It had been a long search, far and wide, across the oceans; many able men and women working as teams traversed the globe in her quest. A few options were shortlisted but discarded very quickly when some deficiency was uncovered with deeper analysis. The rigour redoubled, the pursuit unwavering, the promise of reward for the long-term kept them going. Their leader encouraged the team though the journey especially when they appeared to falter and give-up.
Almost a year into the expedition, the quest finally came to an end with what appeared to be a perfect and made to order ending. The leadership team got together to discuss the outflow; she was expensive and required high maintenance. No one had the courage thus far to take such a risk. However the promise of the future convinced everyone that it would be worth the investment. So they all agreed to part with the precious gold coins and get her on board. High risk, high return said the treasurer.
She was welcomed with a lot of fanfare, the headman chose a name from the many suggested and the message spread across on the new unique acquisition. Everyone contributed to setting the expectations that rose in unison as if in a crescendo; everyone watched the future with euphoric anticipation. Smiths and specialists from all over the world got together to define outcomes that she would enable. Progress was slow and soon people started paying lesser attention focusing on their daily chores.
Life continued as usual with occasional reviews that highlighted challenges to understand and adapt to her whims. The workmen toiled day and night for many moons encouraged by their leader who did not give up belief. Two winters later the team broke off into a joyous dance; everything worked as designed, all the links delivered, the input validated, the outcome was as expected. Rushing to the leadership team they demonstrated the end result, chests puffed with obvious pride.
Celebration was called, everyone wanted to be associated with success; anecdotes of arduous journey spread with friendly banter. After almost 18 months since the start day, the project had gone live and was churning out results that were unfamiliar territory but delivered business outcomes the leader had believed possible. The competitive advantage gained using the new technology was evident and accolades poured in locally and globally for the unique pioneering solution.
Too good to last, some of the naysayers found reason to challenge and doubt the results; conventional wisdom did not support the new solution; thus they were able to sow seeds of doubt which spread quickly through the enterprise. The initial success was passed off as stroke of luck and not sustainable. With no supporters, almost everyone went back to their old way and deserted the solution as a bad dream and mistake. The solution thus joined the IT orphanage.
Applications and solutions that the IT team developed bur no one really used; solutions that were bought by users only to be discarded with no one to support them; applications and reports that are always urgent for development but rarely complete UAT; and if they do, hardly anyone wants to use them, they all finally find their place in the IT orphanage. These have no owner, no user, and no parent to support them. Once relegated they rarely if ever find a benefactor who is willing to support them.
Every organization has a (un)labelled orphanage that sometimes gets very crowded especially if the CIO and the IT team is unable to assert themselves or if they collectively work to create solutions that are disconnected from business reality. The CIO needs to highlight such instances transparently and openly to either change team behaviour or improve chances of success; and/or change business engagement and ownership that rarely if at all any need to be assigned to the orphanage.
P.S. Within a year the project was revived by the CIO and has stayed a success now for over 2 years; that is a story for another time.
Recently I participated in a Big Data conference which boasted of speakers of all shapes and sizes (literally too) from government, global multinationals, large enterprises, to vendors and academicians rounding off the tail. The audience filled the room to the brim with expectations of gaining insights from the deliberations and debate. After all, according to IT research analysts, Big Data is one of the key technology trends on everyone’s agenda and priority list. It’s like if you are not doing it, then you are Jurassic.
The agenda comprised of speakers from all mentioned above; some had done it, some were selling wares with titles containing “Big Data”, a couple of consultants and service providers who offered their “expertise” on the subject, and finally a CIO to provide an enterprise perspective of how are corporates looking at it. All in all it was an eclectic mix which promised to give value for time invested to the organizers and participants. I took up a corner perched at the edge of my seat and watched the proceedings.
Setting the foundation the keynote speaker talked about the concept, progress made by IT companies, known deployments of Big Data by a few FMCG, internet companies, and government agencies. A case study of a potential big data application at a government initiative demonstrated the dimensions of Big Data, i.e. Volume, Variety, Velocity and Value. Everything was going well thus far with the audience – a mix of technology staff, IT students, and some service providers – lapping it up all.
Then events took a turn that changed the atmosphere in the room; everyone sat up awoken from their stupor and peaceful existence in the cushioned chairs. Like falling off a cliff was how a participant described it later; the turmoil changed the agenda and the utterings of future speakers who were cautious in their exultations of Big Data. The speaker exceeded his time; no one interrupted his thought train. He challenged everyone to challenge his hypothesis; none did. He was the CIO talking about relevance to the corporate.
