Recently, Gene Kim had a chance to speak with Mark Schwartz about Mark’s new book, War and Peace and IT, Business Leadership, Technology, and Success in the Digital Age:
Gene Kim: What inspired you to write a book about IT management for business leaders?
Mark Schwartz: I meet with executives from over a hundred large enterprises each year. It’s amazing how patterns emerge: so many of them are trying to transform digitally, trying to find new sources of growth and to survive disruption—and yet they are frustrated that they can’t seem to get there. And in virtually all of those cases the root cause is the same: the relationship between “the business” and IT is the problem. My previous book, A Seat at the Table, made the case that organizations needed to change the way they incorporated IT into the rest of the enterprise; that working with IT in an arms-length, contractor-type relationship was holding them back from being fully successful. That book was written for senior IT leaders. Based on the feedback I received from readers, it became clear to me that I needed to write a book looking at the business-IT relationship from the point of view of non-IT business leaders. That’s exactly what this new book is.
GK: What is the key conclusion you hope business leaders will draw from the book?
MS: Most importantly, there is a message of hope! New ways of thinking about technology and how it supports the company’s business or the agency’s mission are powerful and effective. They can increase innovation, help companies grow, mitigate risk, improve compliance, get products to market quickly…what else could you ask for? I’m talking about things like the cloud, DevOps, and Lean IT, for example. What the financial markets want, what the board of directors wants, and what the CEO, CFO, CMO, and other senior executives want—it is all “easily” available.
I say “easily” but what I mean is that it is available once the company thinks a bit differently about how it uses technology, or more importantly, how it works with its technologists. In this book, I try to show why the traditional way of thinking about technology is holding companies back, and what can be done to change it and succeed. Succeed wildly.
GK: How can the old management crowd overthrow their own stereotypes about IT “nerds” and learn to work with them instead of against them?
MS: Well, for one thing, the “old” management crowd is constantly being replaced by a young management crowd, for whom a lot of what I say is instinctive. For another, we’ve all quietly and without realizing it become nerds. For decades, the nerds were better at technology than everyone else because they knew enough to turn devices off and back on again to solve problems—now that’s common knowledge. Plenty of senior leaders who think they don’t know anything about technology can talk fluently about how many pixels their camera has, how to get Google to show the right search results, what the cloud is and how much money they’ll save by “migrating” to it, and how to work their Apple Watches. More importantly, they are all consumers of digital services, shopping and banking online. And by the way, the nerds are often quite business-savvy. And the nerds have to learn to drop their stereotypes about the “suits” as well.
The important point is that changing the working relationship with the nerds leads to business success, and everyone likes that. Pick any key business metric you want to improve, and you will see that the ideas and suggestions in this book will improve it.
GK: What can IT leaders learn from reading this book? Is it only for business leaders?
MS: I like to think that it is essential reading for IT leaders as well. The idea is to open a dialogue between IT and other business leaders, and this book frames the conversation in terms that are meaningful to both. Many IT leaders are excited about what they can now accomplish—for the business or mission—but struggle to explain their excitement to those outside of IT, but Not for lack of trying. I argue that IT leaders have wasted lots of effort trying to project ROIs and frame ideas in terms of what they think of as “business value” but which don’t resonate with the CFO or CEO. What the CIO really needs to do is to express business value in relation to the goals and worries of these other executives. Or, to put it differently, the CIO can help the other CXOs all become heroes. That’s what the book is about.
GK: Why Napoleon? Why War and Peace?
MS: When I read War and Peace I was struck by the peculiar and frustrating situation Napoleon had gotten himself into. This is Napoleon—famed for his skills as a military leader—giving orders in the battle of Borodino that no one is following, for perfectly good reasons. How does that happen? Well, it hit me that Napoleon’s problem had fascinating parallels with organizations that find themselves unable to transform to meet the demands of change and disruption. I won’t give away the story here, but that’s what started my train of thought.
Once I saw the parallel, every page I turned in War and Peace (and there are lots of pages) brought a new revelation. Napoleon—outside of the military context—was an amazing transformational leader. He brought France the metric system and the Napoleonic code, ended the Inquisition and the Holy Roman Empire, and of course made the felt bicorn hat fashionable. What finally did him in—and I don’t mention it in the book—was his lack of agility. His army took Moscow—the capital of Russia—but Napoleon couldn’t figure out what to do next. Had he won the war or what? The Russians had abandoned Moscow. There was no one to surrender to him. This was the first time that had ever happened to him—the Russians had changed the rules and disrupted warfare—and he didn’t know what to do next. In his indecision, he kept his troops in Moscow for too long and then, strangely, decided to retreat to France…in the middle of the Russian winter!
If there is one thing you should learn from my book: do not lead your troops through Russia in the middle of winter.