Five hundred words on Sente

Sente is a beautiful Japanese term often used in the game of Go. It denotes initiative, the ability to dictate the course of play by executing a leading move and thus impose your will and strategy upon the game.

In business, and particularly in IT, I like to use sente to qualify decisions that lead to optimal business outcomes and indeed impose optimal outcomes on an uncertain near-future. This is an elusive quality for decisions made by IT strategists, caught as we are in a complex and constantly evolving web of demands and constraints.

To obtain sente in Go it is necessary to have an excellent overview of the entire board, a deep understanding of the higher-order consequences of your move and the mental clarity to formulate and adhere to your strategy in an evolving situation.

Extrapolating, sente in business and more specifically in IT, requires a deep understanding of what your options are, what business outcomes will be affected by your choices, and clear ideas about what makes your choices the right ones. Let’s examine these aspects in turn.

What your options are, as IT manager or executive, is constrained by your budget and the legacy people, process and technology previously invested in. Your options are also constantly evolving as innovation continues apace. To maintain an up-to-date and deep understanding of your options requires constant re-orientation and reflection to this changing reality. It also requires trust. The business needs to trust your insight and judgement in order to give you the widest latitude possible in facilitating optimal outcomes.

The business outcomes affected by your choices are, at first glance, quite obvious but often have second and third order consequences that are not easily predicted or understood. One day you allow people to bring their tablets to work and use them to get stuff done, a year later you are kindly requested by in-house counsel to limit unauthorized distribution of documents and forced to roll out a mobile device management solution, taking a chunk of your budget earmarked to pilot cloud services. 
 Foreseeing this kind of sequence is the purview of the effective CIO and the reason they get paid the big bucks (comparatively speaking for the IT department). There is no silver bullet here except to look in the mirror and recognize your strengths in this area and if needed obtain a trusted adviser with a weather eye on the indirect consequences of your steersmanship.

Now, what makes you so sure that your decisions are the right ones? This is really about a clear understanding of what you are about, what X you are optimizing for. Is your IT department about running the leanest, meanest operation in town and stretching each dime into a quarter? Are you mr. DevOps, rolling out continuous changes and evolving your platform faster than Zuckerberg on speed? Either way, stick to your guns! Flip-flopping is the very opposite of sente. The CIO must needs be a beacon of certainty.

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