As the end of 2003 approached, the holiday season was the usual mad dash, as preparations and parties started colliding with current-year commitments and the coming year’s attractions. Now that we’re on the other side of the silly season, most businesspeople are feeling refreshed and renewed after their holiday break. Even though we’re now a month into 2004, I’d like to share some insights in the form of New Year’s resolutions. The following is the antidote for my “Ten Mistakes CIOs Too Often Make” (see “How to Get Yourself Thrown Out of the Game”, below) and is inspired by clients, friends and readers who have mastered the ability to maintain focus and optimism in the midst of the daily grind.
- Spend one day a week with the “one level down” and the “front line” Seek information that will broaden your perspective and ensure that you live and lead in the real world. “One level down” is the code phrase of a grocery retail CIO who believes that if you want to influence the opinions of your peers, then influence the opinions of their direct reports. Another great source for insight is the frontline employees of your organisation.
- Fix the top service issue. Delivering the basics establishes the watermark for your organisation’s credibility. All your other accomplishments will suffer if you are unable to deliver a level of service consistent with what your business delivers to its customers. Stop ignoring it or excusing it; there are a million good reasons why your service is the way it is, but none of them matter. Analysing the underlying root causes and formulating a workable improvement program will require heavy involvement on your part.
- Deliver 5 per cent annual efficiency gains. Every executive is expected to deliver efficiencies without waiting for a mandate from above. Beyond the one-time benefits of consolidation, the only way to deliver efficiency in a responsible manner is by reducing demand or the cost of delivering each “unit”. Although efficiency programs require an understanding of your operational costs and underlying cost drivers, many organisations derail their efficiency programs by spending too much time on comprehensive cost analysis. Your IT managers usually know the systems that take the most time to support, the customers who are the most demanding and the services that constantly require exception processing.
- Facilitate an IT-enabled business strategy. Strategy is a demand management tactic. Establishing priorities and criteria for future opportunities are two of the most important outcomes of effective strategy-making. Many CIOs are sheepish about strategy-making efforts outside the four walls of IT because they are concerned about participation from the business side. Find consultants who can facilitate a process that answers “what should we invest in and why” in six half-day sessions during two to three months. Get participation at the broadest and highest level you can without exposing your backside. Since strategy is iterative, an initial process attended by junior executives will provide the positive word-of-mouth necessary to institutionalise the process at more senior levels over time.
- Make the CFO the bad guy. Balancing IT supply and demand requires that someone says “no” — but it’s in your long-term interests that it not be you. Fortunately, the CFO is chartered with the job of allocating scarce financial resources, which allows him to be the heavy without anybody taking it personally. Repeat after me: The CFO is my friend. Stop trying to placate the CFO’s constant nagging about elusive IT value. Instead, put him in the driver’s seat. Using your company’s existing capital budgeting and decision-making practices, help the CFO apply good financial disciplines to technology investments (including setting an overall IT funding limit, determining portfolio allocations for return and risk management, establishing corporate oversight on strategic investments while delegating tactical expenditures to business units, staging funding, assigning value accountability and monitoring value delivery).
- Make the CIO the good guy. Build a service organisation that shows respect and appreciation for your customers. Ensure that senior IT leaders have good soft skills, including empathy, network-building, perceptiveness, teaming and persuasion (for more information, see the book First, Break All the Rules). Design an organisation that has the ability to flex capacity by allocating internal headcount on those positions that gate supply — project managers, business analysts, and senior application and infrastructure design engineers.
- Show project value in six months. Build your credibility and reduce project risk by requiring that all IT-enabled business investments deliver value within six months. Increase your odds of doing so by understanding what drives value and sequencing these “value dependencies” as early as possible. Claim victory for all progress made within the scope of the investment, whether it’s IT-related or not. Follow the lead of a travel distributor who implemented a supply chain integration program with 18 releases over five years. The company understood that improvements in quality, cycle time and efficiency required many big changes in tandem: consolidated organisations, new order management and fulfilment processes, a single customer image, enterprise visibility on orders and status, and integration with key external vendors. The six-month value rule forced them to sequence — consolidation of the organisation followed by establishment of metrics, an integrated customer database, enterprise order transparency, and so forth.
