Thought Leadership

“Burying the Lede” In Technology Projects

In journalism, the term “burying the lede” refers to placing the most important part of a story deep in the story itself rather than making it immediately understood. As a result, the most important point of the story either gets missed or is under emphasized.

“Interesting” you might say but what does this have to do with technology? The short answer? Everything.

Technology vendors, consultants and enlightened chief executives all know one truth about major technology projects – they succeed or fail based on the leadership of the organization, specifically on whether the chief executive has played an active role in the project.

Why should the chief executive be involved in technology projects? Wouldn’t the chief information officer (CIO) be better able to lead a technology project? The answer is “yes” if this is actually a technology project. And therein lies the rub.

Many technology projects are really strategic initiatives in a technology “wrapper”. Hence the confusion about the role of the chief executive. Put another way, if chief executives knew a project had major strategic implications, none would abdicate oversight of such a project. But because a major technology project looks like—well—technology and because vendors “bury the lede” about the strategic nature of such projects, chief executives often believe their jobs are done once the RFP is signed. This confluence of strategy disguised as technology and vendors burying the lede causes many technology projects to go awry.

Another less frequent problem can also wreak havoc on technology projects – the technophobic chief executive. Perhaps “technophobic” is too strong a term (even though some are in fact just that). A fair number of chief executives will admit to feeling “uncomfortable” with their own personal technological acumen so when the opportunity presents itself to delegate technology projects to the CIO, they are more than happy to do so and may even be relieved.

For those led astray or confused, for those who are uncomfortable and even for those who are overly anxious, I have good news. You do not have to be an expert in technology to overcome these issues. Leave that to your technological lead. Your job is to understand the strategic relevance of technology and lead your organization to achieve the strategic objectives the chosen technology can provide. In other words, do what you already do – lead!
At this point, chief executives usually have two questions:

  1. How do I differentiate strategic from non-strategic technological projects?
  2. What does my involvement in these projects look like?

Identifying the Hidden Strategy in Technology Projects

The strategic value of technology projects is not a binary function, it is a continuum. It could be argued that just about all technology initiatives have some strategic impact but even if that is true, not all technology projects require chief executive oversight. Some projects can and should be delegated with a minimum of senior leadership oversight. Note the distinction here between “senior leadership” and “chief executive”. Second tier leaders and below e.g. COOs, CIOs, vice presidents etc. can easily oversee many technological initiatives with little or no involvement from the chief executive. Examples include local projects such as new printers, laptops, etc.. Some enterprise level projects can also fall under this level of leadership as well. Hardware projects like buying new servers or software decisions like choosing between Microsoft Office, Microsoft Office 365, or “going Google” likely need little chief executive oversight. Some projects require only that a chief executive is kept abreast of project progress.

At the other end of the continuum are projects like selecting an EHR, signing a revenue cycle management (RCM) contract or creating a major analytics initiative which does require chief executive involvement. For these initiatives, the chief executive has a critical and singular responsibility for certain aspects of the project and there are things in these projects that only the chief executive can do. It might be tempting to think that the key differentiator is the cost of the project – the bigger the budget, the more likely the chief executive needs to get involved. That’s not necessarily true though. The bigger the budget, the more likely the chief executive will want to be involved. But that’s not the same as needing to be involved.

Many costly initiatives can be successfully managed without chief executive oversight. So, what are the criteria and how will the chief executive know which projects require her oversight and which ones can be delegated?

As mentioned previously, this is not a black or white decision (but, then again, what decisions facing chief executives are black and white?) Arguably the single biggest determinant of whether the chief executive needs to lead a technological project is whether the project will entail a significant change in the behavior of a large proportion of the organization’s employees. That might seem simplistic but think about it – changing the direction of an organization usually means changing staff behavior and that is the very definition of leadership. If the change is technological, it may distort the issue because the technology itself becomes the focus but for the chief executive, the technology is incidental.

For the chief executive, this is not a technology project, it’s a change management initiative. And if the change in question involves large numbers of staff, someone must lead that change and that person is the chief executive. More specifically, the job of the chief executive in these projects is not management, it is leadership. It is around this point that many chief executives get confused or worse, threatened by technology projects. They mistakenly believe they must manage something they aren’t comfortable or even competent to manage and so they withdraw.

A more tangible test of whether the chief executive needs to be involved is whether he will need to make some pronouncement to the employees of the organization about the strategic relevance of the project, how their lives will change and why it is important for the organization to make these changes. The gist of such an announcement follows a form something like this:

We used to be a westbound train but now we are a northbound train. “north” looks like this______. We will you all to be part of this new direction but if you want to stay on the westbound train, we understand. But we are no longer a westbound train.

Statements like this (in the chief executive’s own words of course) provide guidance to the organization about where they are going and why. It is a strategic and change-management oriented communication. But it is not about technology. If a technology project (or actually any project) does NOT require a statement like this, chief executive oversight probably isn’t necessary. If it does, the chief executive must provide the leadership inherent in this statement.

