A third essential book: Building a Second Brain

For a long time, when I’ve had the chance to recommend books to people starting on their leadership journey, I’ve recommended one about how to manage ourselves and how to manage our work.

The first book, the starter on how to live our lives is Stephen Covey‘s “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.” I had the privilege of being in Dr. Covey’s seminars with him personally on two occasions and I am sorry for all those who cannot see him live anymore. One of the important take aways from that book is about developing a personal mission statement and I grudgingly did that in his seminar because I did not really believe in its value. I refer to that document everyday and it guides my thinking everyday. I call them my five “F”s — Faith, Family, Fatherhood, Friendship, and Freedom. It’s a foundational read and I reread it every couple of years.

The second book — David Allen‘s “Getting Things Done” — guides how I keep up with all my projects and tasks and its organizational schema and logic have served me exceptionally well over the years. It’s foundational idea – to get things out of short-term memory (RAM) and into a trusted system brilliantly recognizes the flaw of trying to keep everything you need to do in your brain instead of thinking you’ll remember things.

I’ve come across a third book that I am excited to think might be a worthy companion to these two, if I am ever called upon to make this kind of recommendation again. Tiago Forte‘s “Building a Second Brain” covers a terrific methodology for how to handle the firehose of inputs we receive each day. The way we work and acquire knowledge had changed the same way the news cycle has changed. As a kid I had a daily newspaper and a half hour evening news show. Now we have multiple 24×7 streams of news channels, web sites, podcasts, etc. And we still have to be effective in this flood of information. If Covey tells us how to set our values and behave as leaders, and Allen tells us how to keep up with our outputs, Forte provides a methodology for keeping up and creating value from our inputs. One of the things I love about it, the core idea layering on to my systems, is that information stored in our second brain (notes in our electronic systems) must be actionable towards our projects and goals.

I’m not through reading it yet, but I think I’ve found a golden set of ideas and I wanted to share it.

I’d welcome your thoughts on the books you would recommend to a new leader.

More later of course.


Software I Miss #2

No, this isn’t my periodic whine about Eudora. It’s about a useful little utility I used all the time called DragThing.

DragThing was a Macintosh application that presented a persistent, highly customizable shortcut window. It died when Apple released Catalina which no longer had the APIs needed for it to run.

I know it was part of a broader catalog called launchers and most people just hit a key combination to select apps to launch or use the Mac Dock (which I acknowledge is persistent). I’ve tried uBar and dozens of other good launchers. I do like the Mac Launchpad which feels very cool and Linux-like.

But the thing that I loved about DragThing was it enabled me to group apps into workflows. And documents. And anything else that could be launched with a click. Once upon a time before System X, you could organize your Mac apps into folders to accomplish something similar. And yes, I can do something similar with aliases.

But durn it, there was this piece of software that did exactly what I wanted, exactly the way I wanted it. So DragThing is “Software I Miss ™” Number Two.


I was listening to a sports podcast yesterday as we were out for our morning walk.  They were discussing how a formerly successful coach had failed to evolve with the times and was instead stuck trying to do things that had previously made them successful.  And that wasn’t working very well for them or for their team.

So, of course, I’ve spent the day thinking about ensuring we are evolving and not stuck in a rut.  I learned some time ago that I had to be intentional about not going to my comfortable zones and challenging myself to not spend time repeating previous successes.  But now I’m contemplating these three questions:

  1. What are the best CIO’s out there doing that I should be doing (i.e., what is the state of play in our business)?  In other words, how do I ensure I am constantly modernizing my best practices?
  2. What previously successful strategies do I need to retire because they are outdated and not likely to produce the same success they did in the past?
  3. What best practices are constants that still need emphasis?

I hesitate to talk about these as a CIO2Do because this is pretty personal work.  We all need to find ways to keep our game sharp and to make our best contributions and we probably are all somewhat blinded by past successes.

