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The Winds of Change: How Presidential Politics Informs IT Transformation

By April 16, 2012Article

For most people, the prospect of fundamental change is about as comforting as a root canal. By their state of nature, most people are change averse, preferring the quiet predictability of the status quo to the frothy tumult of a fundamental shift.

That is, until change seems to be the only tenable answer.

America voted for change during the 2008 election cycle because change seemed to be the only tenable answer. Putting politics aside, few will argue against the notion that this country faces some great challenges, many of which are fairly troubling. This sort of recognition tends to trigger a shift in our tolerance for change. It makes us more willing to think differently, take on an element of risk, and accept a degree of near-term uncertainty in exchange for the prospect of a longer-term payoff.

This is as true in presidential politics as it is in information technology.

Technology wasn’t a major theme of the 2008 presidential race. With all the issues keeping us up at night, IT policy simply didn’t rise to the top of either campaign agenda. Certainly, both candidates had technology platforms, but the emphasis was elsewhere during this election cycle.

Let’s face it: neither candidate is exactly Al Gore when it comes to technology (I’m exercising restraint on Internet jokes here). Sen. McCain’s technology experience is long in policy and short in practice; he has served on the Commerce Committee in the Senate and was involved in the seminal Telecommunications Act of 1996. But, by his own admission, he’s never sent email. Sen. Obama was served well by an impressive campaign machine with a strong emphasis on e-marketing, personalization and social media; but by many accounts, he’s no power user either.

Change comes in cycles, which are impossible to predict, but unmistakable when they occur. I would argue that we’re in a change cycle today – both in terms of presidential politics and IT leadership. Just as the public voted that the old way was no longer serving us well, the same sort of vote is happening in enterprises today. Yesterday’s costly, rigid and monolithic IT architectures are giving way to a new approach centered on the principles of virtualization, cloud computing, and service orientation of application functionality.

But the reality is that this sort of IT change requires a significant rethinking of approaches to leadership. It requires a change agent who embodies many of the characteristics that elevated a Junior Senator from Illinois to the highest office in the land. Today’s IT leaders can learn from what we saw on the political stage:

  • A bias for change
    At its most basic level, when people are in pain, it’s critical to tell a story that encompasses change at its most fundamental level. In presidential politics as well as IT leadership, the truth is that people typically gravitate to optimism, hope and positive sentiment – they want something to believe in. Have the courage to take a stand with conviction and become an agent of change. Be courageous.
  • Inspirational leadership
    There’s no excuse for a lack of passion. Believe deeply in what you say and do – if you don’t, find a way to convincingly fake it. Paint a picture for the future – the shining city on the hill – that energizes, excites and inspires. Get out of the weeds and learn to tell a story that speaks to value, pain and outcomes.
  • A willingness to invest in the future
    Take a short-term hit for a future benefit. Get people on board with the reality that change isn’t cheap and everyone needs to make some sacrifices for transformational benefit. This means freeing budget in challenging economic times, and it means project tradeoffs that may yield some near-term discomfort. Have the courage to place some bets and take some risk. Incremental thinking is not the friend of change.
  • A global outlook
    Learn to be empathic about your constituents’ needs, wants and aspirations. Strike a balance between say-anything, do-anything pandering and rigid ideology and provincialism. Put yourself in the shoes of others and try to internalize their points of view. Shape the narrative of your IT transformation based on the specific anecdotes you capture. Tell stories that are respectful and inclusive of diverse needs.
  • A current perspective
    Stay on top of current trends. You don’t need to become a Web 2.0 junkie, but learn to understand the prevailing culture of innovation. You may not be in a position to embrace every new trend that emerges, but you’ll almost certainly benefit from understanding the principles of emerging trends and weaving them into the fabric of your vision for transformation.

Aside from religion, politics may be the most dangerous third rail of polite conversation. This article is not meant to be politically ideological, but to share a perspective on what worked so brilliantly well this campaign season and how that can be applied to your role as an agent of change. During his gracious concession speech, Sen. McCain called for us all to come together in support of change. This is an important call to action for both politics and IT. This is the opportunity to think differently, act and believe. Take a page from the book of American President #44: hope is the true catalyst for change.

Jake Sorofman is founding partner of Marketlever, a boutique strategy and communications consultancy. Prior to founding Marketlever, Jake was CMO of rPath, a leader in cloud automation tools.