Do You Need A Personality Transplant to Innovate?

Do You Need A Personality Transplant to Innovate?

By John Muldoon

There’s a curious dynamic in IT. On the one hand, it is seen as the engine of the economy. Upstarts in Silicon Valley and other tech hubs disrupt existing industries and open up new business opportunities.

On the other hand, corporate IT is seen as slow, cautious and frustrating. It is too often viewed as an impediment to be gotten around. Then, the company’s tech group reports in to Finance — “Where IT goes to die,” as one wit said to me recently.

Accountants have their use, of course, but when you are a hammer, everything looks like a nail and this can lead to an overblown emphasis on costs alone.

Another problem corporate IT has, that your average startup does not have, is complexity. A medium or large size company will have baked its business processes in to its hardware and software. Additional functionality will have been layered on over the years.

Any interruptions to business operations can be very costly, extremely unwelcome and possibly career damaging for members of the IT department. This leads to a fixation on reliance and recoverability.

Is it any wonder IT is cautious about introducing new software or hardware?

The natural, but wrong, approach is for the IT department should not retreat in to its shell. But that just reinforces the perception that IT is doing nothing to help the business. This leads to a follow-on complaint that all of that money spent on technology is bringing no return on investment when it should be driving the business and innovation forward.

Is it IT’s role to innovate? Maybe, maybe not. It depends on the environment and industry. But, I would argue that it is most definitely IT’s role to position itself to assist others to innovate. It needs to be ready to build, tweak or react as conditions require.

So how does your average IT manager do this?

According to researchers at Case Western Reserve University (Pettinger et al), technical skills count for a lot at certain levels, but personality traits are more important at higher levels of IT. Superior managerial, not technical, skills provide a sustainable competitive advantage, they said.

Comparing outstanding versus average managers, the study identified key personality differences.

Superior performers built larger social and organizational networks. Their networks are “more expansive … and they prioritize and communicate more with business partners and subordinates,” the study said.

They even reported attending more social events such as picnics, parties and dinners with clients and staff. They showed clients how technology adds value and invited the business to get involved in system development.

“Putting themselves in their shoes” and “looking at things from their perspective” were phrases that came up in interviews with the high-performing managers.

Average to poor managers reported arguing more with internal or external clients. “We bring the developer and customers together and fight with them,” one told the study authors.

The second finding was that superior managers were effective at “managing bureaucracy.” They became familiar with the rules so they could work around them and not impede their teams’ progress. Average managers blamed the rules for holding them up, and showed an unwillingness to challenge the rules.

Superior managers built relationships with key business stakeholders. This allowed them to “pre-sell” their ideas, and it also gave them a better sense of when to and how hard to push back against bureaucracy.

Average managers reported no relationship building and more passivity when it came to selling their ideas.

The lessons are clear for IT leaders. Be more proactive in your dealings with internal or external clients. Get out there. Look at what they are doing. Talk.

It will give you a better feel for the business environment. It will stop you defaulting to a reactive organization. That is frustrating, and ultimately exhausting. It will better position you to react to innovative ideas, implement them quicker or, even, allow you to indulge some of your own creativity.

For senior executives frustrated with the state of their IT, the implications are clear when hiring: Ask how many picnics your candidates attended.

If you have any questions or would like to know if we can help your business with its innovation challenges, please contact us here or email us at

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