Sean Boots

Technology, public services, and people. But mostly people.

“If your technology leadership is more into blockchain than user needs, you’re doomed.”

Leadership of technology-powered organizations is different than technology leadership

Matthew Cain in the UK published a great blog post recently titled “Leadership in a digital age”. It included an observation that I found particularly eye-opening, on the difference between technology leadership and leadership of technology-powered organizations:

So what does it take to lead an organisation towards adopting the practices, cultures and technology of the internet-era to respond to people’s ever-increasing expectations? Rarely a training course in technology.

It does require credible, collaborative and unrelenting technology leadership. You can’t be an organisation fit for the 21st century on premise. If your technology leadership is more into blockchain than user needs, you’re doomed. If your technology leaders can’t connect with staff handing down infosec judgements from on-high, no amount of McKinsey can save you. But that’s fixable.

Technology leadership and leadership of an organisation powered by technology aren’t the same and pitching the former to the latter won’t appeal. So what are the broader attributes required of organisation and system leadership to foster a truly digital culture?

(Plus, I’m automatically a fan of any blog post that includes a dig at blockchain.)

Matthew’s post outlines a series of leadership attributes for digital leaders and organizations:

  • taking a customer view and looking at gaps in their current experience
  • understanding that outcomes are complex and that things that worked in one place can’t necessarily be replicated elsewhere
  • managing change towards ambiguous futures and carrying uncertainty for others
  • knowing that openness is a prerequisite for innovation, and being open by default

These attributes remind me in a lot of ways of Public Digital’s “Internet-era ways of working” post from 2018, one of my favourite blog posts. Gergely Orosz’s post describing Silicon Valley companies’ approach to software engineering teams (autonomy, curious problem-solving, and transparency) is also a great related read.

Thinking about leadership in public sector organizations, the lack of digital expertise is something that often comes to mind. Coming from the tech industry, something that has tripped me up before is the expectation that senior executives (in any government organization) will be able to tell the difference between good and bad technology approaches or solutions. That’s a root cause of a lot of technology failures in government, and the usual conclusion is that senior public service leaders need more technology expertise or training.

Matthew’s post is an interesting counterpoint, that having a deeper understanding of technology products or systems may not actually lead to a more effective digital-era organization. Technology expertise is not the same as “running a user needs-focused organization that works well” expertise. Leaders that are empathetic, humble enough to learn from their teams, and interested in customers’ experiences and how to improve them may be better suited to leading organizations than strictly tech-focused leaders.

Leadership density, or leadership signal vs. noise

One of the challenges of public sector digital work is the sheer number of processes, groups, and people that any given initiative has to go through to make it out the door. These gatekeeper-type processes mean that even if a particular team or division has a great leader (or set of leaders), that isn’t sufficient to see a project succeed.

“Leadership density” is one way of thinking about how this works out in practice – how many of the decision-makers involved in oversight, gatekeeping, or green-lighting a project are enablers rather than blockers? How many of the decision-makers involved speed things up rather than slow things down? Mapping that out in a given organization or for a given project can give an early hint of how likely it is to succeed or not.

One solution to this is to incrementally reduce the number of gatekeeper processes or stakeholders that a project needs to go through to ship (towards single ownership and accountability for project outcomes). The other solution is a comprehensive effort to upskill or replace public sector organizations’ leadership cadre, to eventually achieve a set of leaders who all share the attributes that Matthew describes above.