The Undiscussables of Tech Leadership #ctoforum #cto #leadership

"You know," I shared with a fellow CTO who had just finished an interview where the questions focused on leadership questions rather than technology, "the CTO's Role IS primarily about leadership and establishing the conditions teams can work together."

It's a realization, a fundamental truth that I was startlingly unaware of only a few years ago and it took time to understand. I've written about it often here, but as I shared with my friend who'd just finished a round of questions, this is the primary work of the CTO. When organizations try to focus on only the technical side of the job, they set themselves up for failure. How many times do you know of an organization who hired someone with extensive credentials only to find they couldn't have their teams work well together and now that someone is out of a job? It's isn't about the T, it's about the shared leadership.

Earlier this week, Jean Tower (CTO) was kind enough to invite me to attend the CoSN CTO Forum in San Diego. I immediately bowed out, sharing that the cost of travel out of state is one I'm not willing to put my employer through (I have a policy of in state travel only for my own team, so I didn't see myself breaking that rule unless I chose to pay for travel, hotels, etc. With a child in college, that just isn't an option). I didn't even ask my supervisor, I just decided not to discuss it.

Travel aside, Jean shared a description of what will be discussed at the CTO Forum, naming it "The Undiscussables of Technology Leadership." 
If your people are too afraid to talk to you about what's happening, challenge your thinking, then the "group is broke." 
When I tweeted a question about this earlier this week, as well as posted it in the new Google+ Community Dr. Scott McLeod started on School Leadership, Scott asked, What do you mean by undiscussables?

To this question, Jean replied:
the undiscussables are the conversations that take real courage to initiate. When we want to really challenge the status quo. We sometimes need to go after the sacred cow practices and those are tough discussions - almost, undiscussable.
 While we could spend time on word choice--undiscussables vs unmentionables, or perhaps, crucial conversations, crucial confrontations, I like this description of the undiscussable in reference to Penn State:
"Why was there almost a conspiracy of silence?" John R. Kimberly, a Wharton management professor, asks of these scandals and others like them. "Why do we behave in ways that are inconsistent with our articulated beliefs?" He wonders why people with integrity behave differently within an organization than they would on their own.
In hindsight, especially to observers, it is clear what should have been done. Yet in case after case, companies overlook internal problems that at best impede performance, and at worst could bring down an entire organization.  (Source: Don't Mention It)
(Aside: The boldface section in the first paragraph above implies this question: Why do team members who would normally speak up, keep their mouths shut regarding an organizational topic that is now taboo? Another question might be, how do these topics end up as taboo or undiscussable?)

 The CTO's role, in fact, any leader's role, is to address these overlooked internal problems. But how we go about it also requires some reflection. I'm reminded of Chris Argryis' point that organizations protect themselves from embarassing situations:
The culture of the company “made it unacceptable to get others into trouble for the sake of correcting problems. In the name of positive thinking, managers often censor what everyone needs to say and hear. . .they deprive employees and themselves of the opportunity to take responsibility for their own behavior by learning to understand it...Defensive reasoning serves no purpose except self-protection, though the people who use it rarely acknowledge that they are protecting themselves. It is the group, the department, the organization that they are protecting in the name of being positive...In positive thinking, managers' actual techniques involve gathering data selectively, postulating only causes that do not threaten themselves, testing explanations in ways that are sloppy and self-serving. This is defensive reasoning.

He later writes that instead of trying to "fix a problem," we should ask questions like the following:
  1. How long have you known about this problem?
  2. What have you done to address it?
  3. What prevents you from questioning and correcting problems?
  4. How would you redesign our company to encourage more initiative?
I like this approach because it helps one get to the root of why the problem hasn't been explored before. For example, consider this scenario:
"Janet," shared a staff member in a moment of conversation, "I didn't tell you sooner, but a few days ago, we had equipment--about $2000--stolen out of a secured closet. Only a few people have access to it. The closet had an electronic combination lock on it, but the combination is just '123456' and no one's changed it. I can't and the person who is responsible for it hasn't seen it as a priority."
My first instinct in approaching this problem is to ask a few questions, mainly, "How long have you known about this? How much equipment was stolen and what did it cost? Who had access to this equipment? Has this been reported to the police?" Those questions are focused on solving the problem of stolen equipment. Do they really get to the heart of the undiscussables latent in the event?

If we take Chris' approach, let's see what happens.
  1. How long have you known about this problem, that the combination was still set to default "123456?"
  2. What have you done to address the combination issue?
  3. What prevented you from addressing this issue and solving it before it became a problem?
  4. How would you change how we do things now as an organization to ensure issues like this don't reoccur?
 The answers you get to the questions above actually get us to a different set of responses, responses that can lead to greater organizational change. I picked this scenario because it's one that's fresh on my mind, but also relatively safe. Of course, sometimes, as leaders, we don't want to grab a thread and follow it through all its permutations. It's easier to just solve the problem and move on.

