Rich Corbridge, CIO, Boots and Grant Ecker, Chief Architect, WBA discuss the skills needed to solve “the IT puzzle”

Solving the puzzles of IT leadership

In a recent Boots UK IT huddle between Grant Ecker, Chief Architect at WBA and Rich Corbridge, CIO at Boots there was a conversation about how each part of the Global IT function at WBA comes together to make up different parts of a puzzle and how it requires all the pieces of the puzzle to come together to finish it successfully.

We all know it takes many different types of skills to finish so many different types of puzzles. It is why the appeal of puzzles is so wide, there is a puzzle for every type of person like there is a role in IT for every type of person.

Grant and Rich have considered the most popular puzzles and used these as an analogy for the skills needed to work together and deliver as one IT function across the globe. 

Rubik’s Cube

Rich: The Rubik’s cube for me is the manifestation of that creative isolation we all need. You have to have perseverance and a little bit of creative thinking to achieve the puzzles answer. Then, once you know how to do it practice makes you agile and able to ‘compete’ with others to be able to finish it no matter the starting point and at a speed that becomes more and more impressive. For me the Rubki’s cube is the representative of the service manager role in IT, the people who can achieve almost anything no matter where they start, they can twist the elements of the puzzle, the resources they have to hand until the solution can be seen by all of us.

Grant: Oh man, the Rubik’s cube! This takes me right back to my roots growing up as a child of the 80’s… the questionable decisions of big hair bands, neon layered clothes, and slap bracelets comes to mind… then I am time warped to today’s auto-solving AR/vision systems providing Rubik’s cube solution assistants! It’s been a fascinating journey we’ve been on since then… and for me I think that relates to how we are enticed, if not challenged, by technology to consider innovative tools and techniques to solve the yesterday’s challenges with new approaches today in each of our roles. I think this is how we need to contribute as members of the broader IT function: to tap the collective learning of our industry to automate what can be solved with reused approaches to continuously improve our piece of the bigger IT puzzle. That frees us up to re-focus our energy on metaphorical 12-sided Rubki’s cube problems to create the infosec innovation Yael Gomez shared recently by avoiding the capacity drain of the password reset monster.

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Rich: One mention of an 80s classic and Mr. Ecker is off on a full reminiscing riff, although 80s UK and 80s US may need a little translation service I love that we dive into the art of the possible, automation does feel like another frontier that we need to explore when it comes to the resolution of puzzles at the speed we need to. I guess the other part to this one though is the practice makes ‘easy’ point, the Rubik’s cube can be done by professionals whilst blind folded, I am not suggesting we blind fold our incident and problem team but what we do see more and more though is that the level of practice that they have the more clarity they bring to the job which leads to assurance which ultimately leads us to IT service that can be wholly relied upon.


Follow the picture in small groups, always start from the straight edges but a team effort and discussion can really help.

Grant: Ha! Rich is spot on as always – one classic reference is all it takes to send me off the deep end! Add the collaboration of a jigsaw puzzle to the urgency of an escape room and you have the perfect analogy for what it should feel like working on a fast paced and performing IT team. Bringing the skills of teams to bear with clarity in each person’s role to contribute to the desired team outcome where time is of the essence. 

Rich: What I love about the jigsaw is its versatility in appeal, you can attack the puzzle in isolation, it may take you a bit longer or you can gather the team around you and go about it with the single goal in mind. That’s why I think the jigsaw is analogous to the leadership team, or at least the skills needed to achieve IT leadership! As a team we look for the picture we are aiming for, the front of the jigsaw box, we find the edges, the guardrails, of what we need to do and then we head in that direction with clarity of what we need to get to. Doing a jigsaw as a team requires us to listen to each other plenty too, hear each other’s points of view and ensure that we are giving everyone the mic so that what they are seeing as we strive towards the full picture is seen by everyone else. 

Grant: I love that Rich because this mindset is exactly what makes Architecture work inside global organizations like WBA, in seeking to provide solutions that cross the enterprise span of needs. No one technical leader in any one team (including EA!) has all the answers. The most effective architects identify who is needed to represent the full domain of the problem space, then they ask questions to bring out the skills and knowledge of others. This work is to tease out the best enterprise solution with the expertise of each voice across IT being heard and incorporated into the blueprints. Passing the mic is what differentiates an architecture that closes a gap from one that completes the puzzle.

 Patience (aka Solitaire)

Playing in isolation, more often than not the bundled free version on a Windows OS machine, the isolation of the luck of the next card as well as the analysis of the deck in front of you.

Rich: Playing patience either on a computer or with a deck of cards is perhaps the ultimate in playing the hand that you are dealt with and getting the most from it through the skills you have. For me this feels like our Release Train Managers and Engineering teams. They have the resources we give them and we ask them to ‘stack the cards’ for success for each and every deliverable we are heading towards. They try so hard to see what is coming and we put detailed process in place to allow predictions to be made but until each card is turned over its not possible to be 100% sure how big each job will be.

