Saturday, November 10, 2012

CTO's Role: Solving Problems Together - School District Cafeteria Software

Can anyone tell me what software they are using for their cafeteria? We are looking into this at the moment
Any CTO will tell you it's important to have handy answers when others ask. The question is, where do you go to find those answers?

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Believe it or not, I actually subscribe to multiple email lists where actual conversations happen. It's one of the reasons I join email lists and online communities, read voraciously, and have created the Texas for Technology Enhanced Education (Texas4TEE; email list.

But what happens AFTER you have a few answers to the question, What answers have you found?

  1. NutriKids
  2. Systems Design Food & Nutrition Services
  3. Cafeteria FoodServe Suite Software 
  4. PrimeroEdge

I've found that the answers vary depending on your organizational culture. For some, that culture is toxic and stifles conversations before they even begin, resulting in a turf war, a race for scarce funding and resources. For others, the culture welcomes conversations and there's a process for raising these questions.

Unfortunately, in either of those two scenarios, it's easy for the information to get lost. Often, technologists have solutions to problems their organization hasn't inquired about, or maybe they've inquired but given little thought to implementation. How do you keep the ideas front and center in everyone's mind, and how do you ensure that they don't become your crusade alone? Sometimes, we short-circuit the process...we find the problem and the solution, then want everyone to agree with us.

This is a tough one. The process that I like to go through isn't brain surgery and seldom perfect all the way through. However, I've seen it work time and again, not just for me but others. I've learned, perhaps the hard way, that failure to follow this process results in work that will have to be done again and again, resulting in frustration with those you failed to involve in the first place, and your own as you ask, "How come I'm the only one who gets it?"

Below, I share one imperfect approach as well as some pitfalls and how to avoid them. Please, this is hard-won wisdom but it isn't the whole picture. Speak up if you know more.

One approach to this process is as follows:

  1. Gather stakeholders together with whom you have recognized a problem exists that needs to be resolved.
  2. Clarify what the problem is, forestalling any rush to solutions. Solutions offered should help clarify the desired features in the solution that will be identified later, rather than be the end all. The goal is to get everyone to "flush out" the problems and issues that need to be resolved.
  3. State the goal of the meeting is to define the problem as clearly as possible, and seek input from as many stakeholders as is possible ahead of time. 
  4. Remember your role as meeting facilitator isn't to "run" the process or even "be the chosen leader" or expert with all the answers. Allow yourself to be the learner, asking questions and honestly seeking perspectives that others have to offer.
  5. Decide who will facilitate the meetings, schedule meetings, keep track of who will do what by when, etc. This is more important than you might imagine. No meeting is effective unless the who will do what by when is properly addressed.
  6. Encourage people to voice their fears and concerns about the process, about the problem and how it's been framed or set up, as well as the solution finding and implementation process. This is about dialogue and keeping everyone being honest with each other.
  7. Always ask, "What is best for the organization, the people who will be affected by this decision and the work they are about?" I have found that this helps focus oneself as well as others on what's best for the organization rather than getting caught up in petty jealousies, paranoia, fear that plague the human condition. Rather than worry about "What will be best for this one individual who has to change their whole process," we can be more concerned with what is best for the organization. Once you've identified the latter, then you can come back to the fear of change each of us feels when we know our "cheese has been moved."

Pitfalls to avoid and how to do that:

  • Pitfall #1 - Have "side" conversations where team members interpret your listening to them as agreement with their solution. It's not that their solution might not be worthy of consideration, but that it is a solution that doesn't involve all the stakeholders (I threw out all all the double negatives admonitions from English teachers in that last sentence, didn't I?).
    How To Avoid this Pitfall: Unequivocally state that while this has been a conversation worth having, it will need to occur again with the entire team present. Also be sure to point out that you have not made any decisions about the individual's proposed solution at this time, only that the conversation has underscored the need for valuable input to be shared with the team.
  • Pitfall #2 - Picking a side or solution in advance of the team meeting. This is such an easy one to fall into, I'm not surprised when organizations are already well into implementation before they realize they didn't go through a process to solve a problem. Instead, they went through a process to implement a solution to a problem they don't fully understand.
    How to Avoid this Pitfall: Go through the problem-definition process and get as much input as possible, especially from those who will have to implement it (e.g. cafeteria workers)
  • Pitfall #3 - Keeping the meeting positive and politically correct. One of the real dangers in organizations where everyone is gung-ho and positive is the fear of saying something that would be politically incorrect. While we are sensitive to being tactful and respectful of team members and the work we're about together, genuine disagreements occur as a result of what we think the other people intend when they say something that comes out...less than perfect. I love the Crucial Conversations and Confrontations books for how they handle these situations.
    How to Avoid this Pitfall: "Mine for conflict" rather than avoid it as something to be feared. Make sure that you, as the Crucial Conversations authors put it: 1) Make it safe; 2) Clarify what we want; 3) What we don't want; 4) Avoid sucker's choices; 5) Encourage everyone to get their opinions out there. When we focus on making it safe for others to share their thinking, as well as avoid the "fight or flight" response common to sucker's choices, it's easier to step back to find what is best for the organization.

Those are my thoughts on a Saturday morning as I reflect on the conversations I have. I don't claim to be fact, the reason I have to spend time reflecting on how *I* communicate is because I'm not very good at it. To me, that kind of transparency (sharing here) and focus on being a learner pays off because it re-acquaints me with humility of my imperfection.