One of my favorite stories illustrates this point.  I used to tell this story as an insight into different organizational cultures. At one job, based on employee input, I procured very nice high-walled cubicles for a team that saw itself as heads down developers.  They asked for an environment that let them concentrate and permission to use chat tools to collaborate.  When I arrived at my next job and tried to run that same play from my playbook, I was shocked that my team was deeply upset by the proposed new environment until I realized they wanted an environment where they could collaborate face to face and saw the cubicles as a disruptive negative.  The leadership insight I took from that experience was that even the best intentions are only successful when aligned to a great understanding of organizational culture.

Through the lens of evolution, I’d re-assess that lesson to say that I should not have even tried to replicate the cubicle strategy because it had been successful earlier in my career.  I’d also say the constant values – listening to the employee needs and trying to meet them would not ever go out of best practice and that is where to start when trying to improve the environment for your team.  Of course in the new remote work world, this could be a powerful insight into helping build an environment where your team feels valued and empowered to be successful.



On the urgency of AI

I’ve had a number of conversations of late about the future of IT and about the post-pandemic world. One theme keeps coming up, the way Artificial Intelligence is going to transform our work and lives.

Oh sure, there’s some fear in those conversations. Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics often come up. I’m partial to Frank Herbert’s Dune and its concerns about how technology can limit humanity. I do think we need to be thoughtful about how and when we use AI, but I don’t think we need to be afraid of it.

I also get really excited when I see brilliance in automation such as displayed by Larry Ellison in his 2019 OracleWorld keynote (highly recommended: here). What they are doing to automate systems, security and databases is amazing.

More importantly, what we need to be doing is to get started. Today’s CIO2Do™ is about finding an AI project that can develop your team’s AI muscles. Unleash some skunkworks projects, challenge your student workers to create something, answer a random vendor email to see what they can offer. But do something. We have to get started on this because it is the future of IT.  I know most of my colleagues at larger schools probably have something going in the AI space.  If you do, that’s great.

I was privileged earlier in my career to work with a group of brilliant researchers at Tulane. Their director told me that they generated more data in a day than could be consumed in a lifetime. And that has stuck with me.  There is no other way to access and make use of all that valuable data except through machine mediated artificial intelligence.  They dreamed of not needing to do experiments because they had fifty years of experimental data they could use.  Likewise, IBM’s Watson is doing amazing things with cancer treatments after it digests treatment records at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston.  

This is much more important than just little chatbot projects at the Help Desk, but that’s an easy place to start.  As professionals who are lucky enough to work with astonishingly smart researchers generating mountains of great information, we need to rapidly become experts at delivering the AI technology that can sift through all of it, built models and make things better in our worlds though application of that information.

Let’s get rid of the phones


I’ve had the privilege to meet a lot of great leaders at a lot of universities.  Almost any conversation I have with them about technology includes a discussion about improving technology support.

On the one hand, few of our IT disciplines are as well defined, structured, and documented as the Technology Service Desk.  A lot of great thinking has gone into how to run a help desk.

On the other hand, that creates a certain rigidity around changing things.  The basic model, where a customer reaches out with a problem, an agent takes their call and hopefully solves that problem, hasn’t really changed since help desks were created.

At the end of the day, the real issue with support is about the people involved and their relationships and their expectations. So I have a humble suggestion:  Get rid of the phones.  Switch to video.

We all know that a significant part of communication is non-verbal.  I usually see a number in the 90s thrown around – typically 93%.  So, we’re delivering IT support with a technology that only allows 7% of the communication to effectively come through and we’re wondering why people aren’t happy.

In this pandemic moment, use of video is a daily reality for most people.  For example, I’ve started using a telemedicine solution which has been fantastic.  And it would be horrible by telephone. There is something reassuring about seeing the doctor’s face.

So we have a moment in time where this switch would be significantly easier.  It would increase personal interaction for people who are isolated and allow a greater sense of connection.  It would increase accountability for the team who would be seen by their customers and not be just anonymous telephone voices.  It might allow for better relationships.  (As a sidebar, I find customers are generally happier when they know who their support agent is).  Imagine the benefits for students on the help desk when they actually see one of their faculty members (and when they are seen).

