Why Soft Sciences Are Flawed and Good Solutions

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Manager's Path" by Camille Fournier. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What does strategic management look like in information technology? When you’re managing an engineering team, how can you plan for success?

Strategic management of information technology involves learning how to prioritize projects, divide tasks, and foresee future challenges. A manager must plan engineering strategy with business goals in mind.

Read on to learn strategic technology management skills in engineering.

Planning Engineering Strategy in Early Management Roles

The first skill that you need in the strategic management of information technology is how to select projects for your team. Part of this responsibility is turning down projects that would overwhelm your team or stop them from completing their other tasks. Fournier says engineering managers often have to turn down projects when their superiors—for instance, the company’s owner or board of directors—lack technological knowledge and therefore propose unrealistic projects.

(Shortform note: Turning down unrealistic and overwhelming tasks is economically and personally important, one study says. Overworked employees are less productive, have worse physical and mental health, and struggle to manage their lives outside of work. This is relevant to you in strategic technology management, as over 20% of people in computer and mathematical science work over 40 hours a week, on average, while almost 15% work over 45 hours a week. Turning down unrealistic and overwhelming tasks can ensure that your team members don’t follow this pattern and instead work a healthy and productive number of hours.)

Fournier discusses a couple of important elements of deciding when to turn down a project:

1. Understand how much work your team can reasonably complete. Your team won’t be 100% focused on completing new projects all the time. Make sure you factor time for other activities—such as meetings and system maintenance—into your scheduling so you can accurately assess whether your team can accept a new project.

(Shortform note: You may struggle to factor these activities into your team’s schedule if you consider them less important than your team’s engineering-related projects. Some business experts say that less important tasks are easy to neglect because our brains forget information we don’t consider important, making room for what we do consider important. You can better remember these tasks by forming associations and triggering reminders. For instance, you may classify meetings and system maintenance as “administrative” and then schedule a daily block of time to complete administrative tasks. Then, whenever you look at your schedule, you’ll see that block of time and remember all the tasks you’ve put under the administrative heading. Strategic management of information technology requires you to prioritize administrative tasks as well as engineering tasks.)

2. Figure out what you can cut from your projects. Sometimes, you’ll be able to partially accept a new project: You can complete it, but only if you cut some features or deadlines from the new project or your existing projects. Thus, you need to know which elements of your new and existing projects are truly necessary and which are less important. If you can’t cut anything, you’ll have to turn the new project down.

Engineering Strategy: Avoiding Ineffective Projects

Other software experts add that you might have to turn down projects from your superiors because they’re ineffective, as well as potentially unrealistic. Software is often used to automate company processes, letting computers handle simple tasks while employees focus on more important ones. However, this kind of automation (called robotic process automation or RPA) only works with simple, fixed processes. Automating complex or unstable processes wastes time and resources, as your team must constantly fix errors and update the software.

Fournier focuses on how you can handle problematic projects as a part of strategic technology management, accepting, editing, or turning them down as they’re requested. In contrast, these software experts recommend a companywide solution: People from the engineering department should be involved in the initial decisions on which processes to automate (which projects to request, in Fournier’s framing) along with the company’s top leadership. That way, they can ensure that all projects are effective (and, arguably, realistic) before the request is sent to individual teams, instead of negotiating and altering the project afterward.

Strategic Planning of Information Technology as a Senior Manager or Director

As you’re promoted and your responsibilities grow, prioritization becomes increasingly important to the planning process. Fournier says it’s easy to neglect some responsibilities once you reach these levels because you’re so busy. Prioritization ensures you complete the most important tasks, so if you do run out of time, only minor tasks go unfinished.

To prioritize, focus on completing tasks that are both urgent and important. Urgent tasks must be addressed immediately, whereas important tasks are essential parts of your job but are often overlooked because they’re less time-sensitive than urgent tasks. You can have tasks that are both urgent and important, either one, or neither. Strategic planning of information technology requires that you differentiate between projects that can be done now and projects that can be done in the future.