And, as most CTOs know, if you're not in touch with your weaknesses, they'll be sure to carry you away at the worst possible moment.

Disclaimer: Although I already have a disclaimer at the bottom of this blog entry, I want to be up front. My current work environment is NOT looking for school cafeteria software. I am not claiming it is either a toxic culture or something else. In fact, this blog entry is the result of a conversation others are having on an email list that I thought would be fun to use as a way to explore a critical process leaders, especially CTOs, have to go through. For team members who may be reading this, this isn't about YOU or anyone else. But if you like, I hope you'll help me stick to the process...hold me accountable for adhering to the process and help me avoid the pitfalls. :-)
More on the CTO's Role Series:
As someone who long wanted to be a CTO (a.k.a. Director of Technology) before actually achieving it, I've been collecting wisdom and advice for years. Being a slow learner, it finally clicked that being a CTO is less about technology and more about working with people. When I started this blog series, my hope was to document all the great advice my friends and colleagues were sharing, as well as capture insights obtained.

More importantly, I hope this series will help you as you consider becoming a CTO or Director of Technology.
  1. "It's the Leadership, Stupid!" - When technology fails in a school district, it's not the technology often that was the problem, but rather, the leadership. This blog entry explores the gap between technology implementation and leadership.
  2. Certifiable - The Uncertain Path to Technology Director - As a tech director wanna-be what advice are you willing to share on what had helped you be successful in your current role?
  3. 7 Tips for Doing First Things First - Over the years, I've had the chance to chat with many Chief Technology Officers--and/or Directors of Technology--about starting out in a new place of employment. This list of 7 tips for "new" CTOs on what to do first is based on those conversations.
  4. Top 5 Tips for Overcoming Network Challenges - A few months ago, I asked colleagues in Texas what their top 5 network challenges might be. Invariably, the responses came back containing one word--bandwidth. Given that BYOD, iOS devices are flooding school systems, it's only natural that bandwidth be a top concern. What challenges would you add, or what would you elaborate on below? 
  5. Advice for Newbie CTOs - Some time ago, I asked a Technology Director in Texas the following: If you had to give advice to a novice technology director, what advice would that be? This blog entry contains her awesome answer.
  6. Building a Technology-Supported Learning Ecology - A list of questions trying to get a handle on all the possible jobs that Chief Technology Officers (CTOs) end up having to do or manage in small, medium and large school districts.
  7. Relationships...Matter! - It's a truism - Relationships matter, especially, How to build relationships when change is critical. After all, human beings are social animals, pack animals, members of a herd, a family of individuals bound together for survival. Yet, for all its truth, getting along long enough to bring about fundamental change can be the hardest act human relationships have to endure. 
  8. Opening Gambit- Creating, not Criticizing Together - About 12 years ago, I found myself facing a tough audience. The Chief Technology Officer for the District had invited me in as a consultant to introduce the design of a web-based system. At the time, he and I both knew that I didn't have the design skills for what he imagined, however, I did have enough to create a mock-up. The mock-up would be an opening gambit in a conversation he wanted to have but held a lot of potential for negativity. . .relationships matter.
  9. Slash-n-Burn: Leadership in the Field - Instead of resulting in high-performing people, slash-n-burn leadership degenerates an organization filled with people doing what they need to survive, the bare minimum to earn a paycheck. We can be so much more.
  10. What CTOs SHOULD Get Fired For - Although technology directors, or CTOs, seldom get fired--usually, they are encouraged to leave due to personality conflicts with the Superintendent (yes, I've actually heard that!) or something like that--what would the list of "What You Should Get Fired For" look like for school CTOs? For fun, let's explore that.
  11. Short-Handed and Resource-Rich - In every organization I've been in, I've always been short-handed. You know, so much so that I wonder if it wasn't perfect training for the kind of world many of us have found ourselves living in as budgets are slashed and we're left trying to figure out how to implement.
  12. Fit In - The Kundalini Equation - Why doesn't technology fit in better with curriculum and instruction? It's a question that I've pondered often over the last 20 years, often wondering if it shouldn't be the other way around. Why doesn't curriculum and instruction fit in more with technology? But, then, I remember my experience driving the highway one day and ask, Is fitting in the right way to look at it? Or, do we need to focus on dynamic tension, the synergy between the 3?
  13. Providing Quality Service with Technology - A friend who works in that school district shared a new initiative implemented in her district--walkie-talkie phones with GPS for staff. The problem, she pointed out, was that several technology specialists were checking in every morning, then disappearing for the day. How would you solve this problem?
  14. Team Building - How do you build an awesome team?
  15. Involve Stakeholders - When one builds relationships with stakeholders, one increases organizational confidence to get what appeared insurmountable alone, done.
  16. Just Jump In - What process can we follow that will provide us with that level of assurance for accepting and supporting change in a technology-rich ecology?
  17. Don't Be the Fun Police - Tidbits from a whitepaper on content filtering solutions.
You may also want to read this series of posts on Technology Management....

Everything posted on Miguel Guhlin's blogs/wikis are his personal opinion and do not necessarily represent the views of his employer(s) or its clients. Read Full Disclosure

1 comment:

Leslie Curd said...

Very insightful! I thoroughly enjoy reading your posts. Thanks!!

The Courage to Lead