Tag Archives: leadership

The Shiny Penny Syndrome

We recently finished our AIM innovations course and are starting the information management course. As I transition between the two, I can’t help but think of the shiny penny syndrome. A new shiny penny is perceived to be more valuable and sought after than an old tarnished penny, even though the two have the same value. This metaphor has been used in dating to describe a new love interest versus an old one but is also applicable to business and technology. In this blog I want to talk about the pitfalls of chasing after shiny pennies when perhaps the old penny just needs cleaning and polishing.

New Technologies

Often there are good reasons to implement new technologies, like the end of support for a legacy system or the need to interface with other updated programs or systems. The new technology can also result in efficiency gains and long term cost savings. When developing an innovation or technology plan it is important to ask whether this technology is a shiny penny or will it improve your throughput and create real revenue gains or cost savings. Acknowledging this early on will save time and resources that can be spent on improving the existing technology or choosing a new solution that really will deliver benefits.

Business Improvement

Businesses often chase after shiny pennies when they choose to acquire other companies to augment or enhance their own offerings. The wisdom is that it is easier to buy existing capabilities as opposed to trying to develop them from the ground up. This strategy often works, but sometimes it is a case of chasing a shiny penny. I have been involved in IT integration of acquisitions in the past and after a deep dive it is apparent that there was more flash than substance in the purchase. While it would have taken longer, the organization could have developed the same capability for less money and gained valuable experience in the process.

Leadership Changes

New leadership sometimes resembles a shiny penny. It’s tempting to think a new CEO or CIO will bring fresh ideas that will help get us turned around or get us back on track. While it sometimes works, there may be deeper systemic issues that can’t be solved with a new manager or a new team. After the honeymoon period, the old problems surface and the new leader can’t get any better traction than the previous executive, and then the new leader is sometimes replaced by even a newer, shinier penny. We can stop this rotating door by honestly acknowledging that we are trying to compensate for unresolved deep-seated issues with the organization or processes. It is admittedly hard to recognize and fix the real issues but doing so leaves us in a better position to succeed in the future.

Thoughts

Next time you face a major change such as new leadership or a new technology or adding new capabilities through a merger or acquisition, take just a second to acknowledge whether this is a new shiny penny or will it truly leave the organization in a better position to be competitive and successful.

Have you ever chased after a shiny penny? Did it work out? Let me know your thoughts. I would love to hear about your experience.

Author Kelly BrownAbout Kelly Brown

Kelly Brown is an IT professional and assistant professor of practice for the UO Applied Information Management Master’s Degree Program. He writes about IT and business topics that keep him up at night.

Leadership Lessons I Learned at Day Camp

I volunteered recently at a day camp for boys ages 7-10 and learned a lot more than just how to be a kid again. I created an obstacle course that presented challenges for each boy. As the boys came through my station and worked through the challenges, I saw some important management principles emerge. I want to share those unexpected lessons with you.

Ownership is King

I set up the obstacle course ahead of time and it included things such as a rope bridge, a rope swing, tires to crawl through and various other obstacles. This was my design and the boys enjoyed it. After the first couple of days I allowed them to make modifications to my design. Of course, some of the modifications would have caused great injury had I allowed them but such is the nature of a young boy.

I realized that as they changed the design to fit their tastes, they became more invested in the obstacle course. Comments changed from “great course” to “best obstacle course ever!” because it was now their course and not mine. As managers, are we guilty of handing down a vision or a scripted playbook for employees to carry out without giving them ownership of their work? Would they be more motivated if they had a hand in designing their own processes? Would they feel more invested if they contributed to the vision rather than simply executing it? Perhaps stronger ownership would lead to comments such as “this is the greatest workplace ever.”

The Suggestion Box

I told the boys early on that I would welcome suggestions for improving the course. I am not sure they took me seriously but they did offer several suggestions. Some were simple changes that I could make overnight and some were incredibly complicated and would have required super powers. I made the changes I could and the boys were surprised and delighted to find their ideas incorporated into the course. As they saw the changes they pointed out their ideas. One boy even suggested water balloons throughout the course and went so far as to bring some balloons to fill. He was totally invested in the outcome. In short, I took the ideas in the suggestion box seriously. As managers, do we welcome suggestions and try to implement them as we can? Extra effort in this area could result in more motivated employees.

Cooperation Increases Productivity

I allowed groups of boys to modify the course to fit their interests. I found the groups fell into two categories, those who agreed and executed the plan and those who were fractured and could not get beyond arguing about who was right. Those who agreed to work together had a lot more time to enjoy the fruits of their labor, but some groups never even got off the starting line. They split into factions that each tried to implement their own vision. I realized that while it is important to create and execute a shared long-term vision, it has a definite impact on short-term productivity. The longer it takes to agree on the future, the more it impacts current work. Does your team have a solid vision and is everyone working toward that future or do you still have factions trying to move in a different direction?