I believe this would enable higher quality information about the reason for the call, as well as the ability to show the problem, not just describe it.  Our customers are not technology experts and often struggle to describe what’s wrong.   Imagine if the agent could see the error message, the computer, and the frustration on the customer’s face.

Finally, it allows the help desk team to become experts on the video conferencing tools since they’ll be using them all the time which can help them be more helpful to our students and faculty who are living in a hybrid or distance education world.

We’re making everyone else use video to do their jobs.  Maybe it’s time to use the technology we deliver to take the service up a level at the help desk.

Winners want the ball…

Picture of a Football


I love leadership maxims. I use them all the time. And anyone who knows me in real life can probably tell you about too many of them.

But there are some maxims I don’t use as a leader to encourage my team, some are just reminders to me to drive forward. One of my favorites of this group comes from a silly place – the 2000 film “The Replacements” starring Gene Hackman and Keanu Reeves.  There is a scene in the film where Mr Reeves, playing a replacement quarterback during a professional football player strike, is afraid to run a play because he thinks he will get sacked. His substitute play does not succeed and the team loses the game. Mr. Hackman, as the head coach who believes in him, is quite upset and says “Winners always want the ball when the game is on the line.

It’s a devastating moment for the quarterback because he knows the coach saw his fear. We all have those moments when we, as leaders, think we’re going to take our lumps and there might be an easier way through tough times. The thing I love about this quote is not just a call to courage when facing challenging moments, it is a reminder that we must believe success is possible and want to be the ones who step up. All of us can “course correct” and summon courage when we’re scared, the more difficult challenge is to see ourselves as winners who can overcome challenges and help our teams see themselves that way.

The most important thing is to remember that defeat is not a certainty when we’re afraid. We don’t need courage to rally ourselves into the valley of death, we need leadership to think through ways to get to the right outcome for our institutions, our colleagues, and our teams. This doesn’t mean we are perfect and will always win.  It means we always want to lead and we always seek to inspire our teams. By being confident and optimistic and having faith in our people we can create that inspiration. The goal is to be the kind of coach Mr. Hackman plays in the film.

We’re seldom in the kinds of dramatic straits created by the current pandemic. This is a unique moment when our leadership should make a real difference.  Our teams need to see a path to success.  One where we acknowledge the difficulties and challenges of this moment, but one where things can get better.  They need to see themselves as a member of a team that can rise to meet the challenges of the moment, which can care for each other and create solutions that may not yet be imagined. They need us to show them that we have faith in ourselves and in them in these challenging moments.

Business as Unusual: Governance and Leadership

I spoke with a friend the other day who described a governance conversation with his CFO.  It was clear to him that what he thought of as a universal good – an engaged governance process – had come across as a failure to lead.

I was troubled by the dissonance of this.  Isn’t governance as an important part of engaging our customers and having their priorities folded into our institutional strategy?  But what if, in doing that, we are perceived by our leadership as failing to lead?  

In higher education, we have a vibrant CIO community with great interaction.  We meet at conferences, we meet wonderful colleagues, and we build relationships across our universities.  We have wonderful organizations such as Educause and Internet2 to be part of.  And, I think, we live a little in our own echo chamber.  There are ideas universal to our industry – that IT is valuable, that we need a seat at the table, that IT is a strategic asset, that sometimes are not as bought into in by the cabinet as they are in the CIO lounge at Educause.

So for today’s CIO TO DO, check in with colleagues on our key assumptions and principles.  We need to ask them what they think about governance, the role of the CIO, and how they expect us to lead. We cannot be successful if our CIO norms are not shaped by our colleagues and our leadership.  And that is a conversation we need to have regularly. Because even if our boss told us to make IT governance happen, we won’t be successful unless we have a shared understanding of what that means.  #alignment #highered #cio #governance #leadership

Business as Unusual: Develop an ROI Model that Makes Sense

Today’s CIO TODO?  Developing an ROI model that makes sense for our institutions.

I’m not suggesting going back for our collective MBAs.  Nor am I suggesting that ROI is a perfect model for our non-profit higher education model.  I wish I could offer you a universal ROI model that would work at every institution.  Instead, I’m going to suggest a process.

