Leadership

Why CIOs need a thick skin - and a sense of humour

Like it or not, IT is often a scapegoat or is blamed by the losers in any IT-enabled change - learn to live with it.

IT-enabled change projects have winners and losers - and the losers may blame you if you have led the change. Photo: Shutterstock

People often won't admit to poor IT literacy, which is why they're finding systems hard to use. Or that unrealistic timescales, weak specification of requirements, a lack of business ownership or poor user testing have been a cause of project problems.

IT-enabled change programmes will have winners and losers - and the losers may blame you if you have instigated and led the change. Don't become defensive or aggressive in such situations - it's part of your role to deal with it.

CIOs must spend time avoiding these problems and concentrate on risk management. This focus is not just about the risk of IT failure - systems crashing or projects not delivering - it is also about the risk of IT not being used effectively or appropriately. These are not primarily IT issues - information security is, for example, a responsibility of everyone, not just the IT department - but they ultimately reflect on IT.

The problem is that, although IT is critical to the organisation, it is also often misunderstood or even seen as a hindrance: "Why can't our corporate IT be more like Amazon.com?" Or, "Why does it take so long to develop a system when I could do it at home with Google Apps?" Or, "Why can't I use my personal smartphone at work?"

These are reasonable questions and deserve reasonable answers - in a language and from a position that senior managers and frontline staff can understand, even if they won't always fully accept it.

One way of keeping your sanity is to be honest and open about IT performance. When things don't go right, admit it and fix the problem - success is not just avoiding problems, but how they are dealt with when they do occur.

Learn from the retail sector. Experience there shows that responding well to a complaint raises the customer's satisfaction above its level before the incident that caused the complaint. Always be sympathetic to the impact of any loss of IT service on frontline staff and be seen to empathise - or preferably visit them.

Lateral-thinking when problem-solving is essential. There is a temptation to control everything because the risks, if they materialise, can be so costly. But it's more important to be able to steer than to row. It helps if you are surrounded - as I am lucky to be - by a top-quality team. So, recruit with care and seek out diversity of expertise, experience and style, not corporate homogeneity.

You don't have to solve every problem yourself, but do ensure that you are close to key decisions affecting the business and personally involved in critical IT-related problems. Empower others, letting them take the credit, wherever possible. That approach strengthens the credibility of IT.

At a personal level remain positive, confident, incisive and assertive, at least outwardly, but have a personal support network with which you can safely share your concerns or untested ideas when necessary.

And remember that most IT-related projects don't fail because of the technology, but because of poor business process or change management. A sense of humour helps.

About

Jos Creese is CIO at Hampshire County Council. He's the founder and chair of the Local Public Services CIO Council and a member of the national government CIO Council. He was named the UK's most influential IT chief in the silicon.com CIO50 2011.

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