (far!) nowhere (even farther!). I cannot tell you how fondly I remember that time in tight-knit groups against the backdrop of the vast and unforgiving, yet breathtakingly beautiful, wilderness.

One of the most physically demanding jobs in geological surveying is trenching. Rock formations are often covered by a thick layer of sediment and to be “read” and categorized, they need to be exposed. A shovel, a pick-axe and a pair of human hands do the job nicely.

Trenchers came in two distinct kinds, with virtually no exception. The first kind were tall, gregarious and rosy-cheeked youths who took a summer gig to make a ton of dough (such was the theory). The second group was comprised of light but wiry men in their late forties and fifties, with graying hair, weathered faces and usually some criminal past.

The two groups approached their work differently. Having nourished themselves with a substantial breakfast, the young giants would start swinging the pick-axe and shoveling the debris at a rate that would put an open-pit excavator to shame. The dirt would fly everywhere for a couple of hours, but too soon, smoke breaks would become more and more frequent, and the work slower and sloppier.

A geologist would be called at some point to inspect the results, only to find that either the trench wasn’t placed properly or its walls weren’t sufficiently straight. One could frequently hear sighs and swearing at the prospect of rework, blistered hands and aching backs.

Some left after a week, many – before the end of the season, and virtually none came back for another tour.

The light wiry men would start the day with a mug of strong black tea and some very light breakfast (no, not a bowl a fruit; a toast, perhaps). They would ready their tools, which they all had adapted and modified to their liking. They would work slowly but steadily, hour after hour, laying immaculate trenches with straight, parallel walls. It was perfection. These people never had blisters, never complained and never bailed. They were invited back, year after year, these slender sinewy men with mottled past.

In organizations, initiatives are often approached with the misguided zeal of the first group. When difficulties transpire, the steam starts to thin until it is exhausted altogether. Since there is rarely anyone to order rework, the initiative is quickly abandoned. This is why silver bullet solutions are so commonly desired: their promise of a quick and “guaranteed” success is incredibly alluring.

But the leaders who succeed consistently are those who have the determination of the light sinewy trenchers, those who can doggedly execute despite setbacks, uncertainty and prospects of hard work. They prepare, equip themselves with the right tools and get going steadily, until all that’s left is to look at the results.

Now, where did I leave that pick-axe?

I am in California enabling an IT company to develop a strategy that will leave their competitors in the dust.  It is early in the morning and I am writing this sitting on a patio by the pool.

The hotel in which I am staying placed a little card on my bed (shown below as taken with my phone) in a bid to save the world on labour and laundry.

Every time I help an organization to dramatically improve their decision making, I place a lot of emphasis on the non-rational aspects of decisions, using the most recent research in behavioral economics. In this particular case, there is something that the hotel can do right away to significantly improve the card’s effectiveness. The card should ask the guest to place it on the bed if they want to have the sheets changed.

There is overwhelming evidence that people comply with defaults offered to them.  The current default is that the sheets get changed daily… but who would remember to put the card on the bed if they don’t want it? If the default is changed to “sheets changed by request”, far fewer sheets will be changed. The results will be seen immediately.

Now, where do I send my invoice?


My latest article, the first in a new series on leadership, has  been published by CBS Techrepublic.

Read about the five key factors in a successful change management process:

Leadership is about doing right things, according to Peter Drucker, and no one has defined it better than him.

I encounter situations where the “right things” are known well, yet the person responsible for “doing” them cannot bring him- or herself to taking the high road.

“We don’t do it like this around here, it is not in our culture”

“Our people are not accustomed to this approach”

“It is difficult and might hurt us”

“We cannot do this because we have never done anything like this before”

“There will be resistance”

You get the drift. All sorts of reasons, mostly historical and cultural are pulled out by weak “leaders” to justify inaction and suboptimal decisions. Real leaders (note, no quotation marks) choose to do right things and don’t look for lame excuses.  And the high road is the only road.

Today, the Speaker of the British House of Commons, Michael Martin, resigned after repeated calls from all political parties to step down.

Martin is the first Speaker to be ousted since 1695 (yes, in over 300 years). 

If the British House of Commons can break 300 odd years of protocol and do the right thing, why can’t you ?

