DAILY INSIGHT: The undiscussables of tech leadership

By Miguel Guhlin, CIO Advisor

"You know," I shared with a fellow CTO who had just finished an interview where the questions focused on leadership rather than on technology, "the CTO's role isprimarily about leadership and establishing the conditions teams can work together."

It's a realization, a fundamental truth that I was startlingly unaware of only a few years ago and it took time to understand. I've written about it often, but as I shared with my friend, this is the primary work of the CTO. When organizations try to focus on only the technical side of the job, they set themselves up for failure. How many times have you heard about an organization that hired someone with extensive credentials only to find he couldn't have his teams work well together?

Last December, Jean Tower (director of technology for Northborough-Southborough Public Schools in MA) shared a description of what would be discussed at CoSN's CTO Forum, naming it "The Undiscussables of Technology Leadership": If your people are too afraid to talk to you about what's happening, challenge your thinking, then the group is broken.

When I tweeted a question about this and posted it in the Google+ Community Scott McLeod started on School Leadership, Scott asked, What do you mean by undiscussables?

To this question, Jean replied: The undiscussables are the conversations that take real courage to initiate. When we want to really challenge the status quo. We sometimes need to go after the sacred cow practices and those are tough discussions - almost, undiscussable.

The CTO's Role

The CTO's role is to address these overlooked internal problems, but how we go about it requires some reflection.

Author Chris Argyriswritesthat instead of trying to fix a problem we should ask questions like the following:

  1. How long have you known about this problem?
  2. What have you done to address it?
  3. What prevents you from questioning and correcting problems?
  4. How would you redesign our company to encourage more initiative?

I like this approach because it helps one get to the root of why the problem hasn't been explored before. For example, consider this scenario:

"Janet," shared a staff member in a moment of conversation, "I didn't tell you sooner, but a few days ago, we had $2,000 worth of equipment stolen out of a secured closet. Only a few people have access to it. The closet had an electronic combination lock on it, but the combination is just 123456 and no one's changed it. I can't, and the person who is responsible for it hasn't seen it as a priority."

My first instinct in approaching this problem is to ask a few questions, mainly, "How long have you known about this? How much equipment was stolen and what did it cost? Who had access to this equipment? Has this been reported to the police?" Those questions are focused on solving the problem of stolen equipment. Do they really get to the heart of the undiscussables in the event?

If we take Argyris' approach, let's see what happens.

  1. How long have you known about this problem, that the combination was still set to default 123456?
  2. What have you done to address the combination issue?
  3. What prevented you from addressing this issue and solving it before it became a problem?
  4. How would you change how we do things now as an organization to ensure issues like this don't reoccur?

The answers we get to the questions above get us to a different set of responses, ones that can lead to greater organizational change. Of course, sometimes as leaders we don't want to grab a thread and follow it through all its permutations. It's easier to just solve the problem and move on.

That's what makes dealing with undiscussables all the more important. What's the crucial conversation or confrontation that you're not having so that the organization can move forward?

When I frame Tower's remarks this way, then the undiscussables of tech leadership come into focus, don't they? You can easily ask yourself, what conversations are you not having that are keeping you from advancing or moving forward in your organization?

Reflecting on my own work, it's easy to stay quiet, to avoid those conversations, to let sleeping dogs lie—at least for today. Tomorrow there will be new problems. Of course, the realization that stumbles after each problem is that unless you have those crucial conversation/confrontations about the undiscussables, all problems that arise (new or old) will be solved in the same dysfunctional, or ineffective, way as the ones that preceded them.

That makes changing HOW you solve problems, how the organization raises issues, all the more critical.

The Undiscussables for CTOs

Here are some of my undiscussables:

  1. Why, when we launch "popular" initiatives like BYOD or 1:1, are these initiatives not enjoying the full backing of the curriculum department? Instead, we have to make do with the vestigial instructional strategies available to the educational technology staff.
  2. How long will we persist in the desktop computer model with its labs, lab teachers, and recurring expenses—when the future is clearly mobile learning?
  3. Why do we continue to buy the latest gadgets for the principals, leadership staff but fail to hold them accountable when they take those devices home and let their kids play with them but never use them?
  4. Why do allow everyone onto our wireless network instead of doing better identity management?
  5. Why don't we have conversations with staff who are not doing their job, or are doing it poorly?

What are your district's undiscussables?

Miguel Guhlin is director of technology for a 5A school district in Texas and past president of the statewide TCEA Technology Education Coordinators group. This blog is cross posted at Around the Corner.