I used to feel bad for the guys in our IT department because they had the same career issue that the heads of Homeland Security have. As we all know, the terrorists and other scumbags only have to get it right one time and horrible things can happen. Yet our counter-terrorism teams and other law enforcement agencies have to try to be right every time and then, when nothing happens, no one bothers to thank them or offer recognition for their work. People just whine about the costs, the delays, and the stupid rules; they figure that protecting us is what we're paying these folks to do. The best the good guys can hope for is a tie. No harm, no foul and no credit for keeping us safe.

The IT departments in almost every business have been similarly taken for granted, or given the Rodney Dangerfield "I get no respect" treatment. And they get little or no recognition from anyone even though the complexity, significance and risks associated with their responsibilities have multiplied geometrically in the last decade. You basically can't do anything intelligent today without solid, timely, reliable and accurate data. It's the oil of the digital age and the IT guys are the ones with their mitts on the meters, mechanisms and measurements-- the IT infrastructures-- that are the make-or-break gates, tools and tunnels through which everything critical in our data-driven world passes. If they don't get it right, your business simply doesn't get done and-- relative to your competition--you might as well be back in the Dark Ages.

So I've been spending a fair amount of time talking to and coaching IT teams as well as working with smart startups that are developing new approaches to help cut through the clutter in big corporations so the data can efficiently get through to the people and places it needs to be. I'm encouraged to see a few positive signs and a slowly-growing acknowledgement of the importance, the criticality, and the severity of the problems to which under-investing and under-appreciating the centrality of your IT team exposes your entire company. We humans only understand the degree of our dependence on these machines and systems (which dictate so much of our lives today) when the devices shut down, the data disappears, and the systems stop delivering the information we need to proceed.

And while you can say that time eventually changes everything, the truth is that time only changes what you don't change first (and usually for the worse). I tell all the IT people that I meet that they have to be their own best advocates and change agents if they really want to see meaningful improvements and add real value to their businesses. This is no easy sell because these folks aren't really built that way and "selling" their ideas is the last thing they ever thought they'd be stuck doing. The waves of change are coming-- you can swim with the tides or sit still and be submerged.

I've found that there are three specific ideas and approaches that senior-level IT folks need to focus on if they want to make a serious contribution to the future of their firms.

1. Be a Weapon, not a Shield

Playing great defense isn't enough and the smartest IT players are turning the data they're developing and extracting from the plethora of connected devices into "weaponized" information-- decision tools that move their businesses ahead by providing better and more timely solutions to both internal users and outside clients. What gets measured is what gets done and comprehensive measurement-- that tracks installation and adoption and improved outcomes-- is all a necessary part of getting smarter. Helping your team optimize every aspect of your operations by giving them real-time decision support puts them in a position to correctly make the most critical calls: like when they should double down on their winners and how soon to ditch the dogs. Triage is crucial because no one has unlimited resources and enabling cost-effective execution by providing increased metrics and visibility is what the best data-driven IT strategies are all about. Money is just expendable ammunition; data is power and guess who's in charge of the data?

2. Focus on the Future, Stop Patching the Past

Everything is about the future and we need bridges forward and not just more bandages. (See Build a Bridge Over Your Old Code, Not Another Band-Aid.) The network is the name of the game and helping your team exploit the extensive resources outside of your own shop is essential. Connecting your company to the critical partners, collaborators, and new technologies that are beyond your four walls (securely, without sacrificing speed, accuracy or ease of access) is the most pressing challenge. Equally crucial is to make sure that your people are an active and effective part of all the "social" conversations that concern your business (but don't necessarily invite or include you) because these new channels are changing the way we all confer, compare, communicate and consume. If your products and services are not part of the ongoing conversations and decision set when the buyers are ready to buy, you're nowhere. Finally, holding down the fort just isn't enough; you've got to do more than simple maintenance because your business needs a vision and a path forward-- not another Mr. Fix-It.

3. Make Sure You're in "The Room Where It Happens"

If you don't ask, you don't get. As a senior IT professional, you've got to step up and insist that your presence and your input is central to securing the best solutions for the business. There's a great song in the play Hamilton about the importance of being in "the room where it happens" -- where the decisions are made that impact us all. If you're not there, if you don't have some skin in the game, if you're just a spectator, then the changes that do happen will happen to you, not through you. It's not always safe to step up--it's never about security or the status quo-- but it's the smartest bet you can make. If you don't believe in yourself and your abilities, who else will? And take my word for it, waiting never gets you to a better result because the world is just moving too quickly to give anyone the luxury of time. Just like in racing, you need to understand that no one waits for you.

If it's any consolation in these tough and troubling times, just remember that they're going to blame you for anything and everything that goes wrong anyway. So, if you're already walking on thin ice, you might as well dance.