When leading an IT department you are faced with numerous challenges across the board. Whilst attracting and retaining IT talent is one of the biggest challenge, it is often paired with the challenge of understanding and displaying the value of the IT department towards the organisation.

IT has moved from a necessity to be a game-changer in some areas, but in many organisations, traditional perspectives and mindsets apply. Changing perspectives as an IT leader isn’t easy. Especially when daily operations are taking the most of your energy and attention.

So, let’s look at some ideas to regain a focus on strategic software delivery. By dedicating attention on reflection and finding areas of improvement, we can provide better conditions to succeed and contribute to the goals of the business.

Define the key differentiators

With the scarce availability of people or money, it is required to make conscious decisions. It’s simply not possible to work on all problems or opportunities. For product roadmaps these decisions are made by the product owner, but who is looking at the portfolio as a whole. Not only with a business perspective, but also with a technical perspective.

This is an activity that regularly should be done by an IT leader. First, by finding key differentiators that make their organisation unique compared to competitors. It is what we call our core domain. This is the area you want to spend most of your time, money and attention on. Other areas generally tend to be commodities. These commodities can be bought off-the-shelf or handled via a managed service.

Let’s take the example of an e-commerce company. Its competitive advantage might be the products it sells or the delivery propositions it offers. This company might be successful because it has optimised, integrated and automated the order and delivery flow. These efforts enable them to offer a unique delivery proposition.
It does not stand out because of an excellent customer relationship management tool. Of course, the data has to be complete and correct to provide good customer service. However, CRM systems are available in a variety of flavours and can be bought as a commodity.

Finding the core and differentiating activities of the organisation is important. This can be done by creating a Wardley Map, visualising the components present to deliver value to the customer, or by utilising strategic patterns from Domain-Driven Design. Organising regular Big Picture EventStorming sessions can help to keep an overview of the various contexts and value streams in the organisation.

EventStorming sketch

Be an enabler of new ventures

Organisations evolve. Not just in the way they are organised or how it’s branded, but also in their propositions. Nobody wants to be the new Kodak or Nokia. There is a continuous quest to find new ventures that help organisations to stay relevant.

New ideas spring to life throughout the organisation and often require IT capacity to kickoff. Nowadays we often find initiatives stopped early due to high investment costs, lack of IT people or because the current activities that bring the money in are simply more important. With the possibilities that this day and age offers, opportunities arise for IT leaders to be an enabler for experimenting with new ventures without shifting attention from the main activities.

Low-code and integration platforms offer capabilities to quickly build a solution and experiment if the idea is viable. These tools are low-entry and can be built by non-developers who are tech-savvy. Although operation costs might be higher due to licensing and operating costs, it is outweighed by the possibility to try the business idea and learn from the experiment.

Concerns regarding the sustainability of the produced solutions will arise, but this requires strong governance and a shift in mindset. First of all, testing a new venture of its viability is the goal. The goal is not to build the best solution that endures a long time. When a new venture turns out to be viable a sustainable solution and operating model will be developed. Growing a mindset of failure and throw-away solutions can help to retain the right focus on the goal. This attitude is closely related to the 3X model created by Kent Beck.

Grow an environment of success

Creating and growing an environment for success is the primary task of any IT leader. Often the daily problems receive the most attention of the leadership, but it is fighting the symptoms. Tackling these symptoms on its own is sub-optimal. Effectively improving the environment must be done as a whole.

Any given environment is large and consists of a broad set of variables and elements at play. To find areas of improvement a holistic view can help to assess the situation.

Many organisations have insights into their performance by utilizing metrics such as the number of software deployments, mean time between failure and operating costs. This only tells part of the situation. It is mainly focussed on the product and delivery. But these things are highly influenced by the environment in which the product is developed.

Therefore, create indicators that help assess the environment. For example, an indicator if teams can function autonomously. A review on the formal and informal hierarchy. In what way do teams give and receive feedback. These indicators, in the end, are unique to the organisation. Standards or generally available metrics do exist, but it’s the leadership that can make them valuable and actionable.

When taking into account multiple indicators it can become easier to find multiple contributing factors. For example, you notice that features at their first delivery regularly are not compliant with the expectations of the stakeholders. Looking holistically it also shows that there is no collaboration between the team and stakeholders and trust in each other is low. Shouting at people to start collaborating is always an option, but it isn’t effective. A more viable option might be to help the parties involved to collaborate visually and aid in a greater understanding of each other’s concerns and wishes. In this case, training in Example Mapping might be a helpful solution.

A holistic approach to your environment helps to identify areas of improvement and find sustainable solutions. By providing healthy and collaborative environment leaders can help IT departments to achieve more successes.