Thoughts

I never thought I would relate day camp to management principles but the parallels I found while observing the boys were unmistakable. I thought I was going to enjoy a week of sunshine and interacting with youth, and I did, but I also came away with new leadership and management insights.

Author Kelly BrownAbout Kelly Brown

Kelly Brown is an IT professional and assistant professor of practice for the UO Applied Information Management Master’s Degree Program. He writes about IT and business topics that keep him up at night.

Leadership in a Connected World

Key figures in a connected crowd.In the AIM Program’s Information Systems and Management course, we talk about leadership and management. Are they the same thing? Can someone be a good leader but a terrible manager, or vice versa? These are good questions. I have been studying how leadership has changed in the last 100 years as we shifted from leaders who oversee one or more factories in a region to leaders who command large global enterprises. In the past, a manager could walk down to the factory floor and talk with each employee, but modern telecommunications have allowed us to create large businesses and to manage those businesses from a distance. What original principles of leadership remain the same and which have changed?

The Personal Touch

I have read autobiographies of Sam Walton of Wal-Mart, Harland Sanders, also known as Colonel Sanders, and Dave Packard of Hewlett-Packard. As they recount the early days of their businesses they all talk about knowing and interacting with the employees. Part of their leadership style was personal contact, which allowed adjustments to the business model based on employee feedback. According to the Wal-Mart website, the company now employs 2.2 million associates worldwide. How does a leader manage so many people in a geographically dispersed firm?

Networking

One of the answers is focused networking through the use of technology. Even though large organizations still use traditional organizational charts, it takes a long time for a complaint to make it through 10–12 layers of management to be heard and acted upon. This is the explicit organization as depicted on the chart. In reality, there is often a parallel, implicit organization that everyone knows about but which is seldom put into writing or a visual. There are touchstones in the organization who “know the right people” and can bypass the traditional structure to get things done. Author Malcolm Gladwell refers to these people as “connectors.” Employees quickly identify touchstones and rally their support in championing new ideas or settling a grievance. Think about how long it takes to disseminate information in your organization and how long it takes to make a low-level decision that for some reason requires multiple signatures. Could you employ this implicit structure for sharing information or collecting feedback quicker?

Leadership in The 21st Century

I believe it is important to recognize this alternate organization and utilize it for disseminating information. We can always do a one-to-many announcement but it is not always effective, nor is it well-received. Touchstones are likely to relay messages quicker. Marrying this network approach with social media channels allows us to still be effective leaders even though we are now steering an ocean liner instead of a bicycle. Such methods are not meant to subvert the traditional organizational structure but to provide a quicker and more effective means of communication through modern technology and networking. Those leaders recognize that it is not enough to have a large number of connections but they also need to be linked to the right people to institute change and move the organization forward.

Thoughts

Do you know the connectors in your organization? Are they in your network? Are you someone others turn to? It is important for leaders to make use of the implicit network just as we work the traditional structure. It is getting harder to effectively lead thousands, if not millions of employees and we need all the advantages we can get. Let me know your thoughts.

Author Kelly BrownAbout Kelly Brown

Kelly Brown is an IT professional and assistant professor of practice for the UO Applied Information Management Master’s Degree Program. He writes about IT and business topics that keep him up at night.

Lessons in Leadership

Hiking group trekking on a Crimean mountain.In many of our AIM courses, we teach about leadership. Whether leading people, new processes, or new technologies, we place a great emphasis on leadership. But what are the characteristics of a good leader?

I believe this is important to understand and practice so this week I will share with you some leadership lessons I have learned and, more importantly, I am hoping that you will share your insights.

Leading Change

Throughout my career I have had several opportunities to lead change. In my opinion, this is one of the hardest tasks because it requires you to transition people into new territory amidst skepticism and fear of the change. I once worked on a very large data center consolidation project where computers were being moved from scattered sites around the world to large centralized data centers. People had become attached to their application running on a computer that they could see and touch like a favorite pet. To move the application and hardware to an unknown location was truly a change to be reckoned with. This same scenario is being played out daily as companies transfer data and functions to the cloud. I wish we could come up with a better term than cloud so that the end result appeared more concrete and palatable to those suffering from computer separation anxiety.

From this experience I learned two valuable lessons about leadership:

  1. A good leader is a good communicator. It is important to be able to paint a plausible and even inviting picture of the future: “IF we do this, here are the benefits for you.” The first thought in everyone’s mind is “what’s in it for me?”
  2. It is vital to lead people in a direction that is in their best interest and does not lead them off a cliff. This builds trust and increases cooperation. The first time a leader moves a team or group in a direction that is not in their best interest, trust dissolves and resistance increases. Until that trust is re-established, the leader will no longer be effective.

