FedEX CIO Rob Carter looked at what was happening at FexEx several years ago and saw an inevitable crash coming. Complexity was getting out of control and the company’s IT systems weren’t going to be able to sustain future growth.

Unfortunately, that meant Carter was going to have to go to a bunch of business units that were used to controlling their own platforms and apps and tell them they needed to give up some of their control in order to create a more sustainable, more centralized IT services framework. To get everyone on board, Carter had to get ugly.

In this case, “ugly” didn’t mean he had to yell, be a jerk, or steamroll other leaders. Instead, he went and mapped out the entire IT infrastructure, with specific counts of how many different interfaces they had, how many different applications they had, how many different data sets they had, etc. That created “an ugly picture.”

“I’m a big fan of ugly pictures,” he said.

Once he had his ugly picture showing the tangled complexity of all these systems, he started taking it around and showing it to the CEO and the leaders of the various business units within FedEx. They dubbed it “Hurricane Rob.”

FedEx CIO Rob Carter talks about “ugly pictures” at his Gartner Symposium 2011 keynote. Photo credit: Jason Hiner

“This complexity is not sustainable” became the message and the consensus among the group. Still, Rob had to get all of these different business heads to agree to give up some control. They owned the apps and the business process and Rob and his team wanted to go in and collapse all of that. “We ran into a buzz saw,” he said.

So, Rob went in and sat down for a meeting with FedEx CEO Fred Smith and said, “I’m going to fail.” After a long pause, he and Smith looked at his ugly picture again and Carter explained that the complexity was a ticking time bomb and that fixing it was going to take a lot of time and money but had to be done.

Smith got on board, the business leaders fell in line, and the rest is history. FedEx went on to completely revamp its IT strategy and infrastructure and created a centralized IT services group that acts almost like a Platform as a Service (PaaS) provider to the various businesses and business units inside the company. This has enabled FexEx to continue to grow its business and maintain its leadership as a technology innovator. In the process, Rob has been named technology chief of the year by Information Week three times and Fast Company ranked him #18 on its list of the “100 Most Creative People in Business” in 2010.

This is a great example of how to get big things done in the enterprise. Thoroughly research a problem, build a story — with an “ugly picture” — that creates urgency, and get all of the right stakeholders united around a common solution.

More from Gartner Symposium 2011