Who needs Big Data? Where does it fit into the maturity curve of an enterprise using Business Intelligence or Analytics? How do you partner with business who is still swamped by reports or dashboards at best? Actionable insights? When does a data warehouse become inadequate and Big Data become necessary? Is it about unstructured data only or volume of data or complexity of analysis? Is analysis of social media tags or text Big Data even when volume is low? So what is Big Data?
Consultants and IT companies have developed models and tools respectively to hypothetically help companies mine the sea of data. They have been talking about uses and value across industries based on some assumptions. A few pilots with companies have not empirically demonstrated a correlation between the Big Data analytics and the benefit. Internet companies have used scalable models of their earlier working solutions as they grew; e.g. recommendation engines, product associations, etc. These are not new.
Is it just hype or a technology solution created for specific purposes now being touted as nirvana for all kinds of data problems or analytics that have historically belonged to the data mart or data warehouse? The CIO challenged the audience to clear their vision, heads, and minds and think rationally on what is the business problem they want to solve before deciding on the tools and technology. The yellow elephant in the room cannot be ignored; its relevance however needs to be established before feeding it.
At the end of the session which led into the lunch break, the CIO was hounded for his contrarian views; everyone wanted a piece of advice and some wanted to debate their conflicts in private. The poor fellow was deprived of lunch with the next session being ringed in. I believe Big Data like any new technology trend needs evaluation in the context of the enterprise’s reality. Is there benefit to customers or employees? If not why do it? Like my old CFO friend said “If it makes cents, only then it makes sense!”
He took a calculated risk with a new solution from a start-up vendor for a critical part of the business. The project started well and then ran into huge issues during a recessionary trend that hit everyone; under pressure the users started taking a cautious approach to every bit of functionality and wanted every remote condition part of the solution. Everyone who had signed off on the risk matrix now conjectured about the decision putting the CIO in a spot which lead to his movement.
Fast forward to another era, the CIO now with another company took on the challenge to rescue the underwater reputation of IT. He took a bold step to choose a smaller and relatively unknown vendor for an even larger business critical project; the selection process was unquestionable with sign-offs from all CXOs. The project went live with flying colors and was recognized by the users, the company – locally and globally, and acknowledged as a paradigm shift in the industry.
News about his risk ability and success was coupled with the many awards he and his team had collected. The business too was bestowed with many industry awards as they leveraged the technology solutions with due credit to the IT team. The Midas touch was such that even though the company had normally been on the leading curve of technology adoption, now it was a playing ground for every IT company wanting to invest and explore use cases that the weak hearted would shy away from.
Through the years many started seeking coaching and mentoring from the CIO; he acknowledged all, was ready with a piece of advice, networked across layers with ease, growing in stature feeding on the recognition. Industry bodies and forums wanted him as an advisor, conferences vied for his participation; everyone was satiated with his response and participation. He became larger than life in his embodiment of success and the persona became bigger than the person.
One fine day he sold the Ferrari like the Monk from the famous book and gave up all the glitz and fame to start all over again. There was shock and rumbles of “something must have gone wrong; after all he was taking too many risks; it was too good to last”. Puzzled people who knew him or thought that they did, queried “Why ??”. A few bold ones asked the question in vain, others wondered, the void he left behind was too large to fill and thus remained a vacuum with his absence being felt by everyone.
I caught up with the CIO who had retreated into a dark hole, asking the obvious hoping to gain some insights into the compulsions and rationale that had many wondering. He quizzed me instead to postulate the reasons of which I denied him the possibility instead pushing for words from his mind and heart. I found it hard to believe his story but it was his story only in a way that he could think of the future. I sought his permission to write about it which was granted. In brief I reproduce the same.
I thought I was invincible; I always took calculated risks though they appeared to be undue from the outside. Every success fed my ego, my success went to my head until I failed; I could not believe it, I tried justifying it to myself, oscillating between being the victim, blaming circumstances and everyone else. Until I realized that it was not about others, it was about me. That made me introspect on what success means to me; I analyzed my situation, my behavior, sought feedback, and decided to use it.
