Can CEOs meaningfully guide technology work?

Leading, shaping, and guiding technology work is hard, even for technologists who spend all day doing it.  So, it seems the all-too-busy CEOs don’t stand a chance at effectively shaping their companies’ technical work.  And it’s not just the non-technologist CEOs who have a problem; the technologist CEOs also have a problem, as they don’t have sufficient time to dig deeply into the details or stay current on the state-of-the-art.  So, as a CEO, technologist or not, it is difficult to meaningfully lead, shape, and guide technical work.

So why is this technology stuff so hard to shape and guide?  Well, here are a few reasons: technologies have their own set of arcane languages, each with many dialects (and no dictionary); they have their own technology-centric acronyms that technologists mix and match as they see fit; and they are full of long-forgotten formulae.  And these formulae are composed of strange math shapes and symbols.  And, as if to elevate confusion to stratospheric levels, the math symbols are Greek letters.  So, literally, this technology stuff is written in Greek.  So what’s an all-too-busy CEO to do? It seems a CEO has no other option than to take a TRUST-based approach.  The CEO must trust the technologists — trust the VPs of technology; trust the fellows; and trust the chief scientists.  The hope is that technologists who have delivered before will deliver again.  However, this trust-based approach is not a good one, as it puts a CEO at the mercy of the technologists.

Some CEOs will say they don’t take a trust-base approach, that they do it better.  They will say something like “I hold regular reviews of the technical work, so I know the real problems and I know how we’re going to solve them”.  To that I say:  The VP presenting to you doesn’t know the problems or how to solve them, so they can’t tell you what’s really going on.  That long and beautiful PowerPoint presentation does not capture the essence of the problems; it only dilutes the problems.

There is a better way – a way to distill problems rather than dilute them; to clearly, simply, and unambiguously define problems using words we can all understand; to trust, but verify.  I call it One Page Thinking.

One Page Thinking is a method to define a problem at its most basic level so that everyone can understand it.  There are a couple simple rules for One Page Thinking:

1.  Each problem must be defined on one page.

2.  There can be only one problem on a page.


Here is an example of One Page Thinking for the problem of being overweight.


 one page thinking

The physical elements of the system are represented as blocks labeled with nouns (PERSON, FOOD, CALORIES); the actions are represented as arrows labeled with verbs (EATS, PROVIDES, POWER).  The undesirable action is represented by a red arrow and an X in front of the verb (X MAKE).

All technical problems – even complicated ones – can be distilled into this type of simple diagram, but it can only be done if your technical staff truely understands the problem.  True understanding is required to translate complex physics and math into simple nouns and verbs and to translate complex interactions into straightforward block diagrams.  And, likely most importantly, true understanding is required to stand up in front of a CEO with only a single slide consisting of a block diagram and simple nouns and verbs.

So, if you want to find out if your technical staff understands the problem at hand, ask them for a one page block diagram using simple nouns and verbs.

2 Responses to “Can CEOs meaningfully guide technology work?”

  • Jose Insenser:

    Excellent advise. I would add -in order to reinforce mutual trust- that, for the technologist to know the CEO is able to take a decision, he should raise a good question based on the explanation provided. The good ones often point to the weakest or riskier parts of the problem without being briefed on them (due to lack of time, of course).

  • Mike:

    Jose, I agree. The technologist must reach toward the CEO and the CEO must reach toward the technologist. Mike

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