Once you’ve completed tasks that are both urgent and important, Fournier recommends doing tasks that are important but not urgent. For example, if you’re a CFO, reviewing the accounting department’s financial reports is important, as it lets you fine-tune your financial strategy. This task may go uncompleted, though, if the company is small enough that you don’t have to submit the reports to the government—you don’t have a deadline, so it’s not obviously time-sensitive. In contrast, attending a meeting that doesn’t actually require your presence is urgent but not important: You have limited time to attend, but your job won’t be affected if you don’t. Since attending the meeting is obviously time-sensitive, you’ll be tempted to prioritize it anyway.

Fournier particularly recommends this method when you’re promoted to engineering director, since this promotion often leads to a sharp increase in responsibilities. However, she also stresses the importance of continuing to prioritize as you move to managing large groups and your responsibilities continue to grow.

Your specific title and responsibilities as you’re promoted will depend on your company. However, one of your tasks may be setting the company’s technology strategy if you’re in the CTO position. A technology strategy is a plan for how the engineering department and the company as a whole will develop in the future, Fournier says. Strong strategic planning of information technology at this level helps the company withstand change and remain successful long term.

Why Strategic Planning Skills Are Increasingly Important

Strategic planning skills are arguably more important now than ever, as companies speed up their plans to adopt new technology after the Covid-19 pandemic disrupted workflows. One study showed that companies have accelerated their digital communications strategies by an average of six years, an extremely rapid change that requires equally rapid adaptation—and arguably senior managers who adapt quickly themselves and have strong leadership skills to help the company do the same.

In addition, business experts say this rapid digitization requires all managers in the company to help with technology adoption, not just senior engineering managers. This arguably makes it even more important for senior engineering managers to work well with their non-engineering peers, as they have the knowledge about technology and its possible effects on the company that their non-engineering peers need. For example, Chief Financial Officers need senior engineering managers to help them understand and plan for ways that technology may change companies’ finances.

To create a strong technology strategy, you must predict several ways your department and the company could develop. This includes predicting what problems may appear, what new directions your superiors might steer the company in, and how your department’s choices might affect the rest of the company. Then, create contingency plans to handle each of these situations, so that no matter what happens, you’ll be prepared.

For example, you may predict the following developments: 

  1. One of your suppliers goes out of business.
  2. Your superiors decide to switch the company to a subscription payment model.
  3. The engineering department decides to switch to a new coding language.

Therefore, you create the following contingency plans: 

  1. You build a database of potential suppliers from which to choose replacements if needed.
  2. When teams are between projects, you have them adjust the company’s infrastructure to support a subscription model if needed.
  3. Going forward, you only hire engineers who already know the new coding language to ease the potential switch.
Predicting the Future in Business

In Only the Paranoid Survive, Andrew Grove agrees that predicting the future and creating contingency plans is important to remaining successful. However, while Fournier discusses this task in the context of one department, Grove takes a companywide view. He assigns the role of predicting the future to the company’s top leadership and recommends they monitor every part of the company so they can factor all potential changes into their plans.

To make company-wide predictions, Grove offers a broader range of areas to consider. In addition to predicting potential problems, new directions, and the effects of your department’s choices on the company, he suggests considering the following:

1. Future competitors: Tracking newcomers to your industry lets you prepare to defend your successful position if they grow large enough to be a true competitor.
2. Government policies: Tracking government policies before they’re implemented lets you prepare for changes in your industry’s requirements and laws.
3. Adjacent businesses: Tracking progress in adjacent businesses (for example, a battery store and a flashlight store) lets you recognize when another industry is about to go through a change that could affect you, so you can prepare to adapt.

Often, strategic planning of information technology will require you to factor in these and other influences coming from outside the company. This is where working with other leaders in the company outside of the engineering department is particularly helpful.
Strategic Management in Information Technology

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Becca King

Becca’s love for reading began with mysteries and historical fiction, and it grew into a love for nonfiction history and more. Becca studied journalism as a graduate student at Ohio University while getting their feet wet writing at local newspapers, and now enjoys blogging about all things nonfiction, from science to history to practical advice for daily living.

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