I shared my ideas with my teams and the business who took them on as their own thereby reducing the risk of failure. Success brought rewards and recognition which slowly and steadily began to once again boost my ego and self-esteem where I was becoming uncomfortable with the situation. I had been to the peak and had fallen hard. The heady feeling of invincibility beckoned again and was difficult to resist. So to put to rest the temptation, I quit; to start all over again. I feel at peace and excited to once again conquer new peaks!
The order was released to the vendor after multiple demonstrations and discussions with the business teams. Everyone agreed that any step is a step forward from their current reality; the vendor, IT team, and the users were excited with the new capability that was being attempted for the first time which would create a new way of working in the industry. The teams believed that all who mattered had been aligned with thorough groundwork done by the business and IT teams.
And then the CEO raised a few fundamental questions that setback the project to square one. Have you considered the buy-in across the layers? Why will it create a better future for us when our competitors using the same solution have not benefited? What are other industries doing and is there a learning that we can imbibe? Who are on the team and who is not, are they the best we have? Do you really know the reality on the ground? The team intuitively knew the setback and irrelevance of the discussion at this stage. They had updated the CEO through the process, but no one raised the head to be shot!
The marketing team proudly presented to the Executive Committee their success from a cloud based solution that brought them kudos. They had won the Social Media Innovator award; everyone applauded the success. The CEO turned to the CIO and offered his compliments to the IT team too. The CIO was going from pink to crimson and blurted out that he was not even aware of the existence of the solution. The CMO undeterred mentioned that the solution was so simple that it did not need IT help.
Recovering the CIO ranted on the collapse of governance and shadow IT compromising the information assets of the company; customer data risk and reputation were at stake should anything fail at the un-assessed IT solution and vendor. The CIO gave instances from the past and the industry that highlighted the business risk in such situations. He then skilfully turned the situation around with an agreement to review, recover and secure the customer data while also offering to extend the solution to enable better analytics.
Opening up of the market was an eventuality that everyone agreed to; everyone was discussing and debating the impact it would have on the industry at large and different segments of the market. Some companies made elaborate plans to leverage the new reality as and when it happens. The CIO benchmarked his company well locally and discovered an opportunity looking at upcoming trends in the mature markets. He presented the use case to the CEO and stakeholders who agreed with some caveat.
He pushed ahead with the business, the IT team and the vendor to deploy the solution seizing the early mover advantage and consolidated the market position with additional 5% market share over and above the already dominant position. The initiative was acknowledged by the CEO, the industry at large and strengthened the credibility of the CIO as a business leader rather than a technology innovator.
Where are you?
Three narrations, each disjointed from each other, each happened to different people at different times, each created different impact to the business and for the CIO, each has learning for the business and the CIO. The stringing together of these portray how people behave to stimulus influencing the outcome and thereby the impact to the company at large. We all have gone through similar experiences and been in similar situations. What would you do differently in situations given above?
I hope that many will associate with the last one and a few with the first two situations. I believe that each situation challenges us and also gives us an opportunity to break the mould and do something differently. Next time take a step back and determine what step you would like to take. We all face adversity in our life; and so many times how we react to it will determine our destiny and outcome. Go ahead, exercise your choice.
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.
It was evident that the project wasn’t going anywhere in a hurry even though the CEO had endorsed and inaugurated it in a gathering of all key stakeholders. It was (had become) the CEOs project which no one believed in. The floundering state of affairs had the IT team and the CIO wondering on the steps they could take to come back on track. After all abandoning was not an option considering the large sunk capital investment and the CEOs belief. The CIO started asking around in the network to explore possibilities.
Almost a year had elapsed since the licenses were procured and the hardware installed; everyone had delivered to promise more or less within the timelines they had agreed to. The IT team had done their bit and ensured that everything worked the way it should. None of the business heads or the key users believed that the priority set by the CEO mattered; their level of thinking was far removed from the ideas perpetrated by the CEO. This disconnect resulted in sporadic half-hearted participation.
The IT team discovered bottlenecks in the master data, correlations between systems and disparate formulae for the same KPI across functions. Getting everyone to the same platform was resisted actively or met with indifferent attitude and claimed conflicting priorities. The CEO in the infrequent status meetings pushed the CIO and the team with little change in outcome. The CIO explored all advice thrown at him and decided to take a few bold steps to recoup the situation.
The starting point was revisiting the outcomes expected from the project; what is the need ? Who benefits from it ? Do expected key users feel threatened with the new process ? Is there a problem with the technology ? Did we get the architecture right ? Are internal and external resources deployed the best ? Were timelines set realistic ? The answers were what he thought they would be. Everything was fine, it is just that people nit piking and splitting hairs, blaming the tools and the result.
