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Why ‘Technical Director’ is the Toughest Job in Your Organization

TTIP's North America lead, Cliff Spiro, explains why after 4 decades leading innovation in business, he believes that the toughest job is the Technical one;

There are five strong reasons I believe that ‘Technical Director’ is the toughest job in your organization.

Firstly, consider the job’s technical content and requirements. The Technical Director has mastered some mighty challenging stuff in their eight to ten years of college: mathematics, physics, engineering, chemistry, biology, programming languages, or any one of hundreds of other specialist subjects. Folks, this stuff doesn’t come easily to anyone. Moreover, staying current and at the leading edge is nigh impossible. According to the great journalist, Thomas Friedman in, “Thank You For Being Late,” (MacMillan publishers, November 2016), for the first time in human history, science and technology are now accelerating faster than we can keep up. Yes, other subjects such as finance are challenging to learn, but at least once a year, in finance, you get a list of new GAAP (Generally Accepted Accounting Principles) requirements to follow, and they’re relatively finite. In science and technology, who knows what is going on out there? As a Technical Director, one must not only need to know the fundamentals of the science and technology relevant to your field, but also, to stay current and at the tip of the innovation spear. And to get their job done, they’d better be just as strong with business acumen and the strategic parts of their role. Moreover, they need to succinctly and persuasively present complex material and data, often to technical illiterates in the organization or outside. Tough stuff indeed.

Secondly, the time constants of developing new products are way out of synch with the rest of the organization. Operations and logistics, quality and even sales, are often run on an almost daily basis. A week is forever in a manufacturing plant. You might get finance, marketing, and your leadership team to consider a year as a whole, but by and large, their attention span is quarterly at best. Now overlay innovation’s typically three-to-ten year horizon over the rest of the company, and there is little doubt why serious dissonance arises.

Thirdly, let’s talk about risk. To be truly innovative, there must be significant risk, almost by definition. Innovation involves peering into the unknown. If a new product was obvious, it would not truly be an innovation. Business leaders are uncomfortable with risk. It is so much easier to make a guaranteed investment in automation and factory modernization, or to open a new sales territory, than it is to bet on a high risk project that has but a small probability of paying off in the years to come, no matter how big its potential. The Technical Director is continually facing into these headwinds.

Fourthly, measuring effectiveness of a technology function in a business is complex. One can use ‘New Product Sales’, ‘New Product Margin’ or ‘Vitality Index’ as a gauge of past product development effectiveness, but these are lagging indicators. Also, nobody gives the technology team credit for making developments to ensure that you don’t lose existing business, i.e. core churn. And how much of the technology function is involved in firefighting quality excursions, a financial benefit that never shows up on the bottom line? The technology function is often the primary entry point for many of the other functions, as it gives a great opportunity to learn deeply about the business in a way that is unlikely to be experienced in other business functions. Does that appear in their reviews? Not in my experience.

Finally, let’s face it, technical people can be quirky: analytical, antisocial, left-brained, nerdy. We are hard to understand and hard to manage. We are often iconoclastic and difficult. It is not uncommon for organizations to promote their best scientists, the most analytical and antisocial, into significant leadership positions, only to find that the team are woefully mismanaged.

At least, if you are a successful technical leader, you can feel you’re amongst very special company indeed!

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