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  • John Chambers, PhD

The HMS Beagle and You

"Taxonomy was Darwin’s foundation,” wrote biologist Mary Winsor. And as leader of your firm, so is it yours.

She was biologist and professor and historian. She deconstructed great theorists and their paradigms, their frames of reference, chronicling the evolution of… evolutionary theory!

Thematically we recognize at least a couple of principles – our means of classifying our value propositions, as well as interrelating each of our accountable domains. Embed this in the corporate psyche.

The structure and the relationships; they are everywhere.

Roadmaps within our cloud platforms must reconcile to roadmaps in our user experiences. Strategies in our infrastructure influence and provoke strategies in our marketing approaches. The evolution of our firm environments is interminable dynamism, change and adaptation. These apply to all managers, all executives and all professionals, as they structure and define their accountability.

I’ve written about the elevator pitch before, and its significance in sharing your understanding and your department’s strategy with other partners in your company. You are beset with questions from shareholders, from neighboring department leaders, from the board. Use taxonomy as you learn, and as you teach.

Manager as Student and Teacher

“Do you have an hour or so?”

If that’s the snarky answer sailing through your mind when you are asked a complex and multi-faceted question, whose "asker" wants an immediate reply, then you need to reconsider your own agility. You are expected to articulate the essence in a half-minute.

Elevator pitches don’t imply valueless simplicity. They test and remind you. Can you compartmentalize and connect?. Can you recognize relations and see harmony?

Each compartment, each drawer of your corporate bureau, has a symbiotic relationship to others. So not only be patient and respectful to the asker, but elucidate and educate before the elevator door reopens.

“Are we okay with our disaster recovery planning?”

“How do we use the cloud?”

“What should we do about BYOD?”

Those questions are all over the map, endless and almost unwieldy. Each could be a meeting of three hours or more. In an impromptu conversation with other peers or executives, your job is to demonstrate credibility and sometimes answer in all of a half-minute! It’s hard to believe that your job as department or division or company leader demands elevator pitch mastery. But it does. And you also have to back it up, for your sake and the company’s survival.

I recall the first question specifically, when I was leader of IT at a moderately large life sciences company. Crossing hallway paths with the CEO one morning, I was asked, “Are we doing okay with disaster recovery plans?” I could have rambled on about initiatives and technology and partners and “don’t worry” assurances. At which time, my credibility would have disappeared as swiftly as a Galapagos finch.

Was the CEO looking for a yes or no answer?

Was he looking for a semester long class?

No, he was learning and he was validating, as any astute CEO, or any strategically minded executive, would do. He was collaborating with me, whether “I got it” or not.

Your executive peers, the Lines of Business (LoB), the company leadership, the BoD are learning. Just as you are. And in learning, they are synthesizing the information and considering its applicability to the company mission and latest concerns of the industry. This can include operational processes, financial management, technical infrastructure, market expansion, customer success.

What is expected is that you are prepared with a comprehendible summary for a virtually infinite number of business oriented questions.

You are a student, always. After all, as leader of any major domain, you should see your department as a "business within the business," and you as the GM for extraordinarily complex supply chains, operations, innovation, and potential management of applications, assets, and professionals. You better be ready. And you’re not done by simply talking the talk.

Your elevator pitch, your proof in understanding the latest issues of industry, operations, and innovation, the latest trends and markets, must be backed up with action.

Responsiveness is Managed by Taxonomy

Understanding how to explain and define a strategy is critical to achieving it. But it’s “smoke and mirrors” if there is not an aligned and integrated means for advancing that strategy.

So how can we have an action plan for every possible buzzword in industry?

Certainly some activities will be inapplicable to your environment; however, in many cases the questions (so-called buzzword queries) pertain to many universal constants and enterprise processes, which umbrella their constituent parts. For example, let’s go back to the CEO's question on disaster recovery. If I wasn’t prepared to answer the question in an elevator pitch, then I wasn't in the right position to be leading IT. But fortunately I was prepared.

I knew my taxonomy.

Disaster recovery was a subset of a more far-reaching mindset within our security professionals. It corresponded to a logical classification. I said:

Disaster Recovery is one sub-domain within our overall Business Continuity Strategy (BCS).