We’ve all had to link our proposals and projects to the institution’s goals.  That was a step in the right direction. But what I want to suggest is that ROI is an appropriate role for governance.  Our governance systems, working with IT and university leadership, are the focal point to ensure the model has broad support across the campus.  If we’re going to measure what matters and we’re going to make decisions about what the projects and programs get funding, the campus needs to agree.

Therefore today’s CIO to do is to start the process of working with governance to make sure that there is a general ROI formula in place that has broad community support.  We are preparing for very complex budget times this fall and we will need not just a general ROI formula in place, but also we need to be able to use the general formula to create a specific one for every project recommended through the governance process.  Since we’re not in the for profit space, what we’re concerned about is more than whether the project returned more than it cost. What we need to know is whether the project delivers the returns we want.  Those returns must be linked back to our institutional goals and they must be measurable.  The return we promise to deliver is the purchase price for that service.  When our financial decision makers can link a cost to a measurable benefit, then they can make investment decisions because they know what they will get in return.

For example, if we’re going to make an investment in a new software product, we need to define what the benefit of that investment will be. If we invest in a student success software package, do we expect to see greater retention?  Better graduation rates?  Encouraging mental health outcomes?  How much is better?  Why do we think we’ll see this improvement?  How soon will things get better?  What decisions follow if we do not see the benefits?  Will we cancel the contract?

Having the governance process define the expectations for our investments has a number of benefits.

First, it builds on the idea that we do things purposefully.  That all of our work must be linked to outcomes that drive the institution forward.

Second, it eliminates the justification for nice to do items.  Our work becomes laser focused on business, not technology outcomes.  A faster network may seem self-evident to us as IT professionals, but why are we spending the institutions money on that instead of say, improving support?

Third, it builds credibility.  With agreed-to ROI, we present ourselves as business partners, who are focused on university-level issues.  That credibility includes using those ROI measurements to show we can hit the returns we say we will deliver.  If we consistently deliver the outcomes we say we will, then it makes it easier for our customers to invest in our work.  Likewise, it makes it much easier to address the value of IT discussion.  How much more powerful is it if we can answer “what is the value of IT” with the data from project ROI that shows we deliver the results sought every time?

Fourth, it engages our vendors.  Once vendors realize there are hard consequences for success and for failure, they have skin in the game after the sale.  Most good vendors already know this, but building the ROI into the contracts as a deliverable that allows for things like performance bonuses or penalties will up the ante.  And there will be no shortage of vendors who want to be able to report to other customers and advertise around those successes.

Finally,  in uncertain times, we operate for the highest and best use of every dollar that we spend to serve our institutions during challenging times. We want our universities to not just survive these times but to emerge stronger and better.  And it isn’t just for this moment we find ourselves in.  We have other challenges squarely in view and if we get better now, we’ll be in a better position to deliver the value of IT as the enrollment challenges of the future continue to challenge our schools.


Business as Unusual: Financial Realities

Today’s CIO TO DO is to plan for the worst financial scenarios. Most of us are facing uncertainty in the fall. Our state appropriations will likely be lower. Some of our students will choose not to come back, some will not be able to afford to. So 3 things for us to do now:

1) Build a financial plan for what can be deferred or rethought. We probably have some of this now but putting things in priority order by ROI helps make the decisions about where to invest and where to defer much easier for others to understand and buy in. The ROI calculations are important because they show that we are a business leaders.

2) We need to protect and develop our teams. We should expect travel restrictions and hiring freezes, and perhaps furloughs and layoffs. We have to help the people we have grow for two reasons. First, because they deserve our loyalty. They are the people who got us through this moment. It’s the right thing to do. And second, we may not have the ability to bring in new or additional people for a while.

3) Finally, fight across-the-board cuts. They have unintended consequences. If we all cancel Educause this year, how long will it survive? The old business maxim is that you cannot cut your way to profitability.

This is urgent and we need to do it now.

