The 7 Habits of Highly Effective IT Leaders



With disruptive technology changes around every corner, it can be tough to keep up.

Between Cloud, Mobile, Social, and Big Data as well as the Internet-of-Things, business leaders are re-imagining and transforming their customer experience, their workforce, and their operations, at a pace, that was never before possible.

Here are seven habits of highly effective IT leaders, based on what we see across business of all shapes and sizes, and various industries from automotive to manufacturing …

Habit # 1. Focus on Business Outcomes

The first habit of effective IT leaders is they focus on business outcomes.

All too often, IT is disconnected from the business.   Aside from speaking a different language, IT has one set of priorities, while the business has another.

One simple cutting question for IT leaders is, “Do you know the business priorities?”  In too many cases, the answer is no.  So instead of creating business impact, IT leaders ends up focused on “science projects” that the business doesn’t care about.

A great follow up question is, “Do you know how to measure impact?”   In some cases, IT leaders may be doing all the right things, but they don’t know how to translate their impact into terms the business understands.

What effective IT leaders do, that ineffective IT leaders do not, is learn the business.  They “think like a CEO.”  This includes knowing how to measure the impact.  And effective IT leaders know how to prioritize in a way that reflects the business priorities.

In practice, this means knowing the business drivers that the business cares about and the KPIs that count.  The KPIs provide a view on which business outcomes matter, and a way to measure progress.   This also helps IT leaders learn the language of the business and connect with the right business leaders for budget, support, and champions, as well as business perspective and context.  

In terms of prioritizing, effective IT leaders prioritize their effort together with business leaders in terms of business impact and ability to execute.  While business leaders can help articulate and quantify the business value of initiatives, effective IT leaders can help articulate the ability to execute, as well as translate how technology capabilities impact business capabilities.

One of the tools that helps connect IT with the business is the Benefits Dependency Network (BDN.)  It starts with a simple mapping of key business drivers to business objectives and business benefits.  With benefits mapped to the objectives, it’s easy to see the value.  This helps identify the required business changes, which help focus the enabling changes, and determine appropriate technology enablers. 

With a BDN, business leaders can easily see how IT changes support the business, and IT leaders can easily see how to connect their efforts to directly impact business outcomes.  They become part of the chain.

Habit # 2. Know your User

The second habit of highly effective IT leaders, is they know the users.

Too many IT projects end up designed for the mythical user that doesn’t exist.  They showcase a wealth of functionality and features that nobody asked for, or solve a problem that nobody has. 

Or, in other cases, are all things to everybody, so the solution doesn’t work for anybody, either by being to generic, too simple, or too complicated.

What effective IT leaders do, that ineffective IT leaders do not, is they know their users.  They “think like marketing.”  To do this, they segment their users, so they can get specific on their pains, needs, and desired outcomes. 

In practice, this means using personas to represent the different user types.  This helps build empathy for the users, as well as map out “a day in the life.”  When IT really understands the device and service needs of their users throughout a typical workday, it helps IT leaders better understand technology trade-offs in a relevant way.  No more ivory towers design.

Another practice that highly effective IT leaders use is customer journey mapping.  By providing an “end-to-end” view of the customer experience, IT can help the business see opportunities along the value chain, as well as identify opportunities for technology to change the game.

When IT knows its users, it creates a business capability that can create new compelling customer experiences, drive more productive workforce transformation and employee engagement, and streamline operations to be better, faster, and cheaper.

Habit #3. Plan for Value

The third habit of effective IT leaders is they plan for value.

The big shift here is from measuring on time, on budget, to measuring value creation.  This goes hand in hand with habit #1 and #2.  By knowing the business and by knowing the users, it’s possible to articulate and frame the value of the program or project to the business.

What effective IT leaders do, that ineffective IT leaders do not, is they create a roadmap for business value.  They “think like a CFO.”   They understand the stakeholders, the benefits, the costs, the risks, and the financial story over time.  They are able to tell a story without numbers that’s believable and achievable, as well as a story with numbers that helps show how the money flows over time. 

Rather than just a technology roadmap, effective IT leaders provide a transformation plan that shows how business benefits will be realized over time, and how IT projects will impact business capabilities.  This is effectively the “business journey.”

And, effective IT leaders find ways to flow continous value to stakeholders along the way, whether that’s monthly or quarterly results, rather than promise benefits far out into the future, when the business needs results today.

Habit # 4. Embrace Change

The fourth habit of highly effective IT leaders is, they embrace change.

A big challenge that some IT shops have is they manage and maintain a great deal of legacy.  Meanwhile, they are supporting applications from yester-year, while they fight fires with limited resources and slashed budgets.

What effective IT leaders do, that ineffective IT leaders do not, is they embrace change.  Rather than invest in infrastructure, they rent it.  They shift investments to applications that directly impact the value chain.  As part of the transformation, they evolve their governance to embrace more agility and keep up with the business.

To spearhead the change, effective IT leaders pair up and partner with business leaders, such as marketng.  In the case of marketing, the speed of change, along with direct customer impact, and direct impact on the bottom line, help pressure test IT in terms of agility, innovation, and customer connection, while connecting technology to tangible business outcomes.

Gartner refers to this split functioning of IT in terms of a fast and agile IT, and a slower, more traditional, IT as “Bi-Modal IT”, and the authors of the book, Leading Digital, refer to this as “Dual-Speed IT.”  In any case, the real question is, “Can your IT organization shift gears?”

The key is focusing on business outcomes, while transforming slower more traditional IT to a more agile IT organization, to keep up with changing business needs.

Habit # 5. Build a Culture of Service

The fifth habit of highly effective IT leaders is build a culture of service.

Just like DevOps breaks down walls between developers, testers, and operations, this is about, this is about breaking down walls to the customer.  Aside from improving the response time for dealing with issues and fixes, this also creates a better feedback loop between consumers and producers, as well as more rapid learning loops to help reduce cycle time and accelerate business value.

IT provides a service to the business and a service to customers.  

Habit # 6. Drive Insights

The sixth habit of highly effective IT leaders is drive insights.

It’s not good enough to simply provide adoption and usage reports, although it’s a start. 

With all of the capabilities around analytics and data visualization, what IT can bring to the table is new insights.

What effective IT leaders do, that ineffective IT leaders do not, is bring insights to the business.  They bring insights in terms of what users are using, as well as what users want and need.  They bring insights around customer sentiment as well as identify the hot spots for improving the customer experience along the value cahin.  And they bring insights into product performance in real-time.  They provide visualization and self-service analytics so that business leaders can make data-driven decisions over just winging it.

With insights from social analytics and the ability to perform sentiment analysis, it’s easier now to know where you stand with your customers, as well as who the key influencers are.

Habit # 7. Build Raving Fans

The seventh habit of highly effective IT leaders is build raving fans.

Just shipping something or throwing it over the wall doesn’t automatically translate to usage.  Even if the friction to adopt is relatively low, there still might be enough change or barriers to slow down the adoption curve.

What highly effective IT leaders do, that ineffective leaders do not, is they build raving fans.  They plan for adoption, rather than just deployment, and they focus on user success.

They “think like an evangelist.” 

Rather than leave adoption to change, highly effective IT leaders make adoption a first-class citizen.  More than usage, they want satisfaction.  More than satisfaction, they want users that would actually recommend the solutions to others, in a true world-of-mouth marketing and raving fan way.

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