Do You Know Where You Want to Go?

Research being done with hundreds of IT practitioners in association with the IT Leadership Academy at Florida Community College at Jacksonville indicates that the current mental models whirring away inside the heads of many key business executives aren't conducive to maximum IT value creation.

Then there's the problem with the IT mental cases. They aren't mad scientists performing unnatural acts with bits of silicon and chunks of software, nor are they disgruntled users driven to absolute witlessness by machines that don't work as intended. An IT mental case is the set of arguments, data and frameworks one uses to attempt to change someone's mental model. The problem? Many IT leaders have a poor track record when it comes to making the mental cases that can change minds.

And here's one more term for you: future map. That's a one-page picture designed to help you figure out where you have been, where you are and where you want to go. A well-drawn future map can get you out of the deep hole that a toxic mental model may have placed you in. The IT Leadership Academy research shows that well-drawn future maps aren't in place in most organizations.

The IT Leadership Academy has found that organizations whose overall performance was rated poor to average tended not to know what or how business executives thought about IT or why business executives thought about IT the way they did. What's more, the mental models that were embedded in the minds of executives at these organizations weren't put there by IT -- they were either preconceived biases or the result of hype by vendors, consultants, analysts or the media.

High-performance IT organizations, in contrast, had exceptional visibility into the thought processes of executives on the business side. Great IT leaders spend a lot of time inside the heads of their business associates. These leaders understand that mental models drive workplace behaviors and that if we can better understand those models, we have a better chance of changing those behaviors.

Within the minds of some business executives lie toxic, value-destroying mental models regarding IT. Some executives, for example, believe that IT, and IT alone, is responsible for coming up with ideas regarding how technology can improve or change the business. Many of these executives also refuse to discipline employees who repeatedly exhibit bad information management behavior and are unwilling to participate in shared services initiatives.

An underused tool in reshaping such mental models, future mapping is a growth area for most organizations. My colleagues at the IT Leadership Academy and I were surprised to learn that only 40% of the companies surveyed had one-page "alpha visuals" -- IT maps. Of the 40% with maps, only half used them aggressively to communicate with constituencies outside of the IT department.

Some organizations had prose versions but no visuals capturing where IT had been, where IT was and where IT was going.

As IT leaders, we have to become much more proactive in creating the maps that can help us make the IT mental case that will change the mental models that drive business-unit behaviors regarding high-value technology.

Thornton A. May is a longtime industry observer, management consultant and commentator. Contact him at


Copyright © 2004 IDG Communications, Inc.

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