#IT #Budget

Business as Unusual: Accelerate ERP deployments

Many of us have enjoyed at least one ERP (Enterprise Resource Planning) deployment or upgrade.  Sometimes we can measure these in half-decade and I’ve heard of ones that went more than a decade.

And today, we’re all enjoying planning for a post-pandemic world, one where we are likely going to see more students expect online classes. We’re not even sure which universities will be holding in-person classes in the fall.  So even more students will expect better online services.  I’ve been saying for years that most ERP systems basically have just digitized standing in line in the gymnasium to register for classes.  That has to change.

So, as we plan for the Fall semester, the state of play in higher education is that a lot of schools are still running on older ERP systems and a lot that have deployed newer ones are only partially deployed – typically around the simpler to deploy HR and Finance modules that are easier to standardize.  And I say simpler but not easier intentionally.  Even more complicated is the fact that not all of our vendors have moved beyond their first iteration of cloud systems, especially in the student information system space.  Which is the system most critical to sustaining ourselves in our business as unusual model.  So, the challenges are there.

These deployments are slowed by all these factors and even more by our campus cultures of collaboration, buy-in, and shared decision making.  This is a worthy model but we’re in dealing with pre-existing enrollment existential crises and a pandemic whose cultural and business repercussions may last for quite some time.  Without meaning to sound overly dramatic, we are in a moment that calls for emergency action.  For the second time this semester.

What does that mean?  The key idea is that we need to move astonishingly faster.  We cannot roll into a more online future next fall with the normal academic pace of deployment.  Schools that are three years away from more modern systems are in trouble.  We need improved systems urgently.  And we can’t move slowly with thoughtful debate as though each school was so unique that they cannot move to more standardized practices.

So today’s to do list item, is to close the gap between your existing system and where you need to be in six months.   I don’t think it’s possible to make such a transition in the few weeks or months we have before fall enrollment.  But spring enrollment typically happens around November.  And we need to be planning to be ready by then with systems that work a lot better.  So what do you need to do to make this happen?

  1. Start with your vendors.  You need to be able to convert to a new or upgraded system quickly. The vendors are already in the cloud and they probably have the tools to do the necessary data conversions.  Your implementation partners need to be focused on getting people ready to use new tools – both business units and faculty.  What you roll out must be easy and intuitive and minimize customer issues.
  2. Begin the conversation now with your campus about the urgency.  Paint the picture of where you want to be and how you can get there.  You have to be the salesperson and you have to be able to convince the staff and the faculty that you can’t wait to do this the old way.  Some comfort of this is the newer cloud-based systems are much easier to use and learn – and there is much more standardization and business unit configuration control once they’re deployed. Standardization has a lot of benefits but it is going to be a challenge in our culture.
  3. Empower a small group to make decisions and drive the project to conclusion.  You cannot have debates about how you set up the system once the project begins.  You can debate changes as part of the next upgrades.  Recognize we have to move to an agile continuous improvement cycle and not a waterfall model. If this is the top priority, you need to be able to decline other non-critical projects, and you probably need to split into a KTLO (keep the lights on) team and a project team. Really, the only other thing you should have in your portfolio is helping more faculty move their courses online.
  4. Agree on who is leading.  The traditional view is ERP conversions have to be led someone on the business side. This makes sense to me when there is time to be thoughtful and I have seen it work better than other theories. Unfortunately, I don’t think the kind of speed we’re talking about is likely to make that a good idea.  The business side needs to be prepared to work on the change side of the equation, not on the technology.  I always say the technology is the easy part, the people and business process change is the hard part.  And the CIO is the executive who knows how to do systems conversions.
  5. Have an exit plan.  A percentage of the CIOs who drive something to success this fast are going to burn out or burn bridges.  And if either of those happen, you want to be in control of your transition.  We’re talking about a timeline that is going to leave some people feeling like their voices weren’t heard in our culture that believes in making sure all voices are heard.  Some people’s feelings may be be bruised.

This may be the most challenging leadership moment we will see as CIOs.  But if we don’t lead now, why are we the leaders?