IT Professionals, Meet Admiral Stockdale

Admiral James Stockdale
Admiral James Stockdale

This is a repost of an article I wrote and published on LinkedIn.

We’ve all used the terms train wreck, doom, tailspin, and death march to describe runaway software projects. While those involved might feel that a world of responsibility is crushing them, I think that might be a little melodramatic. Let’s face it: as IT professionals, we wouldn’t last a half hour on a real death march.

In a recent post Dennis K. Berman added quite a bit of furor to the debate over whether IT departments should control access to technology. As a participant on both sides of that debate throughout my career, I’d like to weigh in with my thoughts on how this debate should end.

That is why I invoke Admiral James Stockdale. Admiral Stockdale was one of the highest ranking POWs in the Vietnam era. When asked by Jim Collins, author of Good to Great, what differentiated the POWs that made it through from the ones who did not, Admiral Stockdale replied the ones who made it faced the brutal facts of their existence, but had an unwavering confidence in the end game.

This life lesson, called the Stockdale Paradox, has an application in this debate that rages between IT professionals and people who feel frustrated by IT. Here’s how I break it down.

Face the Brutal Facts

The first order of business is the brutal fact of the matter. Information technology will find a way into your perimeter.

Whether it is your factory worker bringing a tablet in to help calculate heat treat durations, or the marketing guy who knows some outside people that can help him develop a killer sales app, we can take lessons from the whole BYOD phenomenon. There is a constant onslaught from outside your organization, and there is a constant pull from inside.

I’ve seen this movie before. Disruptive technology and the drive to use it gets the girl. So, let’s face that brutal fact. While we may resist by putting up fences and writing memoranda, inevitably we are faced with integrating that pesky new technology into our system landscape. We are frustrated because we are reacting to it. Once we are forced to adopt it and take it under our wing, we have to take our valuable, limited time to learn the particular new risks and disadvantages.

Have Unwavering Confidence in the End Game

There is a common goal between IT professionals and their adversaries in this matter. Everyone wants to see the customer win.

We stand on the verge of societal transformation more significant than the invention of the mechanisms that transport us and labor for us. Information technology is augmenting our senses and our cognitive abilities. Computational power enables us to extend our reach to places mere engines cannot go. It is a most exciting time, and as IT professionals, we are in the most exciting profession.

It is not biologists that are sequencing the human genome. They cannot do that on their own. They need computers. Many very fast computers. It is not astrophysicists that are discovering life outside Earth’s atmosphere and outside our solar system. They cannot do that on their own. They need programmers. Many sharp programmers.

Possibly more mundane than the technological heroes listed above, your customers have their own windmills and it is your duty to help them tilt away. Whether it is building social media applications or helping a company do more with less, it is our role to bring technology to bear on society’s difficult problems and advance the cause of our employers.

You and that irritating guy from the sales department who keeps trying to post his spreadsheet on the internet are both working for the same cause. The end game is that you will help him achieve his goals by helping him use the right technology. People who try to thwart IT professionals are not doing it to be mean or spiteful. They have a job to do and they see technology as an enabler. As IT professionals we need to shift focus from always saying “No” to saying “Okay, but….”

We need to help the layman understand the risks involved and help them navigate an admittedly complex task. We cannot continue to stymie, stupefy and stifle. New technology will find a way to help our customers. It will be best if we are there to assist the transformation.