Mark Settle 3
Mark Settle
Former CIO
Okta Inc.

Mark Settle is a seven time CIO with broad business experience in information services, enterprise software, consumer products, high tech distribution, financial services and oil & gas. He has led IT organizations that support the internal business operations, product development activities and customer-facing service capabilities of multiple Fortune 500 companies. Settle serves on the advisory boards of several venture capital firms and personally pioneered the adoption of service management and cloud computing technologies within several large enterprises. He is the author of Truth from the Trenches: A Practical Guide to the Art of IT Management and a three time CIO 100 honoree. Settle currently serves as the CIO of Okta, a San Francisco company offering cloud-based solutions for identity and access management. 

This article is by Featured Blogger Mark Settle from his Blog Page. Republished with the author’s permission. 

The Covid-19 crisis has provided enduring lessons about the importance of people and prioritization in IT management and the insidious price of perfection. 

January 2021 marks the 300 day anniversary of the Covid-19 crisis within the U.S. 2020 was a tumultuous year that was terrifying, tedious but transformative as well. IT teams confronted a series of challenges for which there were no established protocols or playbooks. The majority of teams overcame these challenges. They maintained the existing systems, implemented the new tools and provided the end user support that employees required to continue business operations from their home offices, kitchen tables and garage workbenches. 

As we enter 2021 it’s interesting to note that the term ‘new normal’ has largely disappeared from our pandemic vocabulary. That’s probably due to the fact that we’ve collectively given up on our ability to predict what will happen next, much less how this will all turn out in the end. Nevertheless, we have learned some important lessons regarding IT management over the past 10 months or perhaps it’s more accurate to say that we’ve simply rediscovered some timeless truths. In either case, the following lessons provide the best means of preparing for whatever comes next.    

The Power of Prioritization 

It’s remarkable what IT teams can accomplish if they’re given an overriding strategic mission. It happens all the time. If clear deadlines are established for the implementation of a critical business system, or the integration of a newly acquired company, or the delivery of a new eCommerce application, IT teams more often than not will achieve their assigned mission on time. That’s partly due to their skill, motivation and professional pride. But it’s also due to the fact that a clear statement of strategic priorities gives IT the license it needs to say ‘no’ to the routine requests it receives from every functional department. 

Nothing illustrates the power of prioritization more clearly than the work from home quarantine that was imposed on business operations at the beginning of the Covid-19 crisis. The singular overriding priority of IT groups at the outset of the crisis was to equip, secure and support a wholly remote workforce. The majority of groups were able to satisfy these new requirements in remarkably short periods of time. Many surpassed the expectations of their business colleagues. 

Business leaders frequently complain about the efficiency and effectiveness of their IT teams. There’s a common perception that IT results seem somewhat meager relative to the spending and staffing levels of the IT function. Business leaders could go a long ways towards rectifying this perception problem by ensuring that IT priorities are clearly specified, publicly proclaimed and universally understood throughout their companies. 

The Price of Perfection 

Nobody likes criticism. IT organizations positively loath it. They go to extraordinarily lengths to ensure that major projects are planned in ways that anticipate all user requirements, accommodate infrequent or inconsequential use cases and eliminate all potential go-live issues. Once bitten, twice shy as the saying goes and most IT groups have been bitten more than once by business criticism concerning the usability, utility or completeness of their results. 

Given IT’s pathological sensitivity to business criticism, what Fortune 500 CIO in her right mind would commit to spontaneously transitioning IT support for her company’s entire workforce to home environments over a 2-4 week period? Pretend for a moment that we’re living in a pre-Covid-19 world and a CEO returns from the annual Davos Summit inspired by the vision of doubling the productivity of his company’s workforce by closing all offices and forcing employees to work from home. The first day back in the office he calls in his CIO and asks for a rough estimate of the lead time required for the worldwide closure of existing offices. It’s safe to say that very few (if any) CIOs would commit to an immediate 2-4 week transition period under those circumstances.  

The CEO of a large global company was asked if his firm experienced any difficulties implementing Microsoft Teams at the outset of the crisis. He commented that there were “a few bumps along the way” but the entire rollout was completed to his satisfaction within 2 weeks. Then he added: “maybe we should do more IT projects that way”. That’s a profound observation. There are many situations in which IT teams can deliver useful results faster and cheaper if they and their business partners are able to identify and sacrifice the price of perfection.    

The Primacy of People 

A funny thing happened within IT groups after the twentieth, thirtieth or fiftieth Zoom meeting precipitated by the Covid-19 crisis. IT staff members discovered that their leaders were real human beings with many of the same desires, motivations and concerns that they possessed. And IT leaders discovered that their team members possessed abilities, insights, creativity, dedication and resiliency that they never imagined. 

The Covid-19 crisis was initially predicted to be a holiday for introverts. Exactly the opposite occurred.  Suspension of the established rules of tribal etiquette that governed office interactions and elimination of the physical trappings that signified status and seniority in office environments, Covid-19 put team members and managers on a far more equal footing. In the comfort of their own homes, dressed in home casual attire, introverts started to speak up. Everyone introduced their spouses, partners, kids, cats and dogs to one another. They celebrated personal birthdays, anniversaries and graduations in addition to work accomplishments. In short, they got to know one another in ways they never had before.  

Managers were also encouraged – in some cases required – to check in with team members on a regular basis. This provided managers with a deeper and more visceral understanding of the capabilities, personalities and career aspirations of the individuals on their teams. In many cases managers came away from such interactions with greater respect and a deeper sense of pride in the people were privileged to lead. 

Most IT leaders believe their teams are equally if not more productive working from home than they were prior to the crisis. Productivity improvements are commonly attributed to the conversion of commuting time into work time. While that’s undoubtedly true in part, some portion of these productivity gains can also be attributed to the deeper, more personal relationships team members and managers have established as a result of the crisis. It’s a simple truth: people work harder for people they know and like than people they don’t know or dislike. 

“What we learn from history is that people don’t learn from history”, Warren Buffett 

Before the end of January 2021 it’s likely that 25 million or more vaccinations will be administered within the U.S. The availability of proven vaccines is a major inflection point in the progress of the pandemic but let’s face it, we’re not out of the woods yet. In the words of Winston Churchill: “this is not the end, it is not even the beginning of the end, but it is the end of the beginning”. 

Nobody knows - although many speculate - how work will be performed when Covid-19 is finally eradicated. Unfortunately we have many ‘next normals’ to experience before global eradication is a reality. IT teams and the businesses they serve will be more successful in navigating the uncertainties that lie ahead if they remember and practice the lessons they’ve learned or rediscovered during the past 10 months.  

Originally posted on CIO Network