Turn the IS ship in time or hit the iceberg!
IS performance does not suddenly crash. Rather it declines until it reaches a point where the business triggers radical change. CIOs can overlook the warning signs until it is too late. Or they can recognize the need to improve IS before the business makes that decision for them.
But what can be done? There are a whole group of CIOs - the turnaround CIOs - who make a living by going into enterprises with ailing IS organizations and, as their name would suggest, turning around performance and creating a sharp improvement in delivered value from IS.
A turnaround CIO does not have to be someone that comes in from the outside, though. Fortunately current CIOs can learn from turnaround CIOs to use a combination of leadership, management and organizational techniques, to drive results.
Start by recognizing a turnaround is not business as usual. Turnarounds are very different from managing the steady state. They are a full contact sport. An IS turn-around has to concentrate on improving the performance of the entire IS organization all at once. But are you sure you need to be so radical? Start by looking at IT strategic plans and initiatives and ask yourself a straightforward question: "Do they look as implementable given the current IT and IS organizational capabilities?" If not then you have to take a hard look at the IS organization itself.
Turnaround CIOs claim their ability to be successful comes from being willing to look at the actual state of IS, its performance levels and business needs. They look for root causes of the gaps in performance based on people, processes, technology, and organization. These are techniques open to any CIO.
Turnaround CIOs use visibility as a tool to connect business and IT priorities and take the actions necessary to change behaviour. They also have a bias to action. And work with "aggressive empathy" in terms of understanding people, their emotions and needs and then using that understanding to create results and change behaviour. They are also willing to upset the status quo and to recognize that entrenched political relationships are often part of the cause of poor performance. Turnaround CIOs get the results even it means ruffling some feathers.
While this may be harder for an incumbent CIO, it is not impossible. A knowledge of self, gained through emotional intelligence (a term coined by management guru Daniel Goleman and a topic I will cover more fully in a later column) comes into play here. It includes four capabilities: self-awareness, self management, social awareness, and social skill. All can be used to develop your turnaround CIO capabilities. Emotional intelligence can also help with executive presence - that is, what your executive peers think of your and how influential you are with them.
Among your own skills to work on are the executive and board communication skills necessary to gain the resources (budgets), management attention and management participation in IT processes needed to support the turnaround.
Build your fact base for action. If a turnaround is needed and you are ready, first stop things getting any worse. Find out the state of your team. Only once the capabilities of the team have been assessed can the serious business of turning them into match winners begin. To do this, get an independent and unbiased look at actual IS performance. It is easy for you, the current CIO, to fail to see the gaps in performance or think of them as not particularly important. Remember that performance is in the eye of the customer, not you.
If any part of the team or situation is new to you, take the time to understand their history, and attempt to uncover the root causes of any problems facing them. Weigh carefully the actions required to improve performance and resources needed for change. In your diagnosis, you should include building an inventory of current IT projects and business requests, getting to know key personnel in the IS organization, clarifying IT technical and service level performance and consolidating IT budgets and costs.
Throughout, focus on leadership and process execution rather than political finesse. You cannot wish your way to better performance. You have to work your way there. Concentrate on simple and direct actions. A turnaround represents a radical change that requires clear actions which get results. You cannot finesse your way to the desired result.
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