CXO

The CIO's first 90 days: Laying the foundation

Your first 90 days as a CIO for a new company is the time for assessing the IT situation, developing a corrective plan, and establishing a strong rapport with upper management.


By Ralph Boethling II

The most important period in a CIO’s career is the first 90 days. This is a honeymoon period during which executive management and the board of directors may be most receptive to the CIO’s needs and concerns, including requests for special resources such as staff and funds to help the CIO get a good start.

It’s also the only period in which the new CIO has the advantage of a “third-party” view of the IT organization; soon enough, the CIO must begin demonstrating real value and return on investment while effectively handling day-to-day operational problems.

90-day tactical plan
It would be nice to be left alone for the first 90 days. The reality is that your boss hired you because your organization has real-world problems that must be quickly addressed. I caution you to resist the natural urge to go completely into tactical mode at this point. You'll be able to address some of the burning issues, but you need to balance this against the long-range strategic goals of the IT department.

I recommend that you develop a 90-day tactical plan that includes the following:
  • High-visibility issues that must be addressed immediately
  • Critical decisions that cannot be postponed
  • Quick wins that can be accomplished and gain management support
  • Major architectural decisions and large expenditures that can be deferred until the overall IT strategy has been developed

This tactical plan sends a message to management that you are aware of the key issues and have plans to address them now. It also gives you an opportunity to establish a rapport with members of management who may not be pleased with the IT organization and show that you can make a difference.

In my initial discussions with management, I make a point of understanding their future business strategy along with existing pain points. I look for “quick wins” that can be accomplished during the first 90 days and that can gain some management support for longer-term strategic initiatives. When you do this, be sure to identify business champions of new IT initiatives, because they will need to drive the funding process. This is a very delicate balance between devoting time to immediate tactical issues and developing the overall IT architecture.

Communication is very important during the first 90 days; I try to “over communicate” whenever possible, including both good and bad news. Further, I spend a great deal of time with both management and IT staff so I can fully understand current circumstances before drawing any conclusions.

You can consider yourself successful in your first 90 days if you have accomplished the following:
  • Addressed some of the current pain points within the organization
  • Established a rapport with key members of management
  • Set up a consistent mechanism for tracking status of projects
  • Avoided the urge to make major architectural decisions until you have conducted adequate research

IT organization review
Having a strong IT organization is the foundation for accomplishing your objectives. To get anything done, you need a strong team that is well aligned with the business. It’s extremely important that you critically evaluate the overall structure and staff of the organization during the first 90 days and make the necessary adjustments.

In initial discussions with management, I make a point of discussing their opinions of existing IT staff and the service currently provided. I also discuss their preferences for service in the future. You must align the IT organization with business preferences.

Key organizational concepts that I follow when designing the organization I want include the following:
  • Establish a customer-focused IT organization.
  • Align the IT organization with internal customers.
  • Provide customers with a single point of contact for IT services.
  • Make it very easy to do business with IT.
  • Provide customers with the highest level of service possible.
  • Ensure that each department within the IT organization has a customer.
  • Achieve a healthy balance of centralized/global and decentralized/regional functions within the organization.

I generally design the new organization first and then evaluate the existing staff to determine how well they can fill the new roles. This approach helps you avoid being constrained by your existing staff and gives you an opportunity to review the model with internal customers and existing staff without discussing the people who may be moved into these roles.

The final step is to match up the existing staff with the various roles in the new organization. I recommend that you very carefully evaluate your existing staff; it is likely that they will not be able to fill all the new roles effectively. Don’t expect to have all the staff in place within 90 days but rather to define the organization’s structure and identify any missing talent.

Make sure you communicate about the process of reviewing the IT organization and announce its new structure. This process can be time consuming, and team members will be very apprehensive about their new roles within the organization. Further, this is an excellent time to instill some core values in the IT organization, both by example and directly.

IT strategic plan
Developing and maintaining an IT strategy are essential to the success of the organization. The IT strategic plan is the “roadmap” for transforming the systems within a company, and you must communicate the plan in simple terms that can be understood by a nontechnical audience.

The process for developing a strategic plan should include both an assessment of the IT environment as-is and a vision of the IT environment to be.

Step 1
Assess the current IT architecture to determine its state as-is. Become familiar enough with the existing environment to understand the current issues and architecture. This should not be an exhaustive documentation of the existing environment, because that level of detail is not required and, frankly, wastes a lot of time.

Step 2
Determine current and future business requirements for the IT organization. The majority of this analysis consists of interviews with key management within the company addressing such topics as business environment, strategic objectives, and tactical issues.

Step 3
Evaluate the possibilities for the target environment, based on the company’s business objectives and needs. The initial analysis should be broad and unconstrained; the goal is to define a long-range plan that will later be constrained by what the company is willing to invest.

Step 4
Conduct an analysis of the gap between the current state and future state to determine the optimal future environment. This is the most important step in the process. You need to develop a good list of alternatives for management. The goal of this step is to compile a list of alternatives for step 5.

Step 5
Present management with alternative approaches for transforming the IT environment. These alternatives must be stated in business terms and specify the ways in which they will enable the company to accomplish its goals, such as increasing revenue, improving productivity, or improving customer satisfaction.

Your strategic plan should also include your vision for an overall IT architecture based on guiding principles that are appropriate for your organization. IT architecture will be covered in future articles in this series.

Pulling it all together
The results of your efforts during the first 90 days should be summarized in a strategic plan for the IT organization. This plan serves as the roadmap for the next one to two years. You need to maintain a high level of communication during this timeframe and test your recommendations to determine management acceptance.

The actual document should contain the following information and features:
  • A management summary of 25 pages or less
  • A summary of the process used to develop the architecture
  • Alternative solutions based on bold recommendations
  • Roadmaps for implementation
  • A highly graphical presentation

My recommendation is to use the first 90 days to turn the IT organization around and set the company on course for the development of its future system architecture. Ninety days is enough time to get things on track and start making visible progress. Remember: You would not have been hired if things were going well. Your situation at your new company is an opportunity to excel.

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