Other project attributes those chief executives can use to determine whether they need to be personally involved in a project include:

  • Is the project highly visible to the chief executive’s board of directors? – Depending on the type of board governance structure the organization uses, different boards will require different levels of accountability from the chief executive. But most boards want at least to be kept apprised of major changes in organizational direction or strategy. If the project is one the chief executive will be regularly briefing the board about, it probably requires chief executive oversight.
  • Is their potential for public relations issues about the project? – This one is tricky and it is often tied to the community’s perceived use of resources i.e. money.
  • What is the likelihood that there could be a newspaper article about the initiative?
  • Can someone else in the organization provide sufficient leadership (not management) to make this project successful? – It can be difficult to ask this question if the chief executive really wants the project off her desk. The chief executive must be brutally honest to make this call but if she has and the answer is no, then only the chief executive can effectively lead the project.

How to be an Effective Chief Executive in Technology Projects

So, what does chief executive involvement actually look like? First, as mentioned previously, this is not about “managing the project”. Technical managers of the organization should do that. The job of the chief executive is to lead the organization through this change that just happens to be technological.

Specific activities only chief executives can do include:

Explain why the organization is doing this. – Technical managers

Define what the organization will no longer be doing

Too often organizations only focus on what the next new thing is without saying what goes away. This is a key leadership responsibility and some would argue it is among the hardest to do. Different factions in the organization will have different opinions about whether to change or not change and those positions will likely be well articulated. But, it is physically impossible to simultaneously change and stay the same so someone will have to be the decision maker. Guess who that is.

Clarify as specifically as possible how this change will affect the lives of the staff

At the end of the day, this is what staff really want to know.

Set expectations and define “success” for this project

Steven Covey often advised starting with the end in mind. The minutia of some technology projects requires focused attention to detail – so much so that everyone involved can lose sight of the ultimate objective (assuming that was ever elaborated at all). Here is where the chief executive’s focus should be – on the end game.

There are two parts to this suggestion:

  • Clarify and communicate what is the ultimate goal
  • Identify how that will be measured

Determining the ultimate goal is the easier of these two and may have already be done. If so, the chief executive’s job is to communicate that goal often and loudly. Partly because everyone else will be “heads down” focusing on the details and partly because that is the job of leadership – to set directions and remind people where they are going. The measurement of success is sometimes harder.

Organizations often implement strategic technology projects with unrealistic expectations. One of the most common is that they cannot “go live” until the project is “perfect”. For most of us mortals, perfection is difficult to achieve personally. For organizations, it is impossible. Many organizations have experienced this with their EHR implementations. The EHR is expected to fix all the underlying problems of the organization and will do so flawlessly and “go live” cannot occur until that lofty goal is achieved. Nonsense. Going live with an EHR or any major strategic project is the beginning, not the end. In most cases, an 80/20 rule should guide strategic projects since 80% of the organization’s business is likely handled by 20% of all available work functions. If those are in place, the organization should go live and then continue to iterate on the rest. There are very practical reasons for this. One is that those old work processes that are most familiar will likely not work in the new environment. Another is that “you don’t know what you don’t know”. Despite the best planning and implementation strategies – things happen. Using an 80/20 approach provides the necessary flexibility to adapt to unforeseen occurrences. Who in the organization is best able to set these expectations? Only the chief executive.

Be prepared to address the non-obvious effects of implementing the new technology

Strategic technology projects rarely affect only the areas in which they are implemented so someone must consider what non-obvious parts of the organization (or community) will be affected by this change. What is meant by “non-obvious”?

Consider the following examples:

  • Enterprise analytics development: To be successful, any analytics database requires the development of a standardized dataset. Only by doing so can the data in the database be-well-analyzed. But the standardization of data has upstream and downstream implications that are sometimes obvious and sometimes not. A downstream (i.e. occurring as a product of the implementation) issue could occur if the local newspaper heard about the initiative and wanted to know what it meant and whether the analytics project was removing the “human element” of the organization’s work. Such an encounter would likely be handled by the organization’s public relations or marketing department. PR is not usually affected by analytics initiatives.
  • EHR implementation: Consider what happens when an organization implements or changes their EHR. The principal users of an EHR are clinicians and billing staff. But what happens if a clinician refuses to use the EHR? That’s neither a technology problem nor a training problem. It’s a Human Resource problem. Human resource issues are not a very obvious impact of technology changes.

The rule of thumb for strategic technology projects should be that they touch everything in the organization until shown otherwise and chief executives must prepare the organization accordingly.

Avoid Burying the Leadership

For chief executives, enterprise technology projects are not and should not be about technology – they should be about leadership. The chief executive has a critical, but a different, role to play by leading these projects that entail doing things that only the chief executive can do.

The good news is chief executives need not be experts in technology per se. But they do have to be experts in how the technology will help the organization meet its strategic goals and that should be well within their level of comfort and competency. This article is designed to help chief executives understand that unique role despite all the technological trappings that tend to distract from the leadership aspects of their job. Applying these principles will keep them from “burying the lede” or perhaps more accurately “burying the leadership”.

This article was written by Dennis Morrison, Ph.D. Morrison holds a doctorate in counseling psychology, a master’s degree in psychology and a master’s degree in exercise physiology from Ball State University. He sits on the board of Grafton Integrated Health Network, the advisory board of Indiana University’s Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences and is vice chair of the board of the International Initiative of Mental Health Leadership.

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