Really, not a fresh  subject.  Why on earth would anyone want to tell the world how important it is to communicate, yet another time?

Actually, after the recent plane flyover accident that cost the White House Military Director Louis Caldera his job, it is quite appropriate to write a few lines about the effective communication.

If you are initiating a change or a project of any scale, remember:

– to identify all stakeholders (those who will be affected by it )

– to plan communication: determine how you will communicate with them (time, frequency, means)

– to communicate as per the plan without fail.

Watch the video below to see how White House staff would benefit from memorizing the three lines above.

In 2008, McKinsey surveyed some 3,200 executives around the globe and found that only about one third of all change initiatives succeed.

In fact, it can be argued that this number is probably even lower, since “success” means different things to different people and humans are not terribly forthcoming with acknowledging failures.

I believe that most fiascos are attributable to the lack of accountability, a key ingredient of leadership. Being an instigator of change is not a comfortable position, as change itself is uncomfortable and, often, disruptive. To instigate change means abandoning the safety of the status quo, something that only strong leaders who feel responsible for the end result can be motivated to do on their own. Accountability can also be imposed externally (e.g. by the owner making the CEO responsible for the end result).

Strong leadership is always in short supply. The ownership of large corporations is dispersed among many shareholders who cannot demand accountability on their own, while corporate boards have proven to be ineffective. In public sector, taxpayers, likewise,  have few means of instilling the sense of accountability.

And since the perfectly effective governance is probably an utopian notian at this point, yet again it all seems to boil down to the question of strong leadership.

The idea of “going on your own” is attractive to many for the obvious reasons of independence and control over one’s destiny. As businesses shed people today like larch needles after the first frost, many turn to considering consulting seriously.

I went on my own after a successful career of 15 years in corporate IT in 3 countries and walking the classic career path from operator and programmer to executive. For a long time before making the leap, I yearned for the times when I would be running my own business, being my own boss. It finally happened 3 years ago and I’ve never looked back.

Being an independent consultant offers unsurpassed learning opportunities and a variety of assignments (if you can sell your services, that is). While travel is almost always a given, today’s technology has reduced it greatly as collaboration tools and communications become more and more powerful and efficient. Improving the client’s condition is venerable, satisfying and, frankly, well compensated.

Can you make it as an independent consultant?

A few traits are requisite, such as the ability to communicate effectively, the presence and, obviously, the knowledge of the subject matter. Pick up “Getting started in consulting” by Dr Alan Weiss if you are pondering this career path for a great discussion on this and other topics. In this article, I want to point out three important considerations that I believe to be critical; yet they are subtle enough to escape most people’s decision making process.

For the purpose of this discussion, I distinguish between consulting and contracting, the latter being a temporary placement with a client for the duration of a project or a set term. Here, I am talking of the former.

Structure, commitments and priorities

If you are a part of organization, you show up at work in the morning knowing what you are going to do. You have meetings lined up, voicemail light flashing, people popping their heads in your office. Your boss gives you assignments, you, in turn, task your reports. There is a structure created by schedule, commitments and priorities, which tell you how to use your time. This structure “happens” and is far from being of your own doing.

Running your own business means that unless you are besieged with client calls from the onset (a nice problem to have!), you will have time on your hands and no one but you will have to decide how to use it with the best return possible.  There will be no structure to speak of, nothing that resembles the one I described above.

It’s a big deal. More than once people told me they wouldn’t be able to succeed in such uncertain setting. Would you?

Coffee, water cooler…

As a corporate woman or man, you may dislike a lot of things that come as a part of the package. Commute, office gossip, your boss who drives you nuts, high-maintenance employees… Wouldn’t it be nice to escape it all?

Sure it will, but if you have been a part of a large outfit for a few years, it is likely that you are used to being a part of something bigger, with its culture, challenges, dynamics and little idiosyncrasies, with the coffee machine and the water cooler and the cafeteria. We are communal animals, after all…

Do not underestimate the significance of these things to your happy self. I have seen many people becoming miserable and even falling into depression because of the lack of belonging. Solo consulting can be lonely and you will have to build these accoutrements yourself: network with fellow consultants, read newspapers, watch news, join associations and, if you have to, buy that coffee machine.

I have done it and so have my colleagues, it is not that hard, yet it does not happen by itself.

