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Building and Sustaining Agile Information Systems – Henry Stewart Talks

My presentation, Building and Sustaining Agile Information Systems, as part of the Strategic Issues in Information Technology: Challenges and Innovations series, is now available online. In this presentation, I discuss practical design guidelines for building and sustaining agile information systems and agile organizations. I focus on four key levers that need to be managed towards this end: information, knowledge, work, and technology.

Desouza, K.C. (2011), "Building and sustaining agile information systems", in Galliers, R.D.(. (ed.), Strategic Issues in Information Technology: Challenges and innovations, The Marketing & Management Collection, Henry Stewart Talks Ltd, London (online at http://hstalks.com/lib.php?t=HST120.2632_1_3&c=250)

Writing of a different style, fiction, or at least I hope so…Overcommitted

It is 8 AM and Sam Houston is on his way to his office in downtown Chicago. He drives from his house in Libertyville, a northern suburb of Chicago, then catches a train into the city. During his roughly seventy-five minute train ride, he has learned to balance his laptop, notebook and pencil, his blackberry, and his triple shot frappuccino coffee. He begins his trip by reviewing his agenda for the day, thinking through his upcoming meetings, his to-do list, and the projects under his supervision.

For some reason, today Sam finally comes to the realization that he is overcommitted.  He thinks to himself, "I need to cut things off my lists!" (Good for you, Sam!) As Sam tries to think of solutions, he cannot resist the temptation of going through the mail that came in during the night. Alas, he sees that both Susan and Charlie have asked him for ‘small’ favors that would require him to be part of two different teams- one exploring strategic priorities for the organization, the other making a decision on which vendor the organization should choose for its new social media platform re-design. Sam knows that he cannot turn these opportunities down; they are both critical to his career, not to mention that he does owe both Susan and Charlie favors for their help on one of his past efforts. Sam tries to think how he might organize his tasks and prioritize his ‘big ticket’ items. As he works on his list, he hears the soundtrack of ‘We are Champions’ by Queen playing, and he rushes to silence his ringtone by answering his blackberry. His wife is calling to remind him that he has three social events on his calendar in the next two days. Reluctantly, Sam acknowledges that he had promised to attend two school events for his children and visit his in-laws for a birthday celebration. Becoming frustrated at his increasing commitments, Sam has now forgotten what he was doing before the phone call and he is also reminded that he is only two stops from Union Station. He begins to pack his stuff up, takes a moment to enjoy his now cold caffeine drink, and takes a quick glance at the headlines from the Chicago Tribune. The train makes its entry into Union Station and Sam walks briskly to the exit where he hails a cab to take him to his offices in the Merchandise Mart. As he takes the elevator up and heads into his office, he makes a mental promise to himself, "No more commitments today. No matter what, I have to say no!" Sitting in his comfy leather chair and taking a moment to enjoy the view of Lake Michigan from his office window, he is interrupted by his assistant who tells him about an emergency meeting that is being called by the CEO. Sam realizes that today may not be the right day to say no…

Can you connect with the above scenario! Unfortunately, (and yes, I do mean unfortunately) may of us can. As much as we try, we never seem to manage our ever increasing commitments. We over-commit and continuously extend ourselves. Many of us  can do this for seemingly good reasons. We want to seem helpful or we do not want to allow opportunities to slip us by.  Other times, we may have underestimated the resource and time investment that the various commitments would require of us. Commitments do come due, and troubles build as the timelines draw near. We get irritable and annoyed with ourselves and the tasks at hand. As a result, the quality of our work suffers, both in terms of the output that we deliver and the process that we employ to arrive at the output. In the final analysis, we, as individuals, suffer. Our quality of life is impacted.

If you have strategies, decision-tools, or process frameworks that you use to manage your commitments, both in terms of identifying how to decide what commitments to take on and how you manage your ongoing commitments, please share them with me... and with Sam!

P.S. My wonderful students of IMT 580 the last year brought me a fiction book. I enjoyed reading it. So, here is my first attempt at writing what I hope is fiction (based on reality, of course!)…Stay tuned for the entire book, if I ever manage to stay focused on my current commitments!

