Leadership Depends on Clarity and Agility: IBM’s CIO

As more large companies work to improve organizational agility, the most important steps their leaders can take are providing clarity about their purpose and making tasks as simple as possible.

Jeff Smith, CIO of IBM, told members of Financial Executives International’s Committee on Finance & Information Technology that as his company works to combine the innovation and flexibility of a startup with the scale of a technology leader, top-down leadership is being replaced with collaboration and coaching.

“As leaders, our core role is very simple,” Smith said. “We should be providing clarity of purpose for our teams, we should be setting up a productive work environment, and we should be inspiring people to do great things. Then we should get out of the way. We often make things complicated…We should have practices that people can learn from and provide support in the context of coaching to help them get better.”

At IBM, Smith said this means reducing the size of teams assigned to specific projects and equipping those teams with core practices to increase their effectiveness. For example, IBM is working to enhance:

  • Team leaders’ ability to improve the ways teams are formed, tasks are distributed, and the right success metrics are defined and monitored
  • Collaboration practices so team members can learn from each other
  • Delivery practices so solutions can be designed and deployed rapidly
Smith said leaders have to guard against a focus on the delivery process leading to overhead, such as excessive progress meetings and monitoring, that can take on a life of its own while delaying progress on the underlying initiative.

“Unless you actually change the way work gets done — how you form teams, how you distribute the work and how you measure what matters — you won’t get better,” Smith said. You may get better around the edges, but you won’t fundamentally get better. That’s the definition of a restructuring — an effort that fundamentally changes the way you do something that provides a material business benefit. If the benefit isn’t material, the initiative isn’t worth doing.”

Focused Effort

Smith also emphasized the importance of teams having a clearly defined, narrow purpose. For example, the company is implementing agile practices based on teams of eight to 10 people. Each team is assigned a narrow focus, but members are expected to improve their skills by working beyond their specialties and learning new skills.

“As [organizations] get bigger, we tend to isolate roles so people’s skills get too segmented,” Smith said. “We’re working to give people broader roles where people are expected to do role rotations and gain skills that enable them to get better and hone their craft. We have a concept that we’re going to take large teams and keep breaking them down so we know the purpose of each team.”