MISA 2011: How municipal IT leaders can drive change

MISSISSAGUA, Ont. – Shortly after finishing their lunch at the Ontario chapter of the Municipal Information Systems Association’s annual conference on Monday, a room filled with local government IT leaders were asked to stand up, turn away from the person next to them, and change 12 things about themselves.

Almost immediately there were loud, incredulous murmurs, and a few people who began adjusting neckties and taking off jackets, before the man on stage, public speaking coach Craig Valentine, went a little easier on the MISA 2011 audience. “Okay, how about two things?” he suggested. After a few moments, everyone in the audience turned back to their partner and had to guess what was different.

It may have seemed like an exercise in paying attention to people, but Valentine, who spent his previous career as a successful sales executive for Glencoe/McGraw-Hill, had a deeper point. “What if I had said, ‘Now change two more.’ You could have come up with something,” he said. “And then if I’d asked you to change two more, you would have done it again, right? So why was it so bad when I asked you to change 12 things at once? Too much change too soon. Better to change small, and often.”

MISA 2011, which is being hosted by Peel Region, has a theme this year of “Fly IT High,” and Valentine told the audience that everyone in a management role was really a salesperson. More specifically, they’re selling ideas. The problem, however, happens when someone tries to sell an idea the way someone once tried to sell Valentine a car: by talking about the engine, the breaks and how good on gas it was. He didn’t buy the car, he said, until he saw it again at a different lot, was approached by a different salesman, and was told instead how good he would look in it and how attractive it would make him to women.

“The pitch worked. And he lied!” joked Valentine. “The point here: sell the result. Never sell a product. Never sell a service. Never sell a technology.”

Valentine acknowledged that IT professionals often face stiff resistance to change of any kind, particularly from coworkers or senior managers who walk into a meeting with a negative outlook. He told a story of when his daughter was born, and she wouldn’t hold still to be weighed by the doctor. The doctor suggested Valentine told his daughter and stand on the scale, then stand on the scale without his daughter and subtract the difference to learn her weight. When he did, he was surprised by his own weight.

“I thought, ‘This is one fat baby!’” he said. “It’s almost in our DNA to blame somebody else. When we don’t get what we want, it’s other people who often don’t measure up . . . what I’ve learned is, average people place blame. Exceptional people take it.”

The trick to driving change may be to act like a pilot, Valentine suggested. If pilots got as skittish about turbulence as some passengers do, everyone would be looking for the exit. IT professionals need to project a similar sense of calm and poise, he said, and focus on reminding other people of their importance rather than trumpeting their own. And don’t avoid obstacles because some coworkers may be slow to adjust to disruptive technologies or new IT-driven processes, he said.

“When we make excuses for someone, we invite them never to change,” he said.

In a public thank-you to Valentine, City of Brampton CIO Rob Meikle said the keynote address reminded all MISA attendees not to accept “good” instead of “great” and to dream big. “You spoke to us as individuals and as an organization,” he said.

MISA 2011, which is sponsored in part by IT World Canada, continues through Wednesday.

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