So what were the real causes of the lack of traction and belief ? Evidence pointed to the fact that the CEOs thinking process was ahead of the curve which his team found it difficult to connect with. Sycophants in the team prevented others from raising the issue and everyone was on a merry-go-round. End result, the CIO was left with the orphan baby crying for attention and an adverse impact on his performance bonus. So he had to find a solution and that too quickly.
Working diligently through the layers with open communication flowing through the hierarchy, the IT team and the partner worked step by step resolving all direct and ambiguous queries. External Subject Matter Experts were brought over the next six months to educate the users on why the CEO defined path was the way to go in the future. Global benchmarking helped in reinforcing the way less trodden locally. Finally one business head saw the value and agreed to be the guinea pig and the proponent.
The BU head worked with the CIO for further six months reaping the benefits and promoting the cause to his peers who grudgingly began to acknowledge the benefit. The CIO pressed hard this time and found no pushbacks. The acceptance and traction was good. Three years since the start and two years from the time the problem was elevated, the solution was a big hit. Everyone quoted it in internal meetings and external seminars as the strategic differentiator. People raved about it as one of the best implementations.
Incidentally the CEO had moved on just when the project started turning around. His last words of advice to the CIO that he believed in the solution, he should continue to pursue it. We all see such favourite projects of CEOs and other CXOs faltering after a great pomp and show. They take away a lot of energy, budgets and resources to see through to fruition though rarely anyone wants to challenge the need or the relevance at that time. The emperor’s new clothes will always be a parable with learning for everyone.
It does not matter if the vendor is big or small, local or global, domain-centric or broad-based, custom-solutions developer or provides package implementation services, hardware products, or software licenses, or any kind of service provider. They all want you to believe that they all are worthy of being anointed as a preferred and trusted partner to your IT and business initiatives. Everyone without exception believes that they imbibe behaviors that qualify them for this elevated position.
Emergence of a new culture
I am not sure when the transition happened but sometime in the recent decade the term partner replaced the vendor or provider. I think people went back to basics in the early part of the millennium driven by the slowdown, started focusing on leveraging existing ones and building new relationships. Business was tough to come and choices plenty which is where people made the difference. This subtle transition eased into our way of working and no one objected to the new reality.
Today we have partners providing total outsourcing, specialized domain specific or business process outsourcing, desk side support, apart from the various categories listed above. Many of these who have put in their heart and blood into delivering products/ services, irrespective of the contract or commercial arrangement, are truly partners to a CIO and the enterprise; my respects to them. We also have partners providing toner cartridges, USB sticks, printing paper where price is typically the determinant factor!
An opportunity wasted
Recently a CIO friend narrated a story where she met a new vendor where the discussion started with the intent that we would like to be your partners in success and not keep it transactional. The CEO and the team downward demonstrated high passion and commitment at the discussion table. They got engaged in a few projects as a precursor to what could be bigger things and achieve the status of a trusted partner. With many vying for the same business, it was seen as a prestigious win.
The slip between intent and execution has many horror stories spread across the industry. Senior teams from vendors attempt to build relationships with the CIOs, the sales team works with the domain specialists and the next level, and the delivery team which typically has no connect with the process starts discussions with the project managers and the users of the proposed solutions. And that is what transpired here too; one project was delivered well enough, the other killed the relationship.
What appeared to be a dream run became a moon race with surprises all through the journey! The initial effort estimates did not fit the project reality; either the team who did the initial study did not understand the complexity and expectations or her inputs were ignored in the proposal. So there was an attempt to restrict scope to fit the resources allotted. That upset everyone involved; the CEO made a visit, so did others involved in the initial discussion. Much water had flowed and a dam was essential.
Restoring some sanity to the project with the vendor CEO approving the additional investment and some hit on the CIO’s side too, the project looked like being back on track; but that was a false positive. The lack of trust made success elusive; the potential partnership gained adversarial tones with each pinning the blame on the other. It took some effort to bring everyone to a common understanding and move ahead.
What do you say, partner?
Partnership is built over a period of time and is a function of delivering to promise consistently across the layers. It takes effort to sustain it and requires investments and transparency from everyone. Everyone hates escalations which result due to lack of communication and assumptions. In my experience I have found partnerships that have stood the travails of time when there is no gap in expectations on both sides. Sales transactions do not build partnership, they only address tactical need.
