The Future Fit Challenge Applies Today, Not Just Tomorrow

CIOs and technology leaders have a core objective to develop and improve the technology foundations and innovation their firms need to win, serve, and retain customers. They must also enable their employees with the capabilities to achieve this customer obsession in an efficient and effective way. The challenge, though, is how to transform IT in an effective manner that enables the company to deliver on the vision of customer obsession. This will require pursuing what Forrester calls a future fit technology strategy.

Driving a future fit strategy requires leaders to equally have a future fit mindset. Leaders must be prepared for future disruption and be adaptable to overcoming challenges to drive positive change. They also must be open to exploring and seeking new ideas to continually improve. And they must develop their team’s creativity and future potential and embody trust. This trust is grounded in their own future fitness and empowers them to execute future-ready strategies to achieve positive customer outcomes.

Several CIO clients ask me how a future fit strategy relates to the daily operational challenges they face. How can they think future fit when faced with budget challenges and delays on costly enterprise resource planning deployments, headcount or talent constraints, and increasing technical debt? Overcoming these very challenges requires adaptivity, creativity, and resilience grounded in trust to maintain a future fit outlook. It is imperative that tech leaders put their head above the parapet to guide strategic IT direction and not get lost in a reactive virtuous circle of tactical IT demands. This reminded me of Amazon’s leadership principles. Amazon expects its leaders to demonstrate and live by these principles day to day, and they are central to Amazon’s success and ways of working.

Amazon Leadership Principles Drive Future Fitness

Amazon’s leadership principles describe how Amazon does business, how leaders lead, and how it keeps the customer at the center of its decisions. Amazon’s culture, described by the leadership principles, underpins its mission of being the world’s most customer-centric company. Many, if not all, the principles are a helpful guide for CIOs and other tech execs to adopt a future fit mindset day to day:

  • Customer obsession. Leaders start with the customer and work backward. They work vigorously to earn and keep customer trust. Leaders set a mandate for creative problem-solving and taking an outside-in, customer-centric approach.
  • Ownership. Leaders are owners. They think long term and don’t sacrifice long-term value for short-term results. They act on behalf of the entire company, beyond just their own team. Leaders are trusted to adapt to any challenge and make decisions that benefit the firm’s future.
  • Invent and simplify. Leaders expect and require innovation and invention from their teams and always find ways to simplify. They are externally aware, look for new ideas from everywhere, and are not limited by “not invented here.” Leaders create an environment for creativity and innovation. No matter the challenge, big or small, tactical or strategic, there is always a good idea to solve the problem faced.
  • Learn and be curious. Leaders are never done learning and always seek to improve themselves. They are curious about new possibilities and act to explore them. Adaptive organizations (and their leaders) take on a larger role in lifelong learning, driving new approaches and opportunities to gain competitive advantage through learning culture.
  • Hire and develop the best. Leaders raise the performance bar with every hire and promotion. They recognize exceptional talent and willingly move it throughout the organization. Leaders develop leaders and take seriously their role in coaching others. The key barriers to adaptability are people-based: how they think, how they develop and grow, and how they execute work. The best tech leaders develop and unleash creative people to address these people-based barriers.
  • Insist on the highest standards. Leaders have relentlessly high standards — many people may think these standards are unreasonably high. Leaders are continually raising the bar and drive their teams to deliver high-quality products, services, and processes. Leaders ensure that defects do not get sent down the line and that problems are fixed so they stay fixed. This principle is about driving continual transformation. Leaders challenge their team to continually adapt and take ownership for continually improving outcomes for customers. Teams are resilient to these high standards, as they are customer-obsessed and want to achieve the high standards themselves.
  • Think big. Thinking small is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Leaders create and communicate a bold direction that inspires results. They think differently and look around corners for ways to serve customers. The tech leader creatively sets the vision and the purpose — the why. They then get all the players involved in the game plan. Strategy is not a thing at the top of the organizational hierarchy: Strategy only works if everyone on the team believes in it. A team that contributes to the strategic plan owns the plan and acts on it.
  • Bias for action. Speed matters in business. Many decisions and actions are reversible and do not need extensive study. We value calculated risk-taking. Leaders must be resilient and prepared for uncertainty and decisive action. They must embrace imperfect decisiveness over precision.
  • Frugality. Accomplish more with less. Constraints breed resourcefulness, self-sufficiency, and invention. There are no extra points for growing headcount, budget size, or fixed expense. Leaders must be adaptive and resourceful when faced with constraints — this principle encourages leaders with a future fit mindset to find creative solutions.
  • Earn trust. Leaders listen attentively, speak candidly, and treat others respectfully. They are vocally self-critical, even when doing so is awkward or embarrassing. Leaders do not believe their or their team’s body odor smells of perfume. They benchmark themselves and their teams against the best. Trust is the currency of future fit transformation. Trust has always been important for leaders but never more so than now, especially for senior technology management executives. If you are not an exceptional trust builder and smart trust spender, you won’t succeed in the 2020s.
  • Dive deep. Leaders operate at all levels, stay connected to the details, audit frequently, and are skeptical when metrics and anecdotes differ. No task is beneath them. This principle is about building and earning trust, having an open mind, and adapting to any situation to help their teams and organization succeed. Demonstrating these behaviors day to day is a solid foundation to being future fit.
  • Have backbone — disagree and commit. Leaders are obligated to respectfully challenge decisions when they disagree, even when doing so is uncomfortable or exhausting. Leaders have conviction and are tenacious. They do not compromise for the sake of social cohesion. Once a decision is determined, they commit wholly. It is better to make an imperfect decision than to delay a decision, as many tech leaders learned throughout the early stages of the pandemic. Leaders must maintain this resilient mindset, as the rate of change for business flexibility and increasing risk will continue post-pandemic.
  • Deliver results. Leaders focus on the key inputs for their business and deliver them with the right quality and in a timely fashion. Despite setbacks, they rise to the occasion and never settle. Tech leaders focus on the critical functional and nonfunctional needs to ensure that tech platforms are resilient and to a high standard to meet business and customer needs. Similarly, they demonstrate future fit resilience to overcome any setbacks faced.
  • Being right, a lot. Leaders are right a lot. They have strong judgment and good instincts. They seek diverse perspectives and work to disconfirm their beliefs. This does not mean leaders are always right, but they are trusted to seek out diverse inputs and challenge their own assumptions to achieve the right outcomes. Future fit leaders engage their team and peers in setting a future fit strategy and seek out diversity of opinion and feedback.

The Leadership Daily Challenge — Continually Check Your Principles

Tech leaders have an opportunity to challenge themselves and their teams to be future fit. They must continually check and validate that their strategy is customer-obsessed, adaptive, creative, and resilient, especially when they feel bogged down in ongoing operational issues. The Amazon principles provide an excellent framework for its leaders to reflect on their own leadership qualities and values and to assess how well they are thinking strategically and maintaining a future fit outlook. Leaders don’t have to be “Amazonian” and wholly live by the principles but can adapt and apply what works for them as part of a developing future fit strategy.