Grant: I completely agree Rich! Given that EA has failed you if we ever find ourselves playing Solitaire without your teams involved, I’ll bridge to a multi-player card game to ask the question: “Where does the other kind of patience in playing the hand we are delt come into the world of IT and EA?” One place is in navigating the turns and twists of IT governance when trying to solve an enterprise challenge. Some hands we are delt look like a collection of aces, others might appear to be a compilation of numbers and faces… until the flop, the turn and the river reveal themselves. These shared cards in Texas Hold ‘Em tend to quite literally change the nature of the game.

The IT governance story begins much like these unpredictable components of the card game; however, in governance these community cards aren’t left to chance. We need to influence the leadership team to provide the support and resource allocation necessary to support an enterprise effort’s forward motion. As the EA and IT teams partner to shape their proposal to solve multiple IT sponsor’s puzzles, we build support for the initiative and create the flop, turn and river cards needed to succeed. We do this leveraging a business architecture toolkit to harmonize the common “WHAT” needs that exist across the enterprise, to shape that into a logical “HOW” approach. It takes a mix of patience, curiosity, and empathy to create this harmonized demand for an initiative across an enterprise in an environment with fewer resources than ideas.

Even with a “full house” of support to proceed with a concept, the IT governance story ends with the design reviews that shift a solution from a proposed design into a green light for implementation. This is another area where IT and EA teams shouldn’t simply leave things to chance. Our proactive work to partner across and engage the stakeholders across a solution’s impacted domains, including those who consume, contribute to, operate, host, or secure a solution will result in an aligned conversation at the review gate.

It takes patience and curiosity to bring everyone along in our work to shape and design our enterprise solutions, and our success in doing so creates and enterprise that is aligned and ready to celebrate and leverage its service introduction at our go-live!

Rich: The rather lonesome celebration of the cards all evaporating away on the most distracting computer game ever, patience, you could never ever celebrate out loud for fear of looking a bit odd. I do wonder if that’s something we should break down though, we should be able to celebrate not only the excellence of collaborating on the solution of a puzzle in a team but also bringing the new knowledge the new way of thinking or simply the way I did it last time to the conversation. When it comes to puzzle solving, we need a way to recognise the individual talent as well as the team capability.

It’s interesting to also draw on how that perseverance to see where you get to in the end is part of the game. Even though you can see you are probably not going to get to the end of the game sometimes completely successfully you can get close to the solution and answer and learn from that journey lessons that can be applied next time. A discipline we need to learn more and more from, not letting great be the enemy of the good, comes from here too.

Considering the Minimal Viable Product as the end in mind (but only for this stage) and then coming back to it the solution with new lessons learnt, a new hand dealt and a way of achieving the goal set in your mind can be a great benefit of playing and replaying Patience.

Master Builder Lego

Follow detailed instructions and be able to react to minute change from page to page. Investment of time to have something remarkable at the end from a very finite resource.

Rich: I’m stretching it a bit I think adding Lego to this list, but I love Lego and to me it was (is) the best puzzle really. I think I would put Lego as the key leadership puzzle, you get the building blocks to create something amazing, you get an instruction book with step by step guidelines to ensure you know what you are about to do but the talent is still in the putting together those blocks, in being able to follow the plan and having a little bit of artistry. Just like a modern digital leader, there are so many books of instructions given to you, by your business by your customers, by your peers; its your job as leader to make sense of these ‘instructions’ and work out where to place all the pieces you have to get the best result. A bit like with Lego sometimes getting the pieces to ‘work’ together can be part of the challenge but ultimately the vast majority of them will come together with a bit of perseverance and persuasion and when they do you can end up with a beautiful ‘thing’.

Grant: I love that Rich, in many ways, as architects and IT leaders we’ve never grown out of the Lego puzzles from our childhood. To your example – EA adds value when we curate the instruction booklets across these domains for digital leaders and drive reuse of the components across our business capabilities of people, process, information, and technology lenses. To visually illustrate this we can see that reuse isn’t just a concept that applies only to IT technologies, we see reuse and patterns everywhere we look – even in our entertainment.

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As we complete navigating our business and customers’ instruction books, EA shifts to the more expected metaphor of building with our information and technology Lego blocks. Here EA’s use of patterns drives us to look for reuse among the more common and heavily used components in our landscape including wheels, windows and doors and seeks to create a custom figurine for the scene’s superhero, where 1 unique piece is all we need.

Rich: I don’t want the analogy to stop there though, remember the pain of standing on a piece of forgotten Lego? Well a bit like Lego if we miss align, or misplace any of the resources we have then its going to hurt when you do find them and realise what you have missed out on, that’s why when starting the leadership role its always essential I think to work out what you have in your box of Lego first.

…And this concludes our 3rd chapter. Looking forward to your views and any other puzzles you think should be considered as an analogy for how we lead.