Don't stifle new IT leaders' abilities by being risk averse

Give new IT management a fighting chance by fostering a culture that supports change. If you don't, it could lead to business failure.



The long-running The Tonight Show, a U.S. late-night talk show, recently changed hosts from Jay Leno to fellow comedian Jimmy Fallon. The show has been on the air in the U.S. in various guises since the 1950s and adopted its current format when Johnny Carson was host in the 1960s. 

Despite major changes in media, from the rise of reality TV and death of the newspaper to Internet companies producing television series, The Tonight Show has stuck with its 1960s era format and attempted to bring on new management to revive its flagging ratings. Like a small business that proudly hangs an "under new management" banner from the front door yet keeps the tired décor, poor product selection, and surly staff, there's more to change than a few new faces at the top.

The importance of culture to innovation

In a people-centric business such as IT, switching management can often have a profound effect. However, if you're on your second or third management swap in a short period, it's worth looking at the environment surrounding the leader and not just replacing bodies.

Even the most effective restaurant manager can't fix a struggling business if he or she is not allowed to change a bad tasting dish or a dated menu. Similarly, if your organization has a culture that punishes risk taking, or requires the consensus of everyone from the CEO to the mailroom clerk to execute on a decision, a new leader brought in to inspire innovation will be swimming against the current at best and be utterly ineffective at worst.

New leaders are generally brought in to encourage some sort of change, and a culture that permits that change is vital to their success. In many cases, you may need a stopgap solution of some sort, bringing in management that can shake up and reset the culture and set the stage for a longer-term leader who can operate successfully within the new culture.

A sitting leader might even be able to accomplish the changes you desire when you metaphorically "change the show format." A new strategy, a shift in metrics and measures, a change in upper management, or some combination might be enough to engender the change you're looking for without requiring major people changes.

Examine the surroundings

While The Tonight Show is moving locations from Los Angeles to New York, the format and sets remain largely the same and, interestingly, the "new" set is in the studio that Johnny Carson used decades ago. 

As you consider new management to shake up a calcified organization, pause for a moment and examine whether the surroundings are the same. Processes and support functions that have been around for decades, only growing more cumbersome with time, are much like a hackneyed television format, where even the best talent looks a bit tired next to a worn or overused set format.

Work with the talent

The reformatted The Tonight Show is still in its infancy, so it remains to be seen whether new host Jimmy Fallon can revive flagging viewership and a moribund format. It will be interesting to see how he imparts his own personal style on the show, and whether he'll drastically modify the format to reengage audiences. It may be tempting for the owners of the show to tie their new host in a Gordian Knot of sorts, banking on his talent to revitalize the show, yet clinging to past success and forcing him to remain within a narrowly-defined format.

Like The Tonight Show, there's a very real risk the leaders will bring in new management that may be incredibly talented (and correspondingly expensive) and then demand that they make only limited changes to the company. Mandating that new management not be able to shake up existing teams and organizational structures, change organizational policy, or provide strategic input to decisions that affect his or her organization is a great way to put a new face on what will ultimately be a failing organization.