Getting things done

Whatever you do today in the corporate world has its boundaries. You may be the head of marketing, which means that you are probably not involved in Operations. You may be a network administrator, building and maintaining networks and completely removed from the sales process. Rarely do you have a staff member who is involved in all aspects of the enterprise, and not just merely involved but actually being a key decision maker in every area.

Guess what, once you are a consultant, you will be running your own business from A to Z, from IT to accounting, from product development to marketing. You don’t have to do your own books or set up your network, in fact, most often you shouldn’t, but you will make all the key decisions across the full spectrum of your little company’s functions.

The most successful consultants I know have an incredible knack of making things happen. For instance, you have decided to create a series of podcasts on your consulting specialties. It is not enough to just think up the concept but you actually have to line up the technology, record it, make it accessible to your audience and market it.  The likelihood is that in your corporate life several people would be involved, but now it is all up to you.  It can be difficult and you have to have the discipline to stick to it and diligently execute, from the beginning to the end.

As you have read my three points, you may have started questioning your thoughts about going on your own. This is fine and I wrote this short article not to discourage you but to inform. Independent consulting offers incredible experiences and as with every vocation, you have to love what you do to be happy.

Seeing that many companies are repatriating their previously outsourced processes (I am talking specifically about outsourcing, not offshoring), I wonder where the outsourcing pendulum is going to swing next.

The “outsource-repatriate” exercise is an expensive one. First, there are obvious costs to just executing the transition, twice (and coming back is often very difficult). Second, there are likely even higher costs as a result of revenues and customers lost in the process and inability to address strategic projects while being engaged in the outsourcing hopscotch.

There is one key question that must be answered to save you from this hassle:

Does the outsourced function have strategic value or not?

If the function is not strategic, like facility management, as an example, it is a good candidate for outsourcing. Would Customer Service be a good candidate? It depends. If the responsibilities of the Customer Service department are trivial, such as providing product information and recording service calls, it may work well. If these folks are empowered to make decisions, if your company sees excellent Customer Service as the area of competitive advantage, if you strive to innovate in this area, than no, it won’t work.

The strategic vs.  not  consideration is especially critical in IT outsourcing. Organizations which hastily outsourced their development, found that every project, however small, now came with a hard cost. Innovation became replaced with a rigid contractual arrangement, the progress became convoluted and slow.

Outsourcing allows organizations to concentrate on key strategic activities. Knowing what can be outsourced and what mustn’t is the key decision factor.

These pictures are from the Valley of Fire, Nevada. I took them a couple of weeks ago while enjoying some gentle south-western winter sunshine. valley_of_fire1The tough desert climate, poor soil and unforgiving terrain are all redeemed by the sheer beauty and drama of the landscape.

This place is unforgiving and even minor hiking should be taken seriously  -complacency kills! – yet the desert is full of life. Rabbits and smaller rodents, snakes, lizards, foxes and numerous birds make the desert their home. img_3081Despite the adversity of the environment, they thrive here.img_3086

Are you thriving or merely surviving today? Here are five questions I have for you as a technology executive:

1. Have you lately come up with an innovative use of technology that puts your organization in front of your competition?

It is troubling that we find IT departments today more and more focused on simply keeping the lights up, not unlike a humble (yet very expensive) janitor?

2. Do you know what your organization’s strategic priorities are today?

Cost cutting? You can’t grow buy cutting costs. I mean – really, where is your company heading and how can you as the head of IT enable this journey?

3. Are you working on the right things?

Do  you and your business counterparts evaluate the basket of projects  you are working on regularly? If not, how do you know you are spending limited resources on the right thing?

4. Are you laying people off “to conserve cash”? How do you know you are not permanently disabling your department and organization?

If you must, it is better to cut vertically than horizontally – it is more difficult but it is right. More on this here .

5. Do you communicate with your employees regularly and openly?

On a daily basis, I receive horror stories from people about embarassingly trembling, unsure, vague, inaccurate and even clearly dishonest communication coming from the C-suite.

As a technology executive, you have enormous powers at your disposal: probably the best educated department in your organization, capable of innovation. Innovation, when aligned with the overall strategy, creates sustainable competitive advantage and ensures that the business will not simply survive but thrive.

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