Posted by: Arun Gupta
Leadership, managing expectations, role of the CIO, Strategic discussions
Recently I had a very interesting discussion with a CIO friend. She is by most benchmarks a successful CIO who has a credible record of delivering many solutions that business has used effectively across her many assignments. Over a year back she joined a company that is well established though does not score well on IT maturity. She took that as an opportunity to make a difference and help them bring mature IT to drive business value. Her road appeared well charted with buy-in from the Executive team.
The initial period or the “honeymoon period” was a dream run getting to know the business, the initial plans and fixing the basic stuff typically referred to as the “low hanging fruits” or “quick wins”. She brought the IT team together and with frequent meetings, coaching and guidance had them working towards the defined common objective for the team. Initiatives got off the ground soon enough with her team working with vigour to achieve success that had eluded them in the past.
Some of her direct reports who were new to the team; they quickly learned the business with help from other team mates and discussions at the ground level across operations. She started reaching out to her peers to gain their confidence and plan for the long-term. The projects were handed out to project leads to go and engage the business teams in a dialogue to discover current process as well as identify the critical success factors. The team charged by initial success garnered by the quick wins and the changing perception decided to approach the next level of managers and operational heads.
The IT team scheduled meetings with the operational managers to discuss the strategic intent of the new initiatives. Their progress was far from satisfactory; they had too many questions on why the need for change, what will happen to existing data, how will it impact the people down the line, etc. They were obviously not aligned to the direction agreed to by their bosses. This disconnect caused by lack of information flow downward caused heartburns on either side. The CIO attempted to moderate the discussion with limited success.
Some of the teams had no inkling of the new initiatives; looping back to business leaders the discovery was the fact that there was no consistency in communication. Some had informally spoken to their direct reports while others expected the CIO to drive the change initiatives. She was expected to broadcast and/or communicate the decisions, rationale, plans, motivation, methodology which they had endorsed. As the initiator of the proposed change the ball rested with the CIO. Not a healthy situation as she recollected to me.
She took charge and formulated the communication that was approved by the respective business heads. Then she realized that if the communication did not originate from the business owners there was a risk that the project will become an IT project with reluctant participation. Back again she coerced the CXOs to disseminate the same. The tone of the discussions now was different with the endorsement of the respective department heads.
Strategic discussions can only succeed when both sides have a complete agreement on the process and the outcomes. For the CIO to make progress, it is imperative to get the message across the layers of the functions which are impacted directly or indirectly. Any gaps here will lead to unaligned objectives; I believe that CIOs should manage the process such that they are able to create the ownership and urgency towards the meeting of objectives. My friend did make progress until one incident.
In a meeting with one such middle manager where she too was present, he got the meeting started on the wrong foot. He said, “Are you folks really ready for a strategic discussion ? First fix the email system that keeps breaking down before we can get down to serious business !”. Not that the email system had failed in the last 6 months, the experiences of the past continued to colour the perceptions of progress negating any gains. And that is a story for another time.