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5 big changes IT leaders need to know in the DevOps age

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Todd DeCapua, Technology leader, speaker & author, CSC

How have agile and DevOps methods changed the way you work? Some of you may be so new to your software career that the current methods used by unicorn organizations and aspiring businesses seem natural and accepted practice. On the other hand, those of you who have worked in IT for more than a decade have witnessed significant changes in how projects are managed and how IT relates to business goals.

Perhaps you find yourself in a medium-to-large-size organization as a champion for business, technology, or the end user and you’re wondering how to lead change. Perhaps you already have a role in IT leadership and you’re looking for ideas to inspire your team, individuals, stakeholders, and even your end users.

Whether you are a vigilant practitioner, or a curious IT leader looking for a new approach to management, here are five things you should know about the changing role of IT leadership in the age of DevOps.

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1. Outcome and results focused: End user and business

In the past, IT’s focus was on the technology, naturally. That has always been very important. But what’s changing are the vital relationships between technology and the end user and between technology and business success.

The big difference from, say, 30 years ago is that IT no longer exists simply to support basic business processes, such as back-office accounting and payroll. The greater mission now is a focus on outcomes and results for both of the key stakeholders named above, the organization and its customers (or end users). Technology becomes the enabler and avenue for which the business delivers outcomes via results to the end users.

The focus here is metrics and data-driven decision-making, two features of today’s IT leadership. 

Both practicing and mastering this capability starts with partnering with your stakeholders and focusing on the end users. As an IT leader, you need to understand why you are delivering the technology solution, while building solid relationships and celebrating successes.

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2. Visibility and collaboration

Visibility and collaboration refer to a team’s awareness of what is going on and their interactive ability to work together and include their end users in the process. These are by no means new concepts, but they are key elements that IT leaders must emphasize more than ever across the business. As the evolution of agile—and more lately DevOps—has now been a part of the IT space over the last 15 years, so has collaboration evolved across multiple stakeholders whose roles must be continually integrated with the business and understood by all contributors.

The focus here is metrics and data-driven decision-making, two features of today’s IT leadership. What kind of metrics? For example, prioritized backlog depth, velocity, stories delivered versus committed, and time to market. These metrics help leaders develop a baseline to understand what happened and why, then retrospectively define how the team can improve together for the next iteration.

The challenge comes when the adoption of these practices is not widespread or not implemented according to a defined standard. That makes it difficult to have consistent communications and expectations across organizations. A lack of visibility and collaboration inhibits a business’s ability to reduce time to market.

3. Technical acumen: Mobile, agile, DevOps, cloud, IoT, and performance engineering

Technical acumen refers to the knowledge and experience that help assure that one can learn quickly and apply necessary skills to understand and deliver. IT leaders are aware that technology solutions, new integrations, and partnerships are growing at an unprecedented pace. Successful leaders demonstrate acumen across all technologies and strategies.

This fast and accelerating pace of integrations—along with a desire of your business stakeholders to continuously improve and expand how they engage their end users to retain and grow the customer base—makes it imperative that IT leaders know and understand the latest opportunities and unique ways to deliver technical solutions for better business results. That requires strong familiarity with mobile, agile, DevOps, cloud, IoT, and performance engineering capabilities.

Successful leaders demonstrate acumen across all technologies and strategies.

Leaders know these are not simply the latest business buzzwords. They need to leverage these technologies and capabilities to get the outcomes their business desires. As leaders, they need to push and enable their teams to learn and explore, research and share, to gain new ways to deliver faster with higher quality and record-setting results.

4. The need to build and drive a culture of innovation

I know, this sounds easier said than done; it might even sound downright clichéd. But leaders need to influence their teams to do things differently, which means understanding and communicating where key competitive differentiators lie, and understanding how the organization views each of these as potential opportunities. That’s where a culture of innovation becomes a reality, a way of life.

