Making your way out of an IT tornado

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Marketing Talk for the CIO

I know I’m not the first IT executive — and it’s unlikely I’ll be the last — to walk into an IT department in the midst of a major transition. A few examples of what you might find:

  • A restructuring where no consensus exists about IT’s future role
  • A technology consolidation across a number of geographies with no platform direction decided
  • A culture where true power and influence rest with a set of stakeholders you’d never predict by looking at an org chart.

So as a newcomer, what’s your best move?

  1. Find the Biggest Problem for Customers: When I’ve gone into messes, the first thing I always try to figure out is what’s the biggest impacting problem to the customer or the business partner. You have to focus. Generally I’ve found that there are so many things to work on, that if you don’t focus you will not make progress on anything. What I’ve found helpful is to ask around: “Who is the most critical customer you have?” This could be an external customer if you’re delivering products or an internal customer if you’re delivering business solutions. Whichever one it is, get their main problem addressed. Once you make progress on that path you’ve got somebody who recognizes that things are going to change, that you can make an impact in a new company, and that they can safely ally with you going forward.
  2. Notch a Few Quick Wins with a Power Player: In any IT or enterprise culture with a lot of swirl I’ve often found a prevailing sense of futility. We’ve tried this before, in other words, so why will this person or their ideas be different? Surviving the first few months is often about getting to small wins for the power players. And by that term I don’t mean the stars of the org chart but those who stand out from a political perspective. They are often the ones driving a lot of the direction. Figure out who they are, partner with them and make a difference. Then you can continue building a coalition of supporters.
  3. Apply Phase-Gates Intelligently: Another thing I’ve found is that in complete chaos, people try to gate everything. This can mean that you face dozens of governance gates for a solution, many of them pointless. I’ve found success in gating a factor like quality toward the end of a cycle and demand toward the beginning of a cycle. In this way you can stop things from blowing up while you get the chaos out of a function like delivery. When over-gating is an issue, paralysis can set in or people will start going around the gates. Either outcome is to be avoided.

The biggest technology success factor is human.

In an enterprise, success is about the ability to understand how things flow, where the hand-offs happen and how you should align your strategies. This is second nature for some people. Others have never worked in companies where the people driving marketing directions are separate from the people creating go-to-market strategies and the people defining product directions. If you don’t have a good model to tie it all together, you build bridges in different directions. At the end of the day, you get a tornado.

This is why clarity of roles is key, within and outside of IT. So are accountability lines, communication, and documenting things. If you don’t have clarity in working models and roles, people spend a lot of time trying to create roles for themselves. They add more gates, the politics kick up, and everyone is glomming onto responsibility to self-justify. Discipline and clarity are where it all begins, two ingredients you’ll notice are entirely missing from tornadoes.

So look on the bright side. A lot of crises end up being surprisingly timely because they signal market shifts. And a crisis always can be a positive thing if you know how to take advantage of it. Never let a good crisis go to waste!


Lee Congdon, CIO of Red Hat has the same advice. Watch his short video, "Never waste a good crisis."

Sven Gerjets is Chief Technology Officer at Pearson, the world’s leading learning company, with 40,000 employees in more than 80 countries. He brings 20 years of IT experience to his role, including application development, system integration, enterprise program management, and large organization leadership.

Sven Gerjets is EVP and Chief Technology Officer at Mattel. Previously, Gerjets served as the President and Chief Product Officer at Colorado-based software company, where he supported the company’s business development efforts as well as product strategy for’s award-winning digital transformation platform (DxP).