We need to get back to leading, says Medtronic CIO

Medical device-maker Medtronic's IT head says tech chiefs need to take the initiative

When IT executive James Dallas attended his first NASCAR race about ten years ago, he learned some fast lessons — not about driving stock cars at high speed, but about fostering innovation within a technology organisation.

At that first race, Dallas listened to radio communications between the drivers and their pit crews as they plotted race strategies. What he found, he said in an opening keynote speech at Computerworld US’s recent Premier 100 IT Leaders Conference, is that NASCAR teams “are constantly striving to be innovative. They’re always looking for an edge.”

Corporate IT departments need to adopt the same kind of mentality, says Dallas, who now is CIO at Medtronic, a maker of medical devices.

And it has to start from the top. “CIOs have to get back to leading,” he said, noting that top IT executives need to be able to find creative, intelligent and passionate people within their organisations “and give them air cover so they can go out and be innovative”.

Neither part of that equation is easy, according to Dallas, who noted that workers who come up with the best ideas “are usually a pain in the ass”. And just having ideas isn’t good enough —employees need to be highly committed to them to make projects work. IT managers have to “learn how to judge the person as well as an idea.”

He learned that lesson from Medtronic’s CEO, who left him sitting in a waiting room for four scheduled meetings. When Dallas persisted and requested a fifth meeting, the CEO accepted the request within two minutes.

Now Dallas himself tells IT workers “no” when they first propose ideas to him. “I want to see who has passion — who won’t give up.”

Giving workers the time and resources necessary for innovative technology work can be difficult within companies that have been burned by high rates of IT project failures, especially on rollouts of ERP systems, Dallas said. Other potential roadblocks include downsizing and outsourcing initiatives, and mergers and acquisitions that force IT departments to focus on integration work.

With most IT budgets not growing by leaps and bounds, “one of the things we have to get good at is hiding the dollars that are going to innovation — we have to get good at playing three-card monte.”

That’s a lesson many IT executives have already learned, according to an audience poll at the conference following Dallas’ speech. Fifty-five percent of the 165 people who responded said they have secret budget stashes earmarked for spending on technology innovation.

Dallas said CIOs also need to spend more time with internal users and external customers, make sure that IT vendors share in project risks and get better at communicating the value of IT in terms business managers understand. Then they need to keep projects on their radar screens and put a stop to the ones that aren’t working out.

What’s clear, Dallas said, is that using IT simply to cut costs isn’t enough to achieve true business success. “If it’s all about cost you won’t get to heaven — you won’t go to hell, but this is about getting to heaven.”

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