That's what makes dealing with undiscussables or unmentionables all the more important. What's the crucial conversation or confrontation that you're not having so that the organization can move forward?

When I frame Jean's remarks this way, then the undiscussables of tech leadership come into focus, don't they? You can easily ask yourself, what conversations are you not having that are keeping you from advancing or moving forward in your organization? 

Reflecting on my own work, it's easy to stay quiet, to avoid those conversations, to "let sleeping dogs lie" at least for today. Tomorrow, there will be new problems...of course, the realization that stumbles after each problem is that unless you have those crucial conversation/confrontations about the undiscussables, all problems that arise (new or old) will always be solved in the same dysfunctional, or ineffective, way as the ones that preceeded it.

That makes changing HOW you solve problems, how the organization raises issues, all the more critical.

Ok, now that I've responded to the question of what undiscussables are, and perhaps, how we should go about introducing them, what are some of the undiscussables for CTOs?

Here's my list of undiscussables, but just like classroom technology integration, CTO issues are embedded in the context of the organization, the culture of the company or school district. What's undiscussable for one may not be for others.

  1. Why, when we launch "popular" initiatives like BYOD, one to one, iPad, are these initiatives not enjoying the full backing of the Curriculum Department? Instead, we have to make do with the vestigial instructional strategies available to the Educational Technology staff? This is a question that was just posed to me on G+ by a colleague (you know who you are) in a nearby district.
  2. How long will we persist in the desktop computer model--with it's labs, lab teachers, and recurring expenses--when the future is clearly mobile learning? For example, technology applications as taught through computer labs is dead and is a hold-over from the past. Why do we continue to support these labs when mobile is the way forward? You may want to read this recent scenario--The 800 Desktop Millstone--that captures the situation.
  3. Why do we continue to buy the latest gadgets for the principals, leadership staff (e.g. here have an iPod Touch, subsidies for iPhone purchases, iPads) but then fail to hold them accountable when they take those devices home and let their kids play with them but the leaders never use them?
  4. Why do allow everyone onto our wireless network instead of doing better identity management? 
  5. Why don't we have conversations/confrontations with staff who are not doing their job, or are doing it poorly?
I have a list of why CTOs should get fired, but this list also covers undiscussables we should be discussing in the context of organizational leadership:
  1. New technology gets purchased and distributed to campuses before an electrical capacity for buildings is done. When everyone plugs-in their new technology, the power goes out. Oops.
  2. New technology gets purchased and distributed to staff, but when they all try to connect to the network, the District doesn't have enough bandwidth to access the Web. Oops.
  3. Failing to implement GoogleApps for Education (GAFE). Why? Well, duh, it's a cost-effective way to save your organization money for email, calendaring, etc. More importantly, it's provides everyone in the organization with a suite of tools.
  4. Telling everyone that GAFE is a boondoggle, and would actually cost too much because of email archiving. This is a lie. Why aren't we dealing with the lie?
  5. CTO tells the Technology team that he will stop the willy-nilly purchase of technologies that lack proper vetting (e.g. automated account management, easy device management, compatibility with district network) but then secretly signs-off on the approval of the technologies.
  6. CTO purchases technology (e.g. netbooks, iPads, Chromebooks, laptops, brain-chips) for deployment but doesn't work with stakeholders to develop a deployment plan. Technology arrives at campuses and people look at each other and then take it home for their home entertainment system.
  7. The Tech team works on a project with another department that fails to do their part, and instead of holding the department accountable and working to ensure support so they can fulfill their obligation, encourages them to come to him so he can create a workaround system. The system? Tell the Tech Team to just do it, depriving the other department the opportunity to learn to support their own project.
  8. Bringing in faux external evaluators to assess the organizational structure, and then using the resulting fictional document--where false data was submitted--to cut the salaries of Tech Team members s/he doesn't like, or worse, have the consultants revise the plan to make current failed practices look successful.
  9. When the end-users want to bring in iPads to meet critical needs for special education children (watch this video and make sure to have tissue handy), the CTO fails to organize his Tech Team to put together a deployment plan...or, alternatively, deploys iPads with no thought as mobile device management.
  10. Although differentiated content filtering is possible, the CTO refuses to fund purchase of less expensive solutions that provide finer-grained control over content filtering because YouTube should continue to be blocked (that way, the CTO doesn't have to meet with the Community).
  11. The CTO makes a decision to implement an authentication security protocol to better track where people are going and what they are doing on the Internet, but doesn't tell anybody until after it's done, resulting in complaints from end users who don't know why they suddenly can't login on their iOS devices.
 You know, I often re-read my own lists like the one above. They remind me I'm far from perfect (I knew it, but I wanted you to know I knew it) and have to continually re-evaluate.

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


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