Why CIOs can't go it alone and stay sane

Why CIOs can't go it alone and stay sane

You can't lead a changeable, complex IT environment like a fiefdom. Use these three strategies to build true partnerships

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February 28, 2019

There’s an archaic curse that has been likely mistranslated in recent centuries as “May you live in interesting times.” Apocryphal or not, it’s a wonderful summary of the current state of affairs in the CIO space.

These are indeed interesting times. New technology abounds. Technology is ever-more central to organizations’ journeys. Cyber threats have intensified and multiplied a thousand-fold. Sagging core infrastructure has refused to exit gracefully. 

CIOs are also fighting the continued war for talent. Playing the budget game in the agile era, when ROI on experimentation proves tough to measure. Managing collisions – for those who implemented the 2-track (bimodal) IT model, the core track people may get frustrated that the innovation track people seem to have all the fun, while the innovation track people may tire of leadership attention and resources constantly being diverted to put out fires in the infrastructure space. 

All of this conflicted energy eventually lands on the CIO’s desk. It’s energizing and crazy-making. 

CIOs are struggling to understand the right rate of change and calibrate process accordingly. 

At the root of these issues is a common theme: understanding the right rate of change (including what’s hype and what’s not) and calibrating organizational progress accordingly. Even the sharpest scenario-planning approaches struggle under the weight of exponentially more possible scenarios – and a noisy environment beset by potentially untrustworthy information.  

When answers to key strategic questions like “is blockchain relevant for our organization?” prove elusive, making all the right choices downstream – regarding investment, talent, and the very fundamentals of how to structure a high-functioning organization – is rendered a thousand times more complex.

So what’s a CIO to do? Surrender to the madness? There’s no easy solution to the challenges of a high-complexity environment. But there are a few starting points for CIOs on the journey toward a saner existence. Here are three:

1. Assemble a diverse leadership team and delegate in meaningful, long-term ways

Part of what’s making CIOs crazy across the board is the balancing act implicit in so many of the above issues – juggling information and priorities amid a shifting landscape. 

And to be fair – being great jugglers is often what got them into the CIO seat in the first place. But if CIOs re-envision the juggling game – aiming at balls moving through the air with finesse and speed, rather than simply not hitting the floor – it makes good sense to hand off to a few more jugglers. This group should have a healthy dose of emotional intelligence and must be, in aggregate, thought-diverse

[ Get lessons from Melissa Swift about how to engage everyone in transformation. Read 3 kinds of employees who hurt transformation momentum. ]

Even the best CIOs have potentially fatal blind spots, and replicating those blind spots on the leadership team means the organization remains unprotected. Getting the right folks in the room is only half the battle, though: They need to be given long-term ownership of vital initiatives and genuinely empowered to solve – otherwise, the cognitive burden on the CIO remains unaffected. 

2. Partner with the entire C-suite to determine what the lifecycle of a good experiment looks like

There’s little argument that testing and learning is the optimal strategy in a highly uncertain environment. But on a practical level, CIOs often stumble in the execution of this strategy – succumbing to pressure to deliver conventionally defined results and hit all of the traditional marks. 

But on a practical level, CIOs often stumble in the execution of experiments.

Those who can marshal legitimate consensus across the C-suite – defining a shared vision of what may happen during a tech experimentation cycle – are at far less risk of getting their experiments derailed. (Interesting note: Derailment often comes from both directions – CFOs wanting a more conservative approach, and CMOs advocating for faster movement!)

It’s critical that this shared vision include nitty-gritty details – such as what it means to spend in a non-optimized fashion, or how talent may join for shorter cycles. 

3. Think ecosystem, not fiefdom

In chaotic times, leaders are often tempted to focus on what they can control. But ironically, the fastest path to results may lie outside the organization’s walls. 

For instance, CIOs can begin to get a handle on the hype cycle of key technologies, or on markets for high-demand talent, by engaging an outside “board of directors” with the ability to gather information across a broad array of contexts. Outside partnerships with innovative start-ups can also accelerate the innovation cycle – dodging budget and KPI concerns at critical early stages. 

If trying to manage an uncertain rate of change is the common theme across what’s driving CIOs crazy, seeking true help and partnership is the “red thread” across an array of solutions. Similar to the discussion that’s erupted in the CEO space, a conversation has emerged as to whether the demands of the CIO job have become excessive for one individual. 

The smartest CIOs don’t try to go it alone – they seek help from their leadership teams, their C-suite colleagues, and even the outside world. They know going it alone is a recipe for insanity.

[ Are you leading using an outdated rulebook? Learn the new rules of CIO leadership in this Harvard Business Review Analytic Services research. ]

Melissa Swift leads Korn Ferry’s Digital Advisory for North America and Global Accounts. In this role, she partners with clients to understand their deepest human capital challenges in the digital arena, and to address those challenges in novel and comprehensive ways spanning from strategy execution and job design to leadership development and culture shaping.  She has worked in North America, Europe, and Asia, and spends time in industries ranging from financial services and life sciences to consumer and industrial.

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