Lessons Learned--and To Be Learned

If you've ever thought that learning more about how your organization operates might help you become more successful in your role, I recommend pursuing an MBA. Here's why I think so, along with how the lessons found in business school relate to IT leadership and alternative IT sourcing.

Collaboration and Trust

I recently enrolled in an MBA program. So far, business school is mainly about the ability to collaborate and achieve goals with people you've just met. Sure, you went through a few days of orientation, but there is much you don't know about your new "colleagues." Everyone is trying to make a good impression. Everyone is being polite. Deep down, everyone is also thinking, "Are we a good match?" "Can they be trusted?" "Will they have my back when the going gets tough?"

At my business school we work in teams. My new team had to quickly develop a basic level of trust in one another, learn to work together effectively, give and receive feedback constructively, and put the team first. We also had to accept that a collaborative approach with people you've just met takes more time and feels less efficient than one with longtime colleagues. My teammates and I are diverse, and despite our commitment to help the team succeed, misunderstandings have occurred. Each of us has had to adapt our styles to the needs of the group. For example, during our weekly team conference calls, we had to put a process in place to rotate the group leadership and distribute the workload and writing assignments evenly. (I've become a fan of David Allen's Getting Things Done personal productivity system, based on the book of the same name.1 Allen's book and a piece of software called OmniFocus have become my indispensable time-management tools.)

The teambuilding and bonding I'm learning in the classroom is mirrored at the office. At work, we are building a relationship with a new IT services vendor. Building a strong, collaborative relationship with the vendor offers the same set of challenges-developing trust quickly, working through misunderstandings, and adapting styles.

Success Builds Confidence

Some of the course readings on leadership and strategy have explored the characteristics of high-performing teams and the ways to create an environment to support success. In Rosabeth Moss Kanter's book Confidence,2 the author writes of the leadership style and successes of Mike Krzyzewski, coach of the men's basketball team at Duke (and now Division I's most winning coach). She says Coach "K" has described success as not losing twice in a row. There is an upward momentum that follows success, and a downward momentum that follows failure. When a loss occurs, implement a correction quickly, before loss or failure becomes a pattern. Back at school, as we completed our assignments and received positive feedback from the professors, our teamwork output improved noticeably. We also fell short on a few assignments. The tight deadlines to submit coursework forced us to make corrections immediately and apply them to the next assignment.

There is a corollary to "success builds confidence" in the workplace: big achievements are the result of many small accomplishments directed toward the goal. Sometimes, the big achievement takes years to accomplish. For example, a number of institutions and organizations have worked tirelessly to develop models for "shared IT services." Recently, Internet2 announced a new suite of shared services for file storage and infrastructure in the cloud for the higher education community. These services and the behind-the-scenes activities were years in the making.

Balance Preconceived Notions and Data

In the classroom, my classmates and I improved as a team of decision makers over the course of the academic term. In one course, we had to run a "virtual" company in an online simulation game. My team's company competed against two other teams in the simulation game. Initially, our decision making was skewed toward our collective biases, or preconceived notions. In fact, since everyone was new to the complexities of leading an entire company, every team made mistakes. As the simulation progressed and profits dwindled, everyone was grateful we were only failing as virtual, not real, CEOs.

Failure can be a great teacher. We learned we needed to know more about market reports, company income reports, and cash flow statements; we learned to balance our biases with the necessary competitive analysis of the data. As a team, we learned how to remain focused on our overall strategy and adjust our tactical approaches to account for the changing competitive environment.

Failure is tough to accept when you are responsible for delivering great IT services for your institution. Here at Princeton, we began testing server virtualization in a pilot project a couple of years ago. We gave the service a good shakedown before rolling it out to the campus. We're strong proponents of piloting and testing IT services from outside providers, too. Think of the pilot as a simulation game where you can try wacky, out-of-the-box scenarios.

The importance of using data and reports to inform decisions may seem obvious to most of us. The decision about sourcing IT services from an alternative provider, however, might be skewed toward our preferences. If it is time for my group to plan the roadmap for a particular IT service, are we balancing our preferences to keep the service in-house with other information and industry trends? Are there data or reports that can help us determine the best course to follow? What value would we deliver if we continue to provide the service directly? What new value would we deliver if we partnered with an alternative provider?

Lessons Learned

The importance of building relationships, establishing trust, creating successful teams, and blending preconceived notions with data are a few early lessons from my business school classroom. There will be more lessons, no doubt. These early ones are also at the heart of our work as IT leaders. No matter how IT services are delivered—in-sourced or out-sourced, above the campus or below—our institutions need us to help navigate the IT roads ahead. If alternative IT sourcing is going to work well for our institutions, we need to ensure the success of the people involved. Make failure in the testing period the goal, since there are no serious consequences. Implement corrections, and test again. You'll learn a great deal about your team and the outside provider through the experience.

So, start collaborating with a new group of coworkers, fail boldly where you can, and while you're at it, check out your local business school. Most likely, they have a weekend program.

  1. David Allen, Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity (New York: Viking, 2001).
  2. Rosabeth Moss Kanter, Confidence: How Winning Streaks and Losing Streaks Begin and End (New York: Crown Business, 2004).