IT is not a cost centre

I have ranted before about the shortfalls of budgeting and how budgeting encourages us to think of projects in terms of cost rather than in terms of value creation. This is particularly troubling for parts of the organisation known as Corporate (or Shared) Services. Corporate Services generally include areas such as Legal, Human Resources, Procurement and IT. These services are necessary for the smooth operation of the business, but unlike Operations, they are generally not considered to be income generating. As they aren’t directly involved in income generation, they are often seen by the rest of the business as a necessary evil where their cost (and often their involvement) needs to be minimised (for IT this challenge is often particularly acute because in many large organisations the Head of IT reports into the CFO).

The problem with this approach is by focusing on cost minimisation, organisations inadvertently also reduce value generation.

In the modern workplace, technology improvements have become an increasingly fertile ground for innovation but ‘innovation’ is often in direct conflict to the IT department’s primary objective of platform stability and security. Perhaps the simplest definition of innovation is ‘change that creates value’, but change both contradicts the goal of stability and also necessarily comes with attached risk, and risk is often viewed in conflict with the goal of security.

This perceived conflict has created a certain inertia in how IT departments operate that somewhat ironically results in more but different types of risk. Organisations might think they are reducing short-term operational risk by focusing on stability and security, but in doing so they are creating medium-term implementation risks (as change shifts from being small, relatively simple and continuous to large, relatively complex and sporadic) and longer-term strategic risks (as competitors identify and implement technology innovations at a faster rate).

An alternative is to re position IT (and perhaps all corporate services) as innovation catalysts. Rather than passively waiting for people to tell them what they need, IT could be proactively engaging with the business to find out what could be done better (and then working in partnership to make it happen). I often talk of IT as being Digital Champions but like many terms that have entered our collective lexicon, its familiarity has led to it losing some of its meaning. A Digital Champion is someone who keeps abreast of emerging technology opportunities and then champions its potential within the organisation. Championing something is unavoidably and unashamedly proactive. It requires constant engagement, education and ultimately a sense of (shared) service.

If this feels like a seismic shift, it doesn’t need to be. Like any change it is best if it’s started small. It should not be focused on investing in or developing new platforms and instead aim to unlock the latent potential in the platforms an organisation has already invested in. Perhaps the biggest change requires is a change of mindset. Like other Corporate functions, IT are often treated as second class citizens, and as a result many have come to believe it. But by giving the IT team the tools and training, and subsequently the belief that they can drive innovation and add ridiculous amounts of value to the organisation, we can change this perception.

At the end of the day, the best way for IT departments to change the perception that they’re more than a cost centre is to prove it. All they need to do is take the time to understand people’s challenges and then share the know how they already have.  Person by person, team by team, department by department.

 

I’ll be hosting a two-day intensive program on 15-16 October in Sydney where we will take your champions through the process of identifying, investigating and delivering technology improvements with sustainable success. As a special offer, use the promo code INTENSIVE20 to avail of a 20% discount on the ticket price. Click here for tickets and further information on this insanely practical event. 

Some things are good in theory but better in practice

A couple of weeks ago, I had the opportunity to deliver a brand new keynote for the first time. As a professional speaker, a new keynote is like a newborn child. About 12 months ago, I was talking to my team and suggested we should try for another keynote. We already had a couple of keynotes that we loved and it was difficult to see how we were going to have time for another one. More content to change, more sleepless nights wondering if they’re OK, and ongoing concerns about how you will love them all equally. But once you have the idea in your head, it’s hard to shake. So after a couple more discussions we decided to take the leap and get serious about it.

Between that point of inception and the delivery date (which again, just like a newborn was also about nine months), it felt like this keynote could be anything it wanted to be — the possibilities were endless. But as the delivery date draws closer, the reality starts to kick in, your fears start to kick in.

What if it’s ugly? 

Will other people still love it? 

Will I still love it? 


What if I neglect it, and as it gets older it starts hanging out with the wrong sort of keynotes — the ones that mumble and are hard to understand. 


Or even worse, the boring ones that send everyone to sleep, or the weird looking ones with dot points all over their slides and who are always trying to say too much…

…hmmm, I think that analogy is done. Let’s move on.

This new keynote was called Thrive on Disruption and my idea was to explore the characteristics of organisations that not only propelled them to outperform their peers, but who (in doing so) often drove the disruption of whole industries or created entirely new ones. The good news was this related to a whole bunch of research I’d done as part of my Master of Leadership thesis a few years ago. The bad news was I had no idea about how to present such big and complex ideas in a truly engaging and meaningful way.

Enter storytelling

There is little doubt that the idea of corporate storytelling is having its day in the sun. Incredible books such as Hooked: How Leaders Connect, Engage and Inspire with Storytelling by Yamini Naidu and Gabrielle Dolan, as well as Gabrielle’s follow up book Stories for Work, and Shawn Callahan’s Putting Stories to Work (just to name a handful written in Melbourne) have all highlighted the power of storytelling in making ideas memorable and relatable and I was keen to see how I could use storytelling in my new keynote. So as part of the keynote development process, I worked with an incredible story crafter in Megan Davis to help design the narrative of the keynote.

The outcome was uncomfortable

Although I’ve read extensively on the power of storytelling and even engaged a story telling consultant to help me, the outcome (more so than the process) was incredibly challenging. In reflection, the biggest challenge was to my self-perception. I had felt that as a professional speaker I was meant to be the ‘expert’, someone with the answers, or at least, with thoughtful and thought provoking ideas to share. And yet, for the first 20 minutes of my new keynote I wasn’t going to share anything thoughtful at all. I wasn’t going to share any of my expertise. I was just going to tell a story of the time I went hiking in the mountains of New Zealand with seven friends (there is more to the story than this but I don’t want to ruin it for you). To say the least this felt incredibly awkward.

And yet it entirely worked

The saying goes that some things are good in theory but not so good in practice. I can only suggest that my experience of storytelling is entirely the opposite. Although I already knew that storytelling was good in theory, the experience in practice was far better than I could have imagined. Ultimately, the hiking story served as an easily understandable analogy for how organisations operate in disruptive and challenging environments. It provided a safe way for participants to reflect on their own organisation’s behaviours and practices, to better understand what is working and also what could be improved, and it provided a relatable way for sharing how cutting edge organisations operate differently. Finally, I think the story shed light on my own mistakes and my own vulnerabilities, which in turn perhaps made the ideas I did share more relatable and achievable. In hindsight, this is everything you get told about storytelling, but sometimes struggle to believe.

And why do I share this with you all? It’s not because I want you to use more story telling in your work, though I sincerely hope you do (and please check out some of the links to the great books and people above). It’s because theory and practice often bear little similarity to each other. It’s not just that some things are good in theory and yet bad in practice. It’s just as likely that something is bad in theory but good in practice or, as in this case, something I believed to be good in theory was in fact incredible in practice. Ultimately, the only thing that matters is practice, not theory. So if you really want to know if an idea is a good idea you need to stop reading about it and thinking about it…and actually do it.

Check out Simon’s LIVE Speaking Guide to get a taste for what he does or get in touch to discuss how he can add something special to your organisation’s next event.