Dr Lee-Jon Ball is a man with many-a-string to his bow. CTO, academic, scientist, magazine editor, events manager, you name it – you name it, he’s done it. With such a varied career – and a passion for building things – you’d be hard pushed to find someone who knows more about strategy.
Here he reflects on his keynote talk from the last CTO Craft Con (watch here if you missed it!) and shares his insights into what works, and crucially, what doesn’t when it comes to communicating vision, effective collaboration and getting buy-in from the outset.
HI Lee-Jon, thanks for joining us today! What was your highlight of the CTO Craft Con 2021: The Winter One?
I was hosting the strategy and alignment day as well as giving the keynote talk. It was great to be able to tie all the concepts of the day together. I’ve loved getting the feedback on some of the things people found interesting, and sharing their experiences to what I said. Strategy is rife with business-speak and lip service so I hope giving a slightly tongue-in-cheek take on it resonated, as well as highlighting some of the pitfalls.
How is your focus shifting and shaping your approach to 2022?
One of the things that has been playing on my mind recently is the current hiring issues we’re facing that I think will only going to get worse.
Software engineering is in the top four most difficult roles to fill and that is worrying both for us as leaders, but also the industry as a whole. With a supply problem, software will be much more expensive than it was 20 years ago. We not only have to help build the pipeline but prioritise to meet the needs of the business’ strategy. We really need to be thinking about how we attract and inspire people to the world of engineering so that those shortages don’t cause huge problems in the future.
As leadership approaches have changed over the course of the pandemic, particularly with remote working, what support do you think teams will need most going forward?
I think leadership really needs to understand the nature of work especially when it comes to remote working and asynchronous communication.
We have a lot of synchronous tools like Slack where a message pops up and people expect you to respond immediately, but it’s not conducive to working effectively because it’s disruptive. People don’t know how to use it properly and instead utilise it like an instant messaging system which wouldn’t be done when you’re working together in an office. An allowance needs to be made for information to be shared across platforms like that permits people to access it and respond when they’re ready to address the matter, not immediately.
As most software engineers will continue to work remotely, they will be the ones to dictate collaboration practices going forward. As such, it’s up to leadership to both understand these new ways of working and be willing to adapt.
What are the three most important for communicating vision and strategy?
- Rehearse it – Whether that’s with leadership, other managers, peers in communities like CTO Craft or even just while having a coffee shop chat. No-one should be surprised about the strategy when it’s eventually presented.
- Fight against complexity – Edit it down so that it is clear, simple and makes sense. Even when doing my talk for the conference it started out as 45-minutes long and was cut down to 15 minutes. Yes, there were stories that I wanted to tell, but they weren’t necessary to make it impactful and the same goes for strategy.
- Do the work – Having said make it simple, strategy takes a huge amount of foundation work and research and you have to put the time into the analysis. There are no shortcuts or tools to speed it up.
How do you create buy-in, especially in larger companies where strategic decisions are made at the top for various purposes that don’t always take into account the impact of those at the ‘bottom’ of the chain, nor do they know about them until the change happens?
First, there is a difference between buy-in for strategy and buy-in when it comes to organisational change. Strategy should already have buy-in and any groundwork will make that both easy and obvious. Engaging stakeholders early and communicating with them regularly about your findings, data and research is a must. Good strategy is cohesive across departments, so collaboration is important, it’s why I talked about not believing in things like a Technology Strategy or a Data Strategy.
The other frequently overlooked part is really about understanding the capability of your organisation’s skills and culture. Buy-in is difficult if the strategy doesn’t truthfully represent the reality you’re facing. You can’t tell an army they need to start flying planes. This is really this issue in ‘top-down’ decisions – they fail to understand their own capability – that isn’t strategy, more wishful thinking.
What’s a common failure you’ve seen in strategic planning?
I think the largest failure I’ve seen in strategy is a failure to understand the environment and yourself. This leads to a PowerPoint deck of unrealistic goals that lack the correct resources. Not understanding your capability is often linked with the inability to say no to initiatives, bloating a plan that can’t be implemented, and so is left sitting on the shelf.
Finally, can you recommend a book on the theme of strategy and alignment that every technology leader should read?
Thank you, Lee-Jon!
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