The New CTO in the Era of Inventiveness and Imagination
We are living in what I like to call the “era of inventiveness and imagination.” Over the past several years, the rate at which we have been able to imagine ground-breaking ideas and convert them into reality through technology has accelerated at an unprecedented pace. The impact on our personal lives has been profound. And the fundamental impact on corporations cannot be ignored.
Businesses now live within an economic world in which their financial identity is defined not just by the growth of current core revenue streams, but by the rate at which they can identify, address, and capitalize on new ones. Talent and culture transformation must accompany this economic change. In this world of uncertainty and rapid growth, nothing is more valuable than balanced left-right brain thinkers and doers backed by a management team that knows how to nurture both the minds and hearts of its team.
For me, there has never been a better time to be a CTO. Opportunity and creativity abound. But a CTO must be willing to embrace several new roles. I call these the Futurist, the Distiller, the Change Agent, and the Architect.
The role of the Futurist is to use a unique blend of wild imagination, deep technology knowledge, and pragmatic business sense to craft new opportunities for their company and customers. I have found that there are two practices that help to nurture this important persona in my CTO arsenal.
Acts of Magic: Technologists need to be open to experiencing “acts of magic” everyday, and to be free to be inspired by the small things around us. For me, a recent magic moment was when I was walking in Canada and received a call on my cell phone from my daughter in India. Even though I knew about the various technologies that made this possible, hearing my daughter’s voice from halfway around the world felt like magic at the moment. Take that magic – and then extrapolate it into the possibility of what it can be.
The Value of Children: My second practice is to intentionally spend time with people outside of technology, especially kids. We sometimes get so involved with the mechanics of things that we forget to look at the simplicity of what it is through the eyes of others. Kids are also great at asking the question “Why can’t you do this?” That’s a perfect question for a Futurist to ask and answer as well.
The value of the Distiller is in the ability to filter the cacophonous noise of the technology marketplace. They are there to prevent others from either becoming overwhelmed by information or becoming jaded and immune to technology promises. The CTO needs to separate out the temporal from the major lasting shifts, and create simple trends and themes for the company. These themes can enable a business to build a platform for “democratic innovation” whereby everyone in the organization participates and contributes.
Being a Distiller requires practice, and there are four skills that I focus on to hone my skills in this particular area.
The Mantra of Simplification: To distill and filter for others, you have to be able to communicate trends and opportunities in straight-forward language. Industry jargon and technical terms are not your friends in this case.
Diverse Professional Network: Building and cultivating a diverse and intimate network of smart people is important to avoiding “group think” and encouraging debate. It also helps you to learn that listening is as important as talking. People will surprise you with ideas and approaches you would never have discovered, no matter how smart you might think you are.
Grounded and Egalitarian Perspective: Ideas can come from anywhere, not just the priesthood of technologists. Conversations with my CEO and developers are equally exciting and valuable to me. Answers don’t come from just one class of people.
The Power of Coding: I have vowed never to lose touch with the power of taking an idea and programming it myself. It provides a truly unique way for me to touch and distill ideas. Programming has to be the most structured and powerful of all languages on the planet. CTOs should speak it fluently.
The Change Agent
The process of building appropriate culture and inspiring people needs to be taken into consideration if businesses are to be able to address the level of change required by the world today. This should be as important to the CTO as it is to the Head of Talent.
It is a critical part of my job to inspire others, enable them to imagine new possibilities, and empower them to make those ideas real within the context of the business – at all levels. I want to see eyes that light up when I talk about this, rather than those that are disbelieving. To get to that, I take a holistic approach to business culture.
Left-Right Brain Balance: The scales are changing from what used to help people get ahead. Logical, linear left-brained spreadsheet type abilities now need to be balanced out with the right brain world of artistry, invention, design and big picture thinking. I work on this within myself, and encourage it with others. This balance and respect for both approaches can be a powerful instrument for change within a business.
Unselfish Collaboration: Collaboration can be an over-hyped word.When I talk about collaboration, I frame it in a way of how to make the other person successful. I believe that we need to work with our colleagues in the same way that we would work with our kids – Their success is of primary importance, not mine. This reduces friction in the relationship and we can plant and grow new ideas because there is trust.
A Handful of Deep Relationships: While I might have an extensive professional network, I also focus on a handful of people within my own company with which to develop deep and trusted personal relationships. Knowing intimately what is important to them, understanding them on an empathetic level, and being able to make them shine has always resulted in positive business experiences for me. If you doubt that, think about the truly great teachers you had in school. You never mistrusted their intentions, and hence did your best work.
Work Environment Design: The physical space in which you work and the “rules of engagement” within that space naturally contribute to the kind of thinking, imagining, and working that is possible with others. Never underestimate the value of intent and design in this area.
We are all designers and builders. But the CTO needs to pay special attention to creating structures for others so there is “method to the sometimes madness” of the technology innovation process.
Hybrid Models: In a world where linear planning is no longer scalable, my advice for CTOs is to build hybrid models of business thinking and doing in which the seeds of innovation can be planted and grown. Hybrid is about blending a traditional top down structure of core business priorities with a looser bottoms-up environment for experimentation and implementation. This is what is needed for organizations to be able to discover and address new possibilities that include, but go beyond, their traditional core.
As a CTO in this amazing era of “inventiveness and imagination” are you ready to embrace your roles as Futurist, Distiller, Change Agent, and Architect for your company?