By now, most people are convinced that we’ve screwed it up big this time around and it will take a while to get out of this mess. Media outlets seem to be in a competition to report the largest amount of bad economic news possible. Job cuts are reported here and there around the globe, no longer in hundreds but in thousands. But I believe that now, against the horrible backdrop of the dismal economy is the best possible time for IT leaders to shine.
Let’s face it, not too many companies are concerned with the strategy or the quality of their leadership when the economy is booming. Why would they? If sales and share prices go up, the Street and the shareholders are happy and bonuses are in the books. When the going is good, there is money for new projects are approved without much scrutiny. Marketing and Sales executives are the golden boys of happy times, but the CIO is often seen merely as the “business enabler” (translation: “Listen, kid, just make sure your stupid systems stay up while we are making money for all of us.”).
The point of a CIO not being exactly on par with his or her senior executive colleague is something I have observed in many of my consulting engagements. There are several reasons behind this phenomenon. It could be that many in senior IT management come from the IT field, having excelled in their technical expertise but not necessarily equipped with the requisite business and strategy skills. Often, it’s the way these individuals position themselves and their departments (“We’re here to keep the lights up.”). Other times, it’s the perception by the rest of the executive team that IT is purely a support function, not dissimilar from facility management or billing.
I’m a firm believer that, in the vast majority of organizations, IT can and should play a key strategic role, and innovate and generate business results. This is in stark contrast with IT departments that choose to be a support function or an expense line on the P&L statement. The difference is clear today: expenses are cut ruthlessly (and so are the IT departments that are seen as such), but value-generating, strategically active IT departments get invested in or at least left alone (how can you kill a hen that lays golden eggs?).
Whether you’re a CIO or an IT manager, the tough times have created opportunities for you to emerge as a leader within your organization, to innovate and generate tangible business value. If you want to tell me that you can’t do it because you’re already stretched, you were told to lay off half of your staff or you had your budget cut by a third, then you and your organization need it more than ever.
Here are just four of many ideas to get you started.
You are the authority
It seems like everyone in your organization has his or her own ideas on how the IT department should be organized and run. This is nonsense. You are the authority on Information Technology, and that’s the end of it. It is up to you to find a solution to a business problem, not simply tell your C-level colleague whether or not you can implement a system.
I recently talked to a young new CIO of a major hospital, who told me that one of his challenges has been to convince his peers that he needs to know the business problem, not just the solution they want. They don’t understand IT (they would object to this assertion) but he does. By doing this thing alone he firmly positions himself as the key decision maker, not merely an order taker.
Know the business you are in
It goes without saying that you need to possess general business skills to be effective as a forward-thinking IT Leader. I find that the most important thing is to never become complacent and assume that you have learned enough. Learn at every opportunity, read voraciously, attend industry events, and engage your colleagues from other disciplines into discussions.
Knowing the business of your organization and having general business skills lets you understand, frame and present business problems, and effectively work with your people in finding