Want to be strategic? Be competent first

IT managers everywhere aspire to help steer the business. Don't even try unless your team can execute

Genius, according to Thomas Edison's most famous cliché, is 1 percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration. You could easily substitute the word "genius" with "strategy." If you lead an IT organization that hasn’t achieved basic competence, don't waste time and energy improving IT's alignment with business strategy.

If IT can't complete projects on time, within budget, and with all deliverables intact, don't run around talking about how IT can help the business reach its goals. If you can't keep the servers and networks up with reasonable levels of performance or solve the problems average end-users have without undue delay, then "strategic alignment" doesn't matter enough to warrant an investment of your time and attention -- not before you fix the basics, anyhow.

[ This article is an excerpt from the book "Keep the Joint Running: A Manifesto for 21st Century Information Technology" by Bob Lewis, InfoWorld's venerable Advice Line blogger. ]

Imagine two IT organizations. The CIO of one has focused so extensively on strategic alignment that he has no time left to pay any attention to ensuring competent delivery. The other CIO has placed such a laserlike focus on delivery that she hasn't given a thought to strategic alignment. Here's how it comes out.

The grasshopper vs. the ant

The CIO who ensures strategic alignment while ignoring the importance of competent delivery leads an organization that provides no actual value. How can it? Unfinished projects, by definition, deliver nothing. Systems that fail frequently and perform poorly when they are up obstruct business process as much as they enable it. End-users who can't rely on the basic technology will use something else. Strategic alignment without competence delivers nothing because zero times anything is still zero.

On the other hand, the CIO who ensures competent delivery while ignoring strategic alignment delivers something. Unless every successfully completed request is entirely pointless, the business will get something out of the deal. Even if -- through some bizarre twist of corporate politics taken to the furthest extremities of dysfunction -- every single successfully completed request is useless, if the systems stay up and perform well and end-users get the help they need, the business will still be able to operate.

Or at least, it will be able to operate as well as you'd expect an organization that fragmented and siloed to operate. Strategic IT alignment will be the least of its troubles.

When you shouldn't ask for a seat at the table

Strategic IT alignment is the outcome of organized, functional business planning. If, as an IT executive, you want to improve IT's strategic alignment, what you’re asking for is a seat at the business planning table.

If you lead an IT organization that hasn't achieved basic competence, you won't be welcome there. If, by some chance, you work with executives polite enough to hear out your request, they'll let you know, in a kind tone of voice, that there's no point in your being part of the process. Because nobody trusts IT to deliver, business planning starts with the assumption that any idea requiring IT delivery should be rejected without further discussion.

When you should reserve a seat at the table

Yes, demonstrated competence is required to get a seat at the table. But that doesn't mean you should retreat to your sanctum sanctorum inside IT, not to reappear until competence has happened.

Far from it. Now is always the time for relationship-building: between you and the company’s executives; between your direct reports and the middle managers; and between IT and business staff. Without effective relationships, processes fail and influence is nonexistent.

Let everyone know your plan. If you're new, you have a grace period, but must show tangible progress before it ends. If you aren't new, you need to make a persuasive case explaining why you're still in a position to lead effective change.

Master management before leadership

If people are following, then you're leading. Otherwise, you aren't. That's what leadership is about: setting direction, and getting others to head in that direction without your having to drag them along. Management, by contrast, is about getting things done -- about defining good processes and producing quality results efficiently.

Leadership is, if you like, about strategy; management is about competence.

If you accept this segregation of responsibilities, then make sure you master management before you master leadership. As a practical matter, there's a limit to how wrong the things are that you're likely to do, but no limit to how badly you might do them.

In business circles, the importance of being a leader has received a lot of attention over the past couple of decades, while "manager" has become something of an epithet. That's unfair. From a hard-nosed business perspective, results pay the bills. Leadership is just one technique among many for making sure results happen.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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