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SF Giants CIO: Quit Bellyaching, Start Leading

San Francisco Giants' CIO Bill Schlough gives winning advice to InformationWeek CIO Summit attendees at Interop. If your CEO doesn't "get" IT value, lead by example, he says.

You want to learn about creating innovation in a large organization, even with a small IT team? Listen to San Francisco Giants' CIO Bill Schlough.

Wednesday morning at Interop, I attended the InformationWeek CIO summit, "Innovate or Go Home: The CIO's Critical Role in Driving Growth, Opportunity & Breakthrough Ideas," and was fortunate to be able to chat a bit with Schlough after his on-stage interview with Fritz Nelson. As you may know, Schlough was named InformationWeek's Chief of the Year in 2012 due to his team's numerous accomplishments with business focused technology innovation. (Schlough will also speak at the upcoming E2 conference in Boston, June 17-19.) Here's what I learned about innovating with a small IT team -- Schlough has fewer than 20 IT employees.

Quit Bellyaching and Start Leading

I told Schlough that sometimes I talk to some IT leaders who tell me that their CEO just doesn't understand IT or the value that IT brings to the organization, and asked him what he'd say to those IT leaders. "You have to control what you can control," he said, adding, "it doesn't do any good to bellyache." Many times, if IT will control what it has control over, the organization will copy it if it is successful, he said.

This is an awesome instance of leading by example. That is, when Schlough arrived at the Giants organization, there weren't a lot of formal mechanisms for goal-setting or employee reviews. He implemented his own for the IT organization, and when there was an HR executive turnover, the new HR leader liked what Schlough had done and implemented it throughout the larger organization. Who says nobody ever listens to IT? Sometimes you just need to be patient. Success is contagious. If what you're doing is so awesome, you can expect that it will be supported and replicated. If it's not, maybe what you're doing isn't so awesome and you need to re-evaluate after a period of time.

Mission Focus

Schlough gives a lot of credit to his CEO, Larry Baer, for setting the tone of the organization. But it's also pretty obvious, to hear Schlough talk, that he sets a great tone for his employees. What is that tone? Innovation and mission focus. When he arrived at the Giants in 1999, the mission statement was that the SF Giants were "dedicated to enriching our community through excellence and innovation on and off the field." He's not aware of any other MLB team that has the word "innovation" in its mission statement. I was impressed to find out that not only does he wear a World Series championship ring, but also, the intern at the time got a ring. The IT team lives and breathes baseball: They are baseball fans who work in IT, not IT people who happen to work in baseball. "Our whole office walked in the parade, got on floats in the parade. It's a mindset that permeates from the top," said Schlough. Nelson noted during the on-stage interview that "your team believes that they were part of the winning of the World Series," and Schlough didn't disagree.

It is no surprise that a team with mission focus like this has innovated in things like dynamic ticket pricing, and has moved on to experiment with automated video data collection of metrics during the game.

Specifically, Schlough's team is tracking 15 factors about ball players on the field at 20 frames per second; they track during the entire game. The data will answer questions like, "Who moves the least over the course of the season?" "Which shortstop moves the least?" "How does that contribute to shortstop success?" A team without mission focus would NEVER commit to this, they'd be too busy fixing infrastructure and tending to what they would perceive as "their own knitting."

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Customer Focus

Open to innovation, Schlough isn't so wrapped up in it that he is willing for customers to be collateral damage. During the session, when talking about in-seat delivery of concessions, he said, "we're not going to do it until we can ensure that the hot dog is hot and the beer is cold." He's not just thinking about the ordering and the fulfillment tech, he's thinking about the whole customer experience.

Constraint Produces Excellence

InformationWeek editor Chris Murphy asked Schlough how he picked innovation ideas. Schlough described a pretty consistent "idea funnel" year to year, but noted that what they don't do is at least as important as what they DO take on.

"If you try to do everything you'll fail at everything or at least do a terrible job. You've got to be laser focused," he says. Great advice for any IT organization, and not just about innovation: IT organizations typically have an ongoing project list, an internal new project list, an external new project list ... and typically don't do a very disciplined job at winnowing down the list.

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Andrew Hornback
Andrew Hornback,
User Rank: Apprentice
5/12/2013 | 1:21:07 AM
re: SF Giants CIO: Quit Bellyaching, Start Leading
The "Constraint Produces Excellence" idea strikes a chord that would topple most organizations because of its sheer simplicity.

The idea of focusing on one thing at a time and doing it well runs so counter to the way that so many departments (not just IT) are run. In a day and age where everyone has to multi-task to keep up, supposedly, if you multi-task for too long you'll find yourself treading water in a sea of mediocrity without any clue as to what direction you should really be going on.

If Schlough could bottle that idea... I know of a lot of folks who should buy it by the 60 foot container load.

Andrew Hornback
InformationWeek Contributor
User Rank: Ninja
5/9/2013 | 6:37:19 PM
re: SF Giants CIO: Quit Bellyaching, Start Leading
That's pretty much it. It's the job of IT to help the rest of the company use computers to do their jobs better (a supporting role by definition). In the case of a baseball team like the Giants, what happens on the field, in the box office (broadly defined), and in the ad market are what's important, so that's where the geeks need to focus.
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