On Questioning Questions in Organizations

Reflect on how much of your day is spent asking questions and answering questions. How many questions do you ask a day, what kinds of questions do you ask, and why do you ask the questions you do. Try having a conversation with a colleague, or a friend, without asking questions, how long might you go without asking a question? The simple answer: not too long. Questions, and questioning, make for an integral aspect of our lives. Yet, how many of us take the time to be mindful about the questions we ask and how we answer questions. Within organizations, the asking of, and responding to, questions, makes for a critical mechanism through which we elicit information and construct dialogues. Managers that ask good, and hard, questions of their employees in an efficient, and respectful, manner are respected by their employees. Conversely, managers who ask ‘dumb’ questions (yes, there are things like dumb and stupid questions), and do not following basic etiquette when doing so, are more likely to be dismissed by their employees as being incompetent. Similarly, employees are perceived as smart (or foolish) based on the questions they ask and their ability to respond to questions. For the last few years, I have been fascinated with the concept of questions and the mechanics of questioning.

Questioning plays a critical role in organizational discourse. We often hear statement such as: ask the hard questions, question the status-quo, or there is nothing like a stupid question, among others. These statements give lip service to the concept of questioning. Managers are some of the most poorly trained questioners. Students in disciplines such as psychology, medicine, and law, are explicitly taught how to question. Business students almost never examine the art, and science, of questioning in a thoughtful manner. As a result, one of the most cited reasons for organizational failures (such as corporate scandals or committing to a failed course of action), is the inability for those who were observing the disaster unfold to be courageous enough to ask the right questions (and seek appropriate answers). Just imagine what would happen if a psychologist did not ask questions appropriately or if your physician did not ask the right questions to diagnose ailments. Would we tolerate this level of incompetency? Probably not!

Organizations need to urgently embrace the art and science of questioning. I believe that organizations will be healthier if individuals knew how to ask the ‘right’ questions and how to respond to questions. Being deliberate about the concept of questioning will lead to organizations expelling less effort in achieving their goals and objectives. I am currently beginning to write a few articles on questioning. While most of my writing will be for a business (management) audience, they are relevant to fields such as engineering, new product development, and education, among others. I want to encourage all readers to share their experiences with me on the topic. What do you think about questioning? How do you differentiate a good question from a bad one? What kinds of questions do you ask and why? Do you know of people who ask the ‘right’ questions, if so, why do you think they are successful in asking questions? These are just some of the questions that I would love to get answers to. If you have other reactions to the issue of questioning, please do share them with me.

If you would like me to come to your organization and conduct a workshop on the topic, please do not hesitate to contact me. I guarantee that if your organization gets smarter at the art and science of questioning, it will be a more ‘intelligent’ and ‘mindful’ place.

Commencement and Convocation Speeches

My last posting on inspiration generated more interest than expected. By a significant margin that blog post was accessed more times than any other for the last year. In addition, several colleagues shared the link on their Facebook pages, posted public comments and also sent me private notes. Of all the notes received, I was most humbled by the notes from my current and former students. After all, it is because of the opportunity to work with these kind souls and creative minds that I decided to join academia, and the University of Washington. I cherish and value my time with students. Several of my students asked me, albeit in different ways, what might I advice them as they graduate?

What better issue to think about on my flight back from England to the USA. As I reflect on various speeches that I have heard at graduation ceremonies, the best ones, not surprisingly the ones I remember,  met the 4S criteria – sticky, simple, short, and sweet. Sticky is because they contained a powerful story that stays with you. Most of the time the story is one of a personal struggle, either experienced or witnessed by the individual; Simple in that the speech did not try to convey too many ideas or lessons, but focused on delivering one significant message; Short speeches are better than long ones (remember, most of the time you are standing in between the students and their celebrations with family and friends); and finally, speeches that are sweet and not sour have a greater chance of being well-received by audience (I once heard a speech where all the speaker did was to complain about how the students, like myself, were the ‘lost generation’ and did not care about anything else but themselves. While the message had truth in it, the method of delivery did not go over well, and students even booed the speaker, and applauded multiple times in the hopes that he would end his speech!)

Given my criteria, here is what I would say to my graduating students:

Each of you is talented, special, valuable, and have a vital role to play in the advancement of our society. Today, is your day, your day to celebrate your accomplishments. Do nothing else but celebrate, and if possible, celebrate with the people who helped you reach this day, whether it is your parents, siblings, relatives, friends, and the faculty and staff at the Information School of the University of Washington. I take pride in all your achievements and am expecting nothing but the best from each of you as you pursue your professional and personal achievements.

