Translating Leadership Skills Into Successful IT Projects
1/3/2020 3:54:57 PM
Hal Watson leads an 11-member team at MNIT partnering with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and was recognized as “Manager of the Year” at our 2019 annual award ceremony for his contributions to MNIT and for his mission-oriented leadership. Hal instigates year-round discussions with his team about how they can provide the best geographic information system (GIS) tools and analysis to the DNR and help manage and conserve the State’s natural resources. He came to the State with a background in conservation as the GIS coordinator for The Nature Conservancy’s Midwest region. Now his team delivers enterprise data, software, and spatial analysis tools to DNR staff across the state.
As part of our “Meet the Technologist” series, we sat down with Hal to see what we could learn about his guiding principles for leadership and how that connects Minnesotans to a better government.
Hal: I always have four phrases on the whiteboard in my office: understand your values, embrace complexity, encourage entrepreneurism, and make room in the story for everyone. These principles give me a roadmap for my interactions with my team and provide a framework for how we can be most successful. I know that if we can deliver the best geospatial products and services to the DNR, we are able to help make Minnesota a better place and help preserve our natural resources.
Hal: This is the most important principle that we can embrace. Along with shared experiences, shared values are key to developing a cohesive team because they define who you are as a group. Several years ago, I asked my team what values they brought to work with them every day. Then, on one of our annual off-site section meetings we discussed them together and committed to five guiding values which now define our group culture. For us those values are:
Now when we get together to discuss our goals and our plans for the year, we make sure to take some time to have a conversation about one of these values – we tell each other stories about how we’ve seen them in action or share the challenges we’ve faced in living up to our ideals. Our common values are something we all agree to hold each other to. They form the bedrock upon which our mission, our vision, and our strategy is built.
Hal: When we approach problems, whether it’s from a group perspective or a technical issue, we shouldn’t try to reduce a problem in a way that forces it to fit to the solutions that we already bring to the table. That’s very tempting, especially because our agency partners often don’t know what is and isn’t possible. My team often works with field researchers that have complex issues they are trying to model or address. I encourage folks to try to look at and understand a problem in all its complexity. Yes, there are often limits to how you can respond, but at least you are making informed decisions in a collaborative manner.
On a personal level, everyone has challenges they are facing in their personal and professional lives. As a co-worker we often must look below the surface when we are struggling to work with others in productively. Usually when there is a significant problem between staff or teams there is more than one factor feeding into it, or multiple problems are happening at several levels. Complexity is something that should be embraced, understood, and worked through. We look for elegant solutions, but there is no short-cut to getting there.
Hal: People need to be given space to be creative. I try to give my team an environment where people can be rewarded for their creativity in ways that make them feel good. For example, we have set up a system where my team can be entrepreneurial about how they train DNR staff in computer mapping and spatial analysis. The more training they do and the more successful they are at it, the more opportunities they have for professional development for themselves and their teammates, creating a wonderful positive feedback loop. Our GIS trainers are able to have more control over how they are growing as an employee, and they bring opportunity to everyone else on the team as well.
Hal: This is a lesson I learned from one of my mentors. When you are working on a team – aside from tackling the obvious job at hand – one of the invisible things that is going on is that you are writing a story about how people in the group value and relate to one another. Often when we walk into a room there is that one person who we find it difficult to work with – for whatever reason. Paradoxically, those are the people from whom you can learn the most about yourself, which is the silver lining. The difficulty may stem from a personality difference or the person being at a different stage in professional development, but “making room in the story for everyone” forces you to find common ground. You can’t give up on that person. It’s not easy, but it’s our job to develop solutions, applications, and training for people that meets them where they are standing, and the process we use to accomplish that starts with trust and must encourage them to join with us and write that story together.
Hal: One of my favorite projects is a fish telemetry application that allows researchers to visualize the movement of fish up and down several river systems in Minnesota. For years now, researchers at the DNR have been tracking fish in the Mississippi and other rivers utilizing transponders and receivers that collect millions of location records as the fish move up and downstream. Along with the big data/sensor aspect of it, the project was very complex because the researchers hadn’t really ever analyzed their own processes and thought about how they did their work, and the language to do that was just plain unfamiliar to them. It was frustrating on both sides and took a lot of patience and persistence to slowly uncover the full picture of what they were doing and figure out how to create a system to account for their research process. We had to meet each other halfway, which required everyone to let go of their initial expectations. In the end, together we created a system where they can explore their data visually and temporally. Now they can better understand how fish are moving through various lock and dam systems along the river, how and where individual fish travel over their lifetimes, and better assess threats to fish in the river system. Along the way my team was able to explore NoSQL technology and solve some very interesting problems about how to create effective visualizations given the complicated and dense nature of their data.