Leading from the Middle

Hard charging and visible leaders often lead from the front. Shepherds, in contrast, lead their flocks from the back. I have found that it is sometimes necessary to lead from the middle. Recently, I had the opportunity to teach and lead a weeklong youth leadership course at a nearby camp. There were 48 teen campers and a staff of older youth. During the week, a group of campers was tasked with cleaning the dining hall. The staff was in a meeting at that time. I decided to help clean the dining hall, since I knew that I had support leading the staff meeting. The participants were pleasantly surprised that their adult leader would actually help them finish their chore so that they could go off and do what they wanted. They assumed that a proper leader was always out front TELLING them what to do, which was their limited experience with leaders, but leading from the middle builds team unity and builds respect for the leader.

A Good Leader is a Good Follower

I have come to realize that to be a good leader you must practice being a good follower. If you understand the vision and goals of the leader, then it is important that you help your teammates to achieve those goals. For example, as a follower, it is your responsibility to ask clarifying question when the vision is not clear and then support that vision once the direction has been decided. When it is time for you to lead, you would do well to have teammates who are also good followers.

Thoughts

I think that everyone has a chance to step into a leadership role in his or her lifetime. Whether that role is parent, coach, mentor, manager, or executive, it is important to remember to lead in a way that gets everyone to the goal safely. As the leader, it is not about you but about the group and the desired outcome for everyone.

I hope you have some leadership stories that you are willing to share with me. What worked for you? What lessons did you learn by getting it wrong the first time? Did everything turn out well, or were there lessons along the way? Let me know.

Author Kelly BrownAbout Kelly Brown

Kelly Brown is an IT professional and assistant professor of practice for the UO Applied Information Management Master’s Degree Program. He writes about IT and business topics that keep him up at night.

Planting Seeds and Encouraging Growth

cross section of pepperLast night I was cutting up the last of our pepper harvest in preparation for freezing. As I was cutting them, I marveled at the number of seeds that are in each pepper. Each of these seeds represents a potential pepper plant, which could then produce multiple peppers, each containing a large seed pod. If even only a portion of those seeds were to germinate and bear fruit, the increase in peppers would be enormous. Perhaps it was the capsaicin fumes coming off of the peppers, but I turned my thoughts to the figurative seeds that we plant and nourish when we help and teach and encourage others.

I have written about this in previous blog posts in terms of leaving a legacy, but I want to focus specifically on the act of planting seeds. I want to share a story of people who planted seeds that allowed me to grow and give an example of how I try to plant seeds for others. I hope you will in turn share with me your stories of those who helped you and how you help others.

An Act of Kindness

My first paying job was delivering newspapers when I was eleven. It was my job to deliver the daily newspaper and to collect subscription money at the end of the month. There were some customers who did their best to dodge my collection attempts and others who were very gracious. One older couple went out of their way to invite me into their home and always fed me toast and jam on cold Saturday mornings. As I reflect on their kindness, I realize they were planting seeds that would help me in my life. I learned the value of doing a good job to earn that kindness, and I have also come to realize that I can extend that same kindness to others. Their seeds continue to flourish in me and are extended to those I interact with.

Planting Seeds for Others

I do a lot of volunteer work with a youth group and a few years ago I volunteered to run a leadership course for young men and women. The instructors were primarily older youth so although my main task was organizing the course, I also taught the instructors how to teach and to connect with others. In other words, I was planting the seeds of teaching skills with the instructors who, in turn, were planting the seeds of leadership with the participants. I got to see immediate benefits with my staff, and hopefully we planted the seeds of leadership skills with the participants. I have worked with some of those youth since that time and, whether they realize it or not, they are using the skills they learned.

I planted seeds, and then my staff planted seeds, and now it is time for the students to plant seeds. I have no idea how far our influence will spread, but healthy seeds can be carried and take root, sometimes in unlikely places.

Thoughts

At times it feels like everyone these days is isolated in their own world, but I see examples of people reaching out to others and planting seeds that will be harvested, probably for generations to come. Some seeds don’t thrive and bear fruit right away, maybe not even in our lifetime, but be assured that our deeds will bear fruit, for better or for worse. I hope you will choose today to plant seeds that will carry benefits for a long time to come. Let me know about the seeds that you plant.

Author Kelly BrownAbout Kelly Brown

Kelly Brown is an IT professional, adjunct faculty for the University of Oregon, and academic director of the UO Applied Information Management Master’s Degree Program. He writes about IT and business topics that keep him up at night.