The Big Picture
As published in the DataBus, Winter 2011 Volume 2011 Issue 1...
Years ago, I took a trip to Las Vegas with a good friend and colleague. It was my first visit there, and I had the opportunity to learn a few things about blackjack with a more experienced friend at my side. Before we sat down to play, he asked if I knew the “rules” of the game. My answer, which at the time seemed intelligent to me, sounded like I was a much bigger fan of The Price is Right than of playing cards. You know, get as close as you can to 21 without going over. It’s simple. Right? He blinked, shook his head slightly, and let out a low whistle. He informed me that he would be sitting to my right at the table, and I had no idea why that was significant at the time.
We sat at the far right side of the table, the cards got dealt, and several hands later I had lost $50. Just then, the dealer indicated that my friend might want to help me improve my game before the rest of the group at the table decided to tar and feather me. I remember glancing up at the four players sitting on my left and noticing for the first time that they didn't look very happy. You see, when a blackjack player starts saying, “Hit me” because it seems like the fun thing to do rather than logically processing the odds of the situation and making a smart play, that player often takes cards that the people to his left may have needed. Pretty soon, the players to the left of that illogical player start perceiving that their hand could have been much better if the lead player to the right was making better decisions. Resentment naturally follows. I had no idea until that moment that sitting on the right side of a blackjack table in Las Vegas was so much like being in charge of an IT department.
Think about it.
Have you ever made a decision that turned out to be a real stinker? You know, one of those decisions that created unnecessary work for your organization and had the people around you shaking their heads and grumbling. It happens to everyone at one time or another, but when you work in an IT department, it can’t happen too often or you lose important measures of respect.
Mutual respect is the glue that holds good IT teams together, and respect is earned by consistently making logical decisions and coming up with elegant solutions to problems. Those who earn a large amount of respect over time within an IT group become that group’s leaders, regardless of their official job title. Those who routinely show poor judgement which results in unnecessary work for others or a loss of forward momentum for the group will often be treated as a cancer, sometimes drawing open hostility, but more likely being quietly cut out of the work flow. These reactions are reasonable attempts by the rest of the IT department to protect the organization at large, and often occur only semi-consciously.
But, what if you are the IT leader and the group has begun to cut YOU out of the work flow, treating you like a cancer that the organization needs to be protected from? It is extremely difficult for someone to analyze their own decisions and detect faulty reasoning in them. After all, one wouldn't typically make a decision that they actually thought was illogical, right? Fortunately, there is another explanation for why something like this might be happening, so stay tuned.
I had a boss once whom I greatly respected and admired for his ability to make logical decisions, lead with passion, and see the worth of technology to the future of education in visionary ways. He was not a technical person, but he knew what to do with technology. We created a project together into which our district invested a lot of money and man hours, and at a highly pressurized time in the project, something happened. My boss began to make a habit of being absent from the office regularly without explanation.
After more than a month of excessive absences, I was really missing his input and direction; and I perceived that the team was suffering because of it. At one point I cornered him in his office, closed the door, and let him have it. I let him know that I had decided that he was making some really bad decisions by being absent so much and that his lack of logic was bringing down the project that we had worked so hard to bring to life. There was a distinct look in his eye that made me wonder if he was about to smack me or simply kick me out of his office. He had every right to tell me that his decisions were none of my business and that I was completely out of line, but his demeanor changed, and he began to explain. It turned out that his absences from the office were due to excessive meetings that required him to defend our project against political opposition.
Oh, and he also had a brain tumor.
Suddenly, as the true environment within which he was making decisions became known to me, I realized that what he was doing made perfect sense. I also realized that I was going to need to step up and become more of a leader than I had been in the local office so that he could concentrate on the battles that he was fighting, both personally and on our behalf. That day, my boss completely changed my attitude and direction by simply sharing the big picture with me.
This is a leadership technique that I highly recommend: share the big picture with your staff on a regular basis. Not because they need to know all of the unrelated information and political wranglings that you encounter when you aren't around them, but because their opinions of your decision-making abilities are affected by their perception of the environment within which your decisions are being made. Their opinion of your decision-making abilities, like it or not, governs the amount of respect your IT employees are willing to give you. In our environment, respect is the currency for getting things done.
Tim Goree is the Director of Technology Support Services for the Fairfield-Suisun Unified School District in Fairfield, California (TimG@fsusd.org). He has 20 years of IT experience, with 14 of those years being specific to education. As a member of the CETPA Board of Directors as well as a leader in the Computer Using Educators organization, Tim is well known for his ability to bring IT staff and educators together ideologically to produce outstanding educational results.