Culture

If you’re the leader, culture starts with you. Ask yourself:

  1. What do you want for your teams and individuals?
  2. How do you want to carry out the necessary tasks across the groups?

By answering these two questions, you have already started the process of change and begun defining the vision for what and how you will reshape the future for the individuals on your teams. Equally important is understanding the organizational culture that your peers experience within the organization.

An organization’s culture runs deep, and, like societal culture, it has both a history and a future to be understood and appreciated, especially before you start trying to change anything.

A good article I often share on this topic is the “What Is Organizational Culture? And Why Should We Care?” from the Harvard Business Review, by Michael D. Watkins. 

Innovation

We all know that innovation is an essential ingredient for establishing and maintaining business advantage. Here’s what’s new: While many organizations are actually founded on some initial innovation that forms a core offering or service, continued innovation is now an expectation of everyone within the organization.

Knowing how to stimulate, motivate, and manage innovative thinking within an organization can be difficult. Very few IT leaders or organizations have performance metrics for innovation or management processes to support a formal innovation process. Neither do many organizations have a business review process to explicitly focus on innovation performance. Jill Lepore’s New Yorker article on this topic, “The Disruption Machine,” showcases how easily the wrong things can be measured in an effort to map and prove innovative strategies.

The most important question to ask about innovation is “How are we measuring the results?” And, if you’re not measuring results, leaders need to ask, “What is the effort spent on innovation costing us and the organization?”

Leadership

It may be hard to imagine that leadership itself has changed, but it has. As IT leaders have been working hard to manage teams, timelines, and budgets, all to deliver projects and technology solutions, a growing awareness of the human element has become a hallmark of successful IT leadership.

We might call successful IT leaders “human-centered.” A recent book, The Optimistic Workplace: Creating an Environment That Energizes Everyone, by Shawn Murphy and Dorie Clark, offers this:

Bertolini is a human-centered leader, a leader who places a high value on organizational and people growth. Leaders at Barry-Wehmiller are human centered, too. That company’s leadership philosophy is documented in its Guiding Principles of Leadership. This internal document boldly proclaims, “We measure success by the way we touch the lives of people.” (Page 140.)

5. Futurist thinking

The word “futurist” has become a bit of a buzzword lately; however, we can trace its use back to 1842, believe it or not. So let’s not think of it as a buzzword, but more appropriately as something we need to get better at for the betterment of mankind.

While many organizations are actually founded on some initial innovation that forms a core offering or service, continued innovation is now an expectation of everyone

Being futurist means being an “anticipatory leader,” someone who sees and identifies trends to drive innovation and who works as a strategist, developing and integrating capabilities to deliver results—not just being prophetic about them.

Futurist ability means providing the vision and direction to inform and assure stakeholders, as well as the teams and individuals you lead. I am daily asked for my opinion, which I base on my collaboration with others. I like to think that constant futurist-minded collaboration exercises both right- and left-brain thinking and leads to results from continued trial and error.

If you would like a more textbook definition of futurist thinking, there are several out there. One of my favorites is from AccelerationWatch.com, titled, “Futurist (definition) and Twelve Common Types of Foresight Thinking” by unknown author. You may also enjoy reading from a rossdawson.com article, “How do you become a futurist? 10 key elements of a career thinking about the future,” by Vanessa Cartwright.

Futurist thinking represents a profound change in the role of IT leadership, and it’s critical to the ongoing success and achievements for organizations, along with the impact and value they deliver to their end users.

Are you an aspiring leader?

I have observed these five changes over the last few years and am now seeing an acceleration that should carry us into the next two to five years as medium- and large-size organizations look to continue the transformations and meet or exceed their end users’ needs better and faster than their competitors.

How do you view these five areas of changing leadership? Is there someone or a social network you would share this with? Is there something missing that you would have expected to see and that you would want to add as a comment below? We want to know your thoughts.

Image credit: Flickr

Image credit: Flickr

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