People with goals succeed because they know where they are going. This has never been so true in the current economic uncertainty; companies struggling for growth put their employees in peculiar situations. They are expected to deliver monthly and quarterly targets whereas the discussions are expected to be strategic and long term. This is challenging for the CIO and the IT team where typically projects do not last beyond a quarter (with agile exceptions) and investments require a 3-5 year horizon.
Mismatch in expectations
When I met with the management team of a large enterprise vendor selling applications and technology solutions, there was a paradoxical discussion on my long-term needs and their short-term requirements. They wanted me to present the Business and IT roadmap for the next 3 years and initiatives where technology was a critical component, which I did leading to discussions on technologies and partner solutions that would become projects in the future. They had their team and many partners listen in.
The sales team and some of the leaders from partner companies wanted to know who they should connect with in my team and when they can come over for a detailed discussion. They came in different avatars, confident, cocky, arrogant, tentative, all types made up the discussions on the possibilities. I intuitively liked some, was intrigued by a few and did not see value in the rest keeping in mind my priorities. Their interest was to strike at the opportunity and if they can meet their monthly or quarterly targets.
I don’t mind helping when I can, however, the gap between the talk and the walk was evident. How can a discussion at two different planes be aligned and create value? My timeline was not aligned to their urgency to sell. So I advised them, which some took in the right spirit while a few found it difficult to accept that I did not want their solution / technology. They espoused the efficiency, potential saving, the best in class nature of their wares showing incredulous surprise that I was rejecting their pitch.
How to align visions
How do we align expectations that all stakeholders have the same shared vision of the future and the direction being taken? What should CIOs do to set the groundwork? It is a difficult discussion in many cases with hierarchical selling that puts pressure on the CIO while s/he has to balance the set of internal priorities and needs. Balancing tactical with the strategic is a fine skill that very few are adept at. To have a bird’s eye view with ability to pick the target like an eagle separates the good from the best.
The best option
I have found that in most cases plain speak is the best option; be upfront with what are your priorities, what you need, how you will evaluate the options across different vendors; essentially what is the decision making criteria and the timeline, who will be involved etc. you get the point. Most vendors find this transparency a great starting point and they are willing to work with you. There will be exceptions when they try despite the open communication; they need to be managed with a firm hand.
So coming back to the discussion that transpired; it took some effort to not get upset with the blatant disregard for the stated intent and objectives. I could finally prevail upon the recalcitrant vendors to align to my priorities and reality. Over a drink later in the evening there was camaraderie between us and everyone acknowledged the candidness though they had found it difficult. Does it mean that CIOs do not always do this or vendors need to learn how to listen better?
Year after year enterprises engage in an exercise that is like a well-orchestrated dance of corporate executives, each playing their best role and they have to collectively also look good to the audience. Interestingly the audience is the executives themselves, the Orchestra Master (CEO) and Board of Directors who ask for changes to the storyline or approve the end result. At a broader level successful execution played to the stock market and analysts acknowledges work well done.
Like in an orchestra an ill tuned instrument can strike a discordant note, the collective sum of efforts needs complete alignment for an enterprise to work at as close as possible to its optimal level. This applies to the planning process as much as to the execution. Undercurrents during the planning process if ignored will come back to haunt the team during execution. All this is common sense, nothing new here, but we still continue to self-impose challenges and then find complicated solutions.
The silly season
Every year, give or take a few weeks, this is the time when the next year’s budgets are approved for most companies. The process begins many months earlier and after multiple rounds of discussions and negotiations, the final budget is presented by either the entire management team or select few (read CEO, CFO and maybe the CMO) to the Board. As boards have to “add value” they challenge the collective wisdom and either inflate the top-line or bottom-line or both or cut costs leaving the team perplexed or so it seems.
We all learn the game fast and keep buffers in the budgets for such eventualities. We offer the token protest and accept the fait accompli moving on with life. It is funny that this repeats itself in every department, company and everyone goes through the charade almost unthinkingly. The process leading into the D-day and thereafter is notable. But there are many who are challenged; let me reveal a few scenarios based on some direct, incidental and anecdotal data.
Budget planning is typically a function of planned capital investments and operating expenses. Most companies are CAPEX unfriendly and there is always pressure to reduce operating expense. For the CIO the two edged sword draws blood by moving hardware and licensing to operating expense and then the CFO wants to cut OPEX. Finance and/or business friendly CIOs know how to manage this, others struggle to keep their heads above water until one of the powerful CXOs throws them a lifeline.
