19 principles every IT leader should heed

Want to be a next-gen IT leader? Here are the most important principles for business leadership -- especially in IT

My first IS Survival Guide column, which ran in the Jan. 8, 1996, edition of InfoWorld, introduced the "three basic principles of management." If I were teaching a class on management, I'd still choose the three principles outlined in the first column as the basis for that course. They've held up well over the years.

In the time since, I've accumulated quite a few more principles you might find useful -- 16 more, in fact, or one per year. Call me a slow learner. Anyway, they might not be quite as important as the big three, but they still matter. A lot.

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Any IT pro looking to lead in the years ahead should consider the following principles. Here they are, the original three guides for management, followed by 16 more tenets business managers and IT leaders might find handy:

1. Customers define value. That's real, paying, external customers -- the people who make buying decisions about your company's products and services. So-called internal customers need not apply.

2. Form follows function. The great architect Louis Sullivan usually gets the credit for this one. When the subject is design -- of anything -- it's top on your list of things to remember. If you don't know what you're trying to accomplish (function), you have no business talking about what the solution should look like (form).

3. Align everyone to a common purpose. If everyone in the organization, from top to bottom, has the same understanding of what the organization is trying to accomplish and understands how their job fits into the overall effort, the organization can accomplish great things. If they don't, calling what you have an "organization" is a euphemism. It's really just a collection of warring factions.

4. There's no such thing as an IT project. It's not just that technology projects must provide business benefit; it's that the projects aren't -- or at least shouldn't be -- about technology. They should all be about business change and improvement. Otherwise, what's the point? If you can't define a project in terms of what about the business will be better, you should probably cancel it.

5. Corporations aren't just people, only bigger. Citizens United notwithstanding, corporations are a different species from us. If you don't understand this, everything corporations do will be mysterious and, for the most part, aggravating. In particular, this reveals their so-called immoral behavior for what it actually is: amoral behavior. We don't expect lions, tigers, or bears to adhere to our moral standards. We shouldn't expect corporations to adhere to them either.

6. If what you need is for "them" to change, give up. They won't, for three reasons: The first is that being like they are is how they got to be successful in the first place. The second is that the moment they become "they," they have no reason to listen to you. The third is that the only person you can change is you. But if on the other hand, what you need is for "us" to learn, you have a shot.

7. If you hate your boss you have two choices: Find a new one or wait for a new one. The one you have won't change. If this isn't clear, see point No. 6.

8. You are responsible for your career. If your employer helps, that's nice too. But if you're waiting for someone else to offer you an opportunity, expect to wait a long time. The opportunity that's knocking on your door is actually you knocking on someone else's door.

9. You get what you measure. That's the risk you take. Your take-home lesson here: You're far better off with no metrics than bad metrics.

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