The four sub-domains within BCS include our Crisis Management Framework; Tools and Teams; Disaster Recovery Processes; Resumption of Standard Operations. Of course, we realize the accountability for these domains cuts across all Lines of Business. So we’ve integrated them within each of the company's divisional responsibilities.

Nevertheless, it’s still up to IT to lead this. We guide the risk assessment, gap analysis, continuous improvement. For example, there are many processes in the company that can afford no downtime whatsoever, as they critically impact the revenue base and customer satisfaction. But other areas can tolerate a much higher risk appetite.

Within our Business Continuity Strategy, we continually assess readiness, integrating risk mitigation efforts as part of our daily rigor. And we test our ability to handle crises. This includes the 'Disaster Recovery' component.

Done in about thirty seconds.

End of story? Hardly.

His next comment implicitly assured that the strategy was real, tangible and thorough. His words came immediately. “Great. Let’s ensure that the business review team has a consistent understanding, and I want to again emphasize the shared responsibility.”

Translation – Be prepared to thoroughly discuss this at the next executive staff meeting.

It was on the agenda.

His astute perception was that Business Continuity, which I explained as including Disaster Recovery, was in fact an active and vibrant strength in our firm, and that my words were expected to support action.

Most CxOs and executive staff are typically ready to deliver an elevator pitch (or they ought to be), but the implicit credibility is fleeting (in fact, it’s false) unless there is an associated plan or operation, regularly progressing, evolving, communicating.

Your taxonomies should have corresponding roadmaps of evolution. Your world is dynamic, influenced by environmental factors, competitive breakthroughs, and institutional changes in society and industry.

Organizing -- Your Greatest Value as Leader

Strategies are not discrete tasks, with start and end dates. Strategies are constantly vetted, assessed and applied. So if the latest buzzword or trend is asked, (i.e., what is our cloud strategy?… or big data?… or M&A… ?) are you prepared to answer in a structured and compartmentalized manner? Is there a taxonomy within the subject, to which you’re familiar?

And more importantly, is there an actionable plan or sustainable process within the company, which you are leading, ensuring that you will achieve the strategic goals you have just articulated in thirty seconds?

Professor Winsor's scholarship elevates the perspectives of taxonomists, ancient to modern, and whether or not, in the realm of biology, taxonomies represent static structures. Do they allow room for change? Do the frameworks themselves morph?

As leaders, we are all taxonomists and we are all evolutionists -- survival of the firm is at stake. We classify and categorize.

We contain and explain.

The tools and helpers for our accountability lie in classifying the very structure of our environment. Categorize, or be lost in chaos.

And be prepared to learn and educate by way of the taxonomy within your departments -- taxonomies that may evolve with time.

In a road mapping exercise years ago, I had explained that the deconstruction of “unntended silos” was necessary to view our strategy, rebuild our strategy, and determine overlaps, duplication, contrary directions, and dependencies.

The roadmaps of several VPs and directors were inwardly focused. Thus, the challenge was reconciliation, ensuring the roadmaps, the evolution of various departments, were adaptable by other departments.

Consider a simplified view -- if you are an American firm and your supply chain now calls for foreign country (EU) dependence, are there changing Privacy requirements under GDPR that impact the corporate strategy? The roadmaps in your firm should reconcile; then dependencies will be exposed across a myriad of domains. This demands that the corporate domains are categorized and comprehended with agility.

Now as you consider how rudimentary this might seem, kindly hold for a moment. Organizational architecture, its taxonomy, is the most significant construct in your firm Toward everything shall your org framework advance your strategy.

The taxonomy of the department is viewed through a lens of competencies, evolution, and strategic accountability. And what better place to recognize relationships and interdependency than the organization – your human capital, priceless driver of the firm's future. The taxonomy of your environment and its connections within the value chain is your foremost responsibility.

Your leadership depends on your ability to structure, envision, and perceive.

This is as much art as science. It demands your artistic creativity and your scientific curiosity. Your maturity as manager evolves through holistic perception and granular problem solving. It demands your understanding interdependencies and interrelationships...

The pioneering geneticist Edmund Beecher Wilson said it best: “How do you draw the line between Walden and The Voyage of the Beagle? The product of the scientific imagination is a new vision of relations—like that of the artistic imagination.”

Understanding the world and its relationships is not just your job. It’s your innate value.

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