The one message that I want you to consider today is that as you leave this University, you do not have to leave behind the bonds with your faculty.  Academia thrives on the bond between students and their professors, even after a course of study is completed. Let me share with you my own experience. Recently, I celebrated one of the most important days of my life, my wedding! Now, why talk about the wedding? One of the most important tasks when you get married is to choose the significant individuals who you want to standup with you. In thinking of my best men, the choice was easy and not surprising, all of them came from academia – my best man, was my first doctoral student, my two groomsmen, where former professors who are now best friends of mine. For brevity, let me share a bit on how Dr. George D. Kraft, a former professor of mine, has forever influenced my life. I met Dr. Kraft in 2000 while completing my MBA at the Illinois Institute of Technology. I enrolled in his, Knowledge Management and Decision Support Systems class and we got into a heated argument a few weeks into the course. To be honest, I do not remember the substance of the argument, but I do remember making a statement like - “you are wrong, data warehouses do not work out you are describing or as noted in the book…I am working on two data warehousing efforts and know better…” He smiled, gave the class a break, and then asked me to join him for a coffee at the lounge. Needless to say, I soon realized that I was in a lot of trouble. But, he kindly and graciously, encouraged me to write-up my idea. I looked shocked and puzzled (and of course, was thinking about what was his ulterior motive). His next set of words were some of the most powerful that I have heard, “a lot of people have ideas and want to change the world, there are only a few, very few, who take the time and energy to see your ideas from concept to implementation.” I remember not sleeping for more than a few hours the next week, and working on the paper. I have never worked on a paper harder in my life; little did I know that this paper would eventually lead me to doing my doctoral studies, my first book, my first research fellowship, and the eventual move into academia. Over the past 10 years, I have had numerous such episodes where the generosity and kindness of this individual, who I originally thought would only be a professor, has had a profound influence on my life. What is surprising is that while no individual would come close to the impact Dr. Kraft has made on my life, there are several other professors who have helped me achieve professional and personal achievements.

My advice to you is quite simple, if you need help, all you need to do is contact your professors. Our doors are open for you.

The world needs you to exploit your talents towards positive change. To this end, you should never fear doing the right thing and making difficult calls. We, in academia, look at you as the future change agents and game changers. We are here to support you. Let me share with you another small story. When I was teaching in South Africa, I had a chance to meet a young lad. This 19-yr old always had a smile on his face, was one of the most pleasant people to deal with, and never complained. During one of our conversations, I asked him – “what makes you so happy?” He said, the people I serve make me happy. I was taken aback a bit, and asked for details. He went on to explain about how he spent about 25 hrs a week working with people who either 1) did not have anyone, mostly orphans, or 2) were HIV-positive. This youngster had created a complete volunteer organization to address the needs of these communities. He recruited his buddies from college, worked with local high-schools, and even got business establishments to donate food and other supplies. As he described his project, he did not do so in a tired way, but did so with hope and optimism. I have to say that this was one of those moments where no matter how much one has achieved in life, you are quickly struck by how much more is possible.  I think about this young lad regularly, and when I think about how difficult things get, I am reminded that he the word ‘difficult’ does not exist in his vocabulary.

We need people like this youngster. We need people like each of you. You are fearless and we have great hopes for the world. You need to view setbacks as opportunities for change, not as reasons for quitting. Simply think about how many times this young lad could have had a reason to quit. He did not, and today, his program helps about 350 people per year! He has made a difference to the betterment of this world, and we need to build on his energy and others like him.

I thank each of you for giving me the opportunity to get to know you as individuals. At times we have butted heads and even disagreed, at times we could have been more patient with each other, and maybe there are situations we wish we could take back in hindsight. For anytime that I have made your life difficult or unpleasant, you have my sincere apology and promise that I will work harder in the future. As you embark on the next steps on your career, remember that my doors are always open to each of you. You are welcome to stop by all my offices (yes, even my Irish Office), should you need help or just need to someone to talk with. I hope you will keep me abreast of the developments in your life.

In closing, thank you for everything and best wishes for all your future endeavors!

Today is your day, take time to enjoy it and celebrate your achievements!

Cheers, Cheers, Cheers!!!

(FYI: The Information School will hold their convocation on June 10, and the University of Washington will celebrate commencement exercises on June 12)