Bandwidth, or bandwidth management, is often associated with technology management. As you may be aware my view is that CIOs should be less preoccupied with technology management and more focused on digital leadership.

That stated, I am increasingly of the view that bandwidth management is a matter that digital leaders should focus on, specifically personal bandwidth management. I think this is important to CIOs because the always-on and ever changing nature of the role can result in great personal bandwidth consumption often without the corresponding business outcomes.

First let us take a look at two related concepts from neuroscience:

  • Cognitive control
  • Working memory.

These have a large bearing on bandwidth consumption and productivity.

Cognitive control is very similar to willpower. Poor willpower leads to being easily distracted. CIOs with poor cognitive control are more likely to be distracted by operational matters that should be left to their direct-reports to address. As well as environmental distractions internal impulses can also exploit poor cognitive control. A lingering sensation that the vendors want to rip you off - or side step you - or that the CEO doesn't want you in the leadership team can result in wasted bandwidth (daydreaming) as you punish yourself by role playing such unpleasant scenarios. Of course you may be right to assume the worst in both cases, but letting them fester in your head is not the way to address them. Better cognitive control provides you with the capacity to ignore both acute and chronic distractions and focus on what is important to your organisation.

I believe cognitive control is highly related to good leadership. Poor leadership leads to bandwidth consuming friction between you and the team. On the other hand good leadership enables you to delegate operational aspects of your department's obligations, freeing you up to focus on what is strategically important.
To improve cognitive control you need to develop your own set of brain games to build the relevant 'muscle'. Such games might include:

The 'No' game – Anything asked of you by the users which is not fully aligned with the strategic KPIs receives a resounding no rather than a begrudging yes. Similarly any requests of you from within the IT function that are really decisions to be taken by your direct reports should be met with a curt redirection to the person charged with addressing the issue. You have a leadership team for a reason. Keep track of your No/Redirects each day.

The 'Leadership' game – Here you are focused on enabling your people to do their job. This means taking on organisational issues that are impeding your people. Track number of obstacles removed or diminished each day.

The 'Strategy' game – Monitor the percentage of your time you spend on activities related to growing, changing or even saving the business.

You can of course create your own games. Gamifying your role will help you focus on what is important.

Turning to working memory. This is essentially your personal ram capacity. Intensive applications require more Ram as do thorny business problems where the ability to juggle a number of issues and their interrelatedness is needed. The greater the working memory the greater your capacity to address the big issues. It is also true that you will appear to be better equipped to multitask. Though unless you have more than one brain you are only ever simulating multi-tasking and all the attendant context-switching overhead that goes with it.

Recent developments in neuroscience suggest that working memory can be expanded. Again this 'muscle' needs to be exercised. But through poor cognitive control many of us squander our working memory because we are allowing this valuable resource to be soaked up through both internal and external distractions. Good cognitive control leads to better use of working bandwidth. So you can improve working memory by both enlarging the pipe and controlling what flows along it.

If your mind is preoccupied with career issues, the recent upgrade of the CRM system and whether the logistics associated with your next business trip are taken care of, you will have very little left to apply to strategic matters.

So again you can reclaim working memory by better cognitive control and you can grow working memory by working out in your own private mind gym so to speak. Such workouts relate to growing your ability to concentrate and apply your attention at will (rather than being the victim of impulses and distractions).

Like any first visit to the gym you need to take it easy and then gradually build up your strength. Too much too soon will of course result in injury. So perhaps step 1 is to set aside 30 minutes a day outside of 'trading hours' to focus purely on strategy. This needs to be at a set time so that it eventually becomes a habit. Once this discipline is in place add another 30 minutes during trading hours (again at a set time).

At first you will feel under pressure to respond to 'emergencies' should they emerge during this period. And occasionally a call from the CEO needs to be taken if employment is important to you. But overtime you will get better at prioritising your time and excluding distractions. As this happens you can build up the time you devote to strategic matters. Users will learn to approach others to have their IT issues resolved. Similarly IT staff will address their issues to your leadership team rather than directly to you.

So bandwidth management is both a network infrastructure issue and a personal one. By better management of your personal bandwidth you will spend less time focusing on network bandwidth amongst other technology management matters. Unless of course IT management is your preferred career option in which case just sit there dreaming until someone asks you to build or fix an IT system.