Thursday, June 2, 2011

Human Side of Technology class gives SDM cohort practical insight - SDM Pulse Summer 2011

By Dave Morgan, SDM ’10

Editor’s note: Dave Morgan is a colonel in the US Air Force and a Fellow in MIT’s Lean Advancement Initiative.

Dave Morgan
SDM ’10
Each January, a new cohort enters MIT’s System Design and Management Program (SDM) and begins the monthlong “SDM boot camp.” As the new students start the program, Pat Hale, director of the SDM Fellows Program, explains that SDM’s goal is to help students to think more holistically and to become better managers of technology and people. Fittingly, among the first steps we take as a cohort is to attend Senior Lecturer Ralph Katz’s class, the Human Side of Technology.

Technology moves so quickly these days that it is easy forget that people make it all happen. Although humans develop technology, we are more complex than the technologies we develop. SDM’s Human Side of Technology course hones in on the people behind the technology and how best to lead them.

The first leadership lesson of the class was the “F word.” I thought I had this one locked down until Katz pulled a fast one and explained he meant “Focus.” One of the primary goals of leadership, he said, is to focus people. Most SDM students are engineers who will be leading technology projects—work that can involve hundreds or even thousands of people. A leader needs to focus his or her team and leverage the energy, expertise, and creativity of each member—as well as the synergies of the group—to put forth a product that will succeed in the marketplace.

For example, in my job as director of logistics and Support Products for the F-35, I am responsible for the training of pilots and maintenance personnel, providing support equipment for aircraft, information systems, fleet health management and technical data etc. The program is extremely busy, and it’s important for all the engineers on the job to stay focused on their own phase of the project. Therefore, my job as leader is to field assignments and funnel them to the right person. I deal with other high-level managers, keep the big picture in mind, and work to reduce the stress of the day for those who report to me.

Focus also means the ability to zero in on issues phase by phase. While the leader may have to focus his energy on seeing through the entire concept from start to finish, the team must focus on each phase in turn—from concept to demo to market introduction. As Katz says, “Stay in the problem space.” This simply means that you have to solve one problem completely before moving on to the next challenge.

Too often, technology teams are so eager to get the product to market that they speed through phases, which can lead to rework or even flawed products. While large companies such as Microsoft or Apple can withstand an occasional less-than-perfect product introduction, for most companies that can be a catastrophe.

Another lesson—one of the most important Katz discussed—involves reducing uncertainty. Although uncertainty is both ubiquitous and difficult to measure, a leader’s job is to minimize uncertainty as much as possible. Katz explained that leaders can do this first by thinking about what generates uncertainty. He said that ambiguous communications are very often a root cause, because information is transferred through words, and organizations make critical decisions based on information they gather and synthesize every day. Therefore, leaders must be careful about the subjectivity and objectivity of the words they use. When communications are unclear, uncertainty spreads.

To illustrate this point, in class we watched a video re-creation of a real-life case in which a new team member, “Simon,” joins a company. Simon is a technological whiz kid who quickly solves several of the company’s longstanding problems, earning praise from his manager’s boss. But this leads the manager to become uneasy about his place in the company. His boss’ praise of Simon and a lack of communication leads him to believe he’ll be fired—and so he takes a job at another company. The manager’s job was never really in jeopardy; he was good at keeping people on track, while Simon had poor people skills. But the boss failed to reassure him and unfortunately the company lost a good manager through a lack of communication.
Senior Lecturer Ralph Katz
teaches the Human Side of

Another common cause of uncertainty is change, Katz says. People naturally do not like uncertainty and change can sometimes cause negative stress to an organization, making it less efficient.

Like professional athletes, organizations perform best when they are confident. In a technological organization, workers who are uncertain about the company’s future will be afraid to create, because they’re afraid to fail.

That’s why 3M, for example, gives its engineers time for outside projects. While there is structure in the defined program, the company gives people the space to think freely, without fear of failure. In contrast, putting employees in the position of simply reacting and fire-fighting spells doom for an organization. In the most exteme cases, uncertainty can not only lead to a loss of focus and creativity, it can lead the company to lose its best people. The leader’s job, therefore, is to build confidence in the company’s vision and to reduce uncertainty as much as possible to foster a more efficient and harmonious organization.

The last lesson I want to share is from my introduction to SDM back in January 2010. Leaders frequently ask questions to get the information they need to make decisions, but it’s inappropriate to ask subordinates every trivial question. We were taught that each person must pick the right question to stimulate creative thought. So, the first task is to ask yourself: Is this question relevant—will it really help address the root issue? This process may save valuable time and give deeper insights into vexing problems.

Looking back on my 18-month SDM experience, the Human Side of Technology was one of my favorite classes. Katz has energy and style, and although I doubt he thinks he is entertaining, I suspect most of my cohort enjoyed more than a few chuckles in class.

Along the way, we also learned valuable lessons, as noted above. Katz made us remember that technology cannot happen without people and that technology companies must have leaders that focus the organization on its goals. Although uncertainty cannot be eliminated, leaders must try to reduce it as much as possible. In the end, success is about people, teams, and how you motivate them to reach their potential.

I’ve been in my current job almost three months now, and the benefits of some of Katz’s concepts are very clear—particulary focus. I am responsible for leading six teams with more 100 people in approximately seven different locations. Keeping them focused is very difficult, but it is important to successfully completing key tasks. “Remaining in the problem space” is also vital. One of the reasons I believe failure occurs is rushing to completion without properly investigating the problem. I am now trying to apply SDM lessons to my team’s operations every day.

January 2010 was 18 months ago but some lessons stay with you forever. Thanks Professor K!

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