Leadership in the age of technology disruption

Leadership is a much-touted attribute, highly desired by aspiring entrepreneurs as well as within mature organisations.

Much has been written about its virtues and boot camps have been created in respect to ‘transforming yourself into one’. However, in spite of these endeavors, few current, much less future, leaders and influencers have been trained in the art of leading during disruption.

What is disruption? (And yes, it has become a noun). It is the disruption of the status quo by out innovating and out executing an established standard. It typically consists of new offerings that are ‘good enough’ and at a much lower price point.  A salient example of this is the cloud.  

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Clay Christensen (Harvard Business School) launched the ‘Age of Disruption’ with his seminal work The Innovators’ Dilemma in 1997, followed by many other writings and opinions on this subject up to the current date.

His work has created a new management and planning paradigm, which has crept into almost every aspect of strategic thinking today. A new credo of ‘disrupt or be disrupted’ is being taught in every business school across the globe and drives activities within every organisation today.

By now you are probably asking, how does this impact leadership, much less in the IT domain? Good question. IT management today (executive and line) is all about maintaining the status quo across the enterprise while struggling to improve service levels and fight off cyber threats with constrained resources and budget.

There is little bandwidth (or money) for innovation or any incremental efforts. By definition it is an area that is prime for disruption.

There are a number of disruptive forces attacking IT management today, not just the movement to the cloud, which is primarily an infrastructure play. Other forces include big data and analytics, the Internet of Things, mobility, IT service management and cyber security.

All of these have created a perfect storm of disruption for current CIOs and IT managers to contend with.

Given that the majority of IT leaders have grown up in a culture of building and maintaining applications and services within small to large enterprises, it is no surprise that they are ill equipped to contend with the idea of their familiar world being turned on its head, in many cases by their own customers and not just by external forces in the IT vendor community.

Change of belief sets and behaviors while under the duress of disruption is not easily achieved, much less comfortable for any leader. It requires abandoning much of what they have learned and experienced along the way and embracing new leadership disciplines on the fly.

As a result we have seen many IT leaders exhibit a form of knee-jerk behavior where they are creating new czar-like roles within their organisations to focus on things like data, analytics and security, while they wrestle with the complexities of disruption. This approach can provide some short-term relief but creates leadership anarchy over time as these czars lobby for power and control.  

What is required are true transformational leaders in IT during this time of disruption as the organisation moves from a solutions-driven paradigm to an outcome-based one.

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In a majority of cases these leaders will come from outside of IT, with many having different career backgrounds and industry sector experience. All will have zero investment in the status quo and will be merciless to those who remain invested in it.

Leading IT in the Age of Disruption requires new leadership skills, few of which can be taught, most being learned by surviving previous waves of upheaval. Battle-tested leaders, not IT bureaucrats, will lead outcome-driven organisations in the near future, so be prepared.

The future of IT

The IT organisation of the future is one where services are delivered in support of strategic, tactical and operational outcomes. These services will be transparent to the organisations’ infrastructure and independent of its business model, with little interface to what many call ‘the legacy estate’. Few expect to see the large IT organisation as it is constituted today, instead replaced by a relationship model driven by facilitators and business advocates.

Disrupt and conquer

Becoming a disruptive leader is not a straightforward journey, no matter your background. It requires the embrace of wholesale change, the nurturing of innovative thinking and behavior, and the management of outcomes rather than resources. It requires a personal transformation that many will choose not to make. 

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Ben Rossi

Ben was Vitesse Media's editorial director, leading content creation and editorial strategy across all Vitesse products, including its market-leading B2B and consumer magazines, websites, research and...

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