- Plant architecture on terra firma. Put an end to the fancy, far out, who-really-understands-it architecture group. Make standards job number one. Technology retirement, with the goal of minimising the technology footprint and operating costs, is job number two. Use some of your hard-earned political capital to ensure that IT retains authority over technology standards. Set priorities based on application requirements for the next two years or so and invest ahead of need in a disciplined manner. You can do this by pacing investment in line with business growth and self-funding through efficiency savings.
- Manage by the numbers. Anything worth doing deserves to be measured. Run IT like a business by monitoring value, productivity, service and retention trends. Drive value and efficiency using operational metrics — not just financial ones. Monitor project success based on cycle time, use-case analysis and usage.
- Manage your share of mind. Challenge yourself on the feasibility and importance of your tactical plans by summarising your annual objectives, initiatives, accountabilities and measurements on a single page (no A3 sheets). Make choices about what you will follow and track, and acknowledge that other people will be responsible for activities that never make it onto your page.
How to Get Yourself Thrown Out of the Game
Life’s too short to make stupid mistakes — or I should say, your career is too short to make the same mistakes others have been making for years and years. We have all seen a promising career derailed too early over something that could have easily been avoided, if only they had known. Wouldn’t it be great to peer into the minds of seasoned CIOs and extract the wisdom earned over the years? In an attempt to fill the void, I’ll share with you some of the well-intentioned, stupid mistakes that my clients (and I) have made over the years.
Reign from your office. Let your assistant book your calendar on a first come, first served basis so that you have meetings every half hour with your direct reports and vendors. Don’t listen to the little voice telling you that the majority of your time should be spent with your customers and the front line of the business. Instead, delegate these activities to your staff.
Be strategic, not tactical. Believe executives when they say: “We need a change-agent CIO to help lead business transformation.” Dedicate all your time to leading and spearheading strategic initiatives. Ignore the hallway grumbling about your high cost structure, poor customer service and uneven operational performance.
Be tactical, not strategic. Believe executives when they say: “After a period of hefty IT investment, we are well positioned with our capabilities and need somebody to get the costs under control.” Focus solely on operational excellence, relying on budget constraints to manage demand.
Address demand on a “you pay, we play” basis. Cash all the cheques the business is willing to endorse to IT. Assume that a willingness to pay corresponds to a value proposition and that you will not be held accountable for unrealised value and soaring operational costs.
Say “yes” to everything. Agree to all client requests and trust that you can get internal supply to flex infinitely with demand by using tactics like outsourcing, skill development and improved processes. Ignore the fact that there is a practical limit on the number of investments that can be well managed and the amount of change a business can absorb.
Say “no”. Institute a governance monarchy and appoint yourself king. Assume that you were hired to take tough stands and eschew the other tactics for managing demand (strategy-making, senior executive governance and investment management) as inefficient.
Ascribe to the “big bang” theory of development. Ignore the mountains of research about the need for short cycle time in projects. Approach multi-year initiatives as a single project with a known destination. Assume that the business context and leadership will stay stable over the long term.
Treat architecture and security as an output rather than an input. Shape infrastructure on a project-by-project basis and ignore your fiduciary responsibility to leave the place in better shape than when you arrived.
Pretend that your organisational weeds are really untended flowers. Deal with poor-performing staff by working around them or lowering your standards. Use outsourcing to get critical skills and focus your in-house resources on keeping the business running.
Rely solely on your gut. Support the balanced scorecard approach to drive and monitor strategic change, but don’t bother putting measurement systems in place, citing cost and urgency. Use gut and instinct as your guide and assume that your unwritten record of accomplishments will stand on its own as the political winds kick up dust in your direction.
As an executive coach, it’s my business to help clients avoid stupid mistakes. Stupid mistakes are the type that will get you thrown out of the game before you really get started. In the course of your career, you will still make mistakes, but they will be more sophisticated — and, although painful, those mistakes will enhance your competence. Once you have the basics of the IT game covered, you are free to improvise and develop your own playing style and leadership trademark. Sophisticated mistakes happen to all great athletes. As long as your batting average is pretty good, you will manage through them and live to play another day.
Susan H Cramm is president of Valuedance, a California-based executive coaching firm
Join the CIO Australia group on LinkedIn. The group is open to CIOs, IT Directors, COOs, CTOs and senior IT managers.