IT leaders take note: The future is what you create

The new year brings with it enthusiasm for new priorities and accomplishments to come, resolutions to seize opportunities and overcome challenges, and the opportunity to assess takeaways from the previous year and turn the page on projects and missteps past.

In the ideal beginning of the year scenario, organizations would have completed celebrating and cerebrating on accomplishments of the previous year and performing forensic root cause analyses of the smattering of initiatives that failed to meet expectations. Now, rolling into Q1 with heads held high and bursting with confidence, the enterprise should be enthusiastically embarking on programs designed to realize the full promise of explicitly articulated goals and objectives.

This, however, is not the situation in many — probably most — IT and digital organizations today.

Having just completed my walkabout of the C-suite in 12 vertical markets, I have found that the three words most frequently used to describe the general attitude toward 2023 were “uncertainty,” “headwinds,” and “conservative.” This has led me to conclude that the No. 1 job of IT and digital leaders in 2023 is to “un-cancel” the future. They have to get their organizations to believe and behave as if 2023 is going to be better than 2022. 

Navigating a tsunami of macro-pessimisms

The general message from a multiplicity of disciplines is lack of hope and optimism. “Doom Porn” — for example, books resembling Paul Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb and Nouriel Roubini’s MegaThreats: Ten Dangerous Trends That Imperil Our Future, And How to Survive Them — continues to top non-fiction best seller lists.

Forecasters at my former hangout, The World Bank, tell us that growth will be a less than breathtaking 1.7%. My classmate at Carnegie Mellon, hedge-fund manager-extraordinaire David Tepper, told CNBC viewers that they “can’t fight the Feds” and that equities are not going anywhere in 2023.

“More than two-thirds of the economists at 23 large financial institutions that do business directly with the Federal Reserve are betting the U.S. will have a recession in 2023,” according to The Wall Street Journal.

In the foreign policy community gloom has become commonplace across the “West” in recent years.

Important voices in the environmental movement counsel that we are to adopt a “future of less, a restricted life, purged of joy.”

Robert Silverberg, in his introduction to This Way to the End of Times: Classic Tales of the Apocalypse, reminds us, “the market in apocalyptic prophecy has been a bullish one for thousands, or more likely millions of years.” We may like our fictional future dark and dystopic but science-fiction novelist William Gibson is concerned that people have given up on the future they will actually live in:

“All through the 20th century we constantly saw the 21st century invoked. … How often do you hear anyone invoke the 22nd century? Even saying it is unfamiliar to us. We’ve come to not have a future.”

Re-branding the future

The fact that the macro-picture is less than rosy is not an excuse to sit back and coast through 2023. IT and digital leaders need to re-introduce stakeholders to a future they want to live in. 2023 can be a great year. For this to happen IT and digital organizations need to re-establish trust that their agency will make things better.

Step one: IT/Digital needs to clean house. We need a skills- and attitude-driven purge of the incompetents who inhabit so many critical positions. Cheryl Smith, former CIO at Keyspan, McKesson, and West Jet and author of The Day Before Digital Transformation: Unlocking Digital Transformation for Business Leaders, has long lamented the lack of credentialing in the CIO/CDO arena. Lawyers are required to master a basic body of knowledge. As are doctors, nurses, and accountants. Any yahoo who can steam a mirror can be a CIO/CDO.

Debra Hockemeyer, who has designed and managed multiple digital transformations in multiple industries, is similarly shocked at how IT/Digital is being managed in many major enterprises today. “There is a way to consistently, reliably, and affordably deliver the benefits of digital,” she says.

Put very simply, basic IT blocking and tackling snafus such as those that recently devastated Southwest Airlines and the FAA should not be allowed to occur. Applying the words of Glenn Kelman, CEO of Redfin, to the tech and digital arena, we need to “stop doing stupid stuff.”

US Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg is spot on when he demands a root cause analysis of exactly what happened. The names of the sic IT professionals who brought the entire aviation infrastructure to a screeching halt should be plastered over every science classroom in the country with the admonition, “Don’t be these guys!” The contractor they work for should be banned from all government work for no less than five years.

Let me be perfectly clear: I am not against making mistakes in the IT/digital realm. This is the only way our discipline can grow. I am advocating that we make new mistakes. We cannot — like so many organizations — be so afraid of “breaking something” that we conduct no experiments and stifle all innovation. The blow ups at Southwest and the FAA were not innovations gone awry. They were malfeasant acts by incompetents.

Step two? Collaboratively imagine a future that works — and that we can work toward.

Emerging Technology, Innovation, IT Leadership, IT Strategy