The Grill: Frank Wander

Create a relaxed environment and watch IT people excel, says Guardian's CIO.

In my experience, the best creative work is never done when one is unhappy."

So said Albert Einstein, whom Frank Wander, CIO and senior vice president at Guardian Life Insurance in New York, likes to quote when talking about his unique approach to running a successful IT organization. Too many IT departments are run like 20th century factories -- with most of the emphasis on equipment rather than on people, who are largely regarded as interchangeable parts. In contrast, Wander, a biologist by training, is a firm believer in the deep brain connections between IT productivity and innovation and working in a relaxed, stress-free and collaborative environment. Wander is currently writing a book on the subject, which he has tentatively titled Professional Intimacy.

What is "professional intimacy"? In its simplest form, professional intimacy is understanding all of the different competencies and knowledge that define productivity in IT -- whether it's an individual doing his job, a team of folks, or the intimate understanding of a manager about the team and how to make it work well.

You've talked about "industrial baggage" in IT and how most IT organizations run on an approach inherited from a bygone era. How do you think IT should run? The better approach is to actually understand that it is teams of people with intimate knowledge in many areas working together that end up creating value. "Industrial baggage" refers to what used to matter most -- investment in capital equipment and the processes of the efficiency movement à la Frederick Taylor. Back then, people were incidental. Now, we're 65 years into the information economy. What is most expensive is not the capital equipment, but the people themselves. The better approach has got to be an unrelenting focus on people and how to make them productive.

Peter Drucker says we must do for knowledge work what we did for manual work in the 20th century. I came to understand this having done many IT turnarounds.

Tell me more about that. The most fundamental and missing ingredient was trust. There was a breakdown in the social cohesion of the group. Instead of focusing on mistakes, you've got to focus on the message that mistakes are OK, but repeated mistakes are not.

The challenge is how to create an environment where people are relaxed and trusting.

And how does a lack of trust manifest in IT departments? It manifests in very low rates of IT project success. Gartner just came out with IT metrics data from 2010. In the insurance industry, 52% of IT projects are completed on time and 54% are completed on budget. If you create an environment where you remove the stressors and where people can relax, you enhance the degree of cohesion among the team so they're freed up to do cognitive work. It's then that you get a high degree of delivery. People who are incredibly relaxed get into flow and create an incredible amount. That's where the breakthroughs over time have come from. I think this is absolutely linked to innovation. People didn't invent anything while they were under stress.

How does this work at Guardian? Guardian runs consistently in the 90s -- usually 94% on time, on budget [with IT projects], and we have a very tough, aggressive development agenda. What we've created is an environment I call a collaborative social system. We build all the core competencies that people need to do their jobs. We hire good talent, and we make sure the cohesive environment is one where people can absolutely excel. That's the recipe for great IT.

Where do you start? You've got to make collaboration an absolutely core value and a core competency of the organization. There will be people who do not fit into the social or work environment you're creating. I call them socially corrosive individuals. A team-based environment with a high degree of socialization is not suitable for them. You can either design a role for them or they find someplace else to go work.

How do you identify these people? I ask people to tell me about the last three times they had a conflict and what they did about it. People are very revealing. I ask them what they think are the underpinnings of success in IT. The right people are those who understand that you need collaboration, mutual trust and acceptance for others' ideas and opinions. That said, I don't always hire perfectly, because it's a bit of an art. But most people want to work in an environment that's collaborative, because people are social animals. At their essence, humans do know how to combine into groups. Most people want to be in an environment that's trust-based. It's a very healthy environment.

And then what, after you hire socially oriented talent? You have to have an organizational design that very much encourages or creates an environment where there is a high degree of collaboration and teamwork. At Guardian, we have IT embedded in the business. They're collaborating in two directions. The business sees them as on their team, not as IT. They see the stuff that [IT] people are working on as their business. At the same time, we have cross-functional collaboration, so IT is vertically collaborating with business partners but also collaborating across IT. Organizational design is incredibly important.

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