Post “rationalization” by the Board, the situation gets even more interesting. Now that everyone has been given a say 15% operating budget cut, the un-buffered and bewildered CIO struggles to stay afloat. A frustrated CIO once commented, where do I cut without impacting service levels? I cannot go short on licenses, nor on bandwidth, and service providers want inflationary increase, AMC needs to be paid, travel and training are already down; do I go to the CEO, or CFO, or better the Board with a begging bowl?
In jest or otherwise the remark portrays the helplessness felt by many and not just the CIO. Is there a way out? There is if everyone went back to basics and stopped predicting the future based on the past and making unrealistic projections on what the business will be next year. It would help if all functions worked the budget together acknowledging dependencies for success rather than in silos. It is then up to the CEO to play the galleries or stand firm ground with the Board when s/he represents the team’s collective effort.
Where would you draw a line as the CIO/CEO? Will you accept the cuts? How will you ensure that realistically the company has enough cushion to react to market and competitive moves or the black swans that seem to be common now? Will you put your neck out for the team? I have always gone into a meeting with the maxim that budget is an intent to spend; we collectively determine the spend and own it up irrespective of which head or bucket it sits in. There are limits to cutting cost, let’s focus on the customer and how we can increase revenue. That is a better discussion!
I had heard this term a long time back and then forgot about it; in those days my team was small and the activity largely technical. I wore professional pride on my sleeve proclaiming that I could solve any technical problem, well, almost any problem, within the many technology domains that I specialized in. So whenever the team threw a crooked one at me, I would get my hands dirty and triumphantly bring out the solution. Many CIOs would refer to that era as ‘the good old days’, in reflection, I wonder.
As teams got bigger and the focus shifted towards learning the business ropes across functions, the technology prowess diminished and I started farming the problems to either my team mates who were passionate about technology or vendors who were always happy to help; however, partaking in their success still gave me highs. Time pressures ensured that these moments became far and fewer until I realized how easily I was goaded into taking on a challenge to find a solution, faster, cheaper, better!
Whose problem is it?
I became wary of opening conversation lines, “We have a problem …” We? But you just walked into my cubicle/ cabin and we still have not exchanged pleasantries, so where did I fit into the equation? You have a problem and you want my help in solving it would probably describe the situation aptly. You believe that my superior knowledge or problem solving ability or network of contacts could help resolve the sticky situation in which you find yourself. Such conversations were not always pleasant; my ego, however, needed the massaging.
And then about a decade back or so it hit me that I was the perfect dummy being subject to upward delegation. My entertaining the protagonists gave them an opportunity with a few words to transfer the responsibility squarely onto my shoulders. With me telling them that I will get back to them, they did not have to work upon it. If deadlines were missed, it was my problem; if the problem was escalated, it was back to my table where the buck lay and I had no way of passing it back to the originator.
Reading through Ken Blanchard’s One Minute Manager Meets The Monkey had my life run before my eyes. That and learning from another management guru gave me the mantra that finally extracted me out of the self-created abyss. I tried practicing the techniques I had learnt from these wonderful texts and guess what? They worked very well indeed. They have now become a part of my working style and I guess that will continue to keep monkeys at bay.
The new approach
It would appear simplistic if I said that the dialogue now starts with, “You have a problem … and what do you propose as a solution? If you are at a dead end, here are the resources that should help you find solutions. Come back within the agreed timeline and we can discuss your recommendations on how to solve the problem”. I am not oversimplifying the issue, this works almost all the time; yes, there are exceptions or tricky ones which need a different and more direct approach.
“It does not require two (or more, if the issue is brought by a team) of us to solve a problem or get something done. Either you (find a way to) do it or give up the task and let me find someone more qualified to get the work done. I have not had anyone take up the latter offer as yet. They typically do find a way to solve the problem. It is not necessarily incompetence that gets them to this situation, occasionally it is laziness and many times their risk-averse nature (fear of failure or ridicule).
Upward delegation is easy for everyone when their manager/ function head lives in professional pride and arrogance. The true CIO leaders would do well to abstain and learn the art of monkey management. Be aware and careful in your retaining the problem with you, lest it consume you and a large portion of your time. Even if it gave you a kick or a high, it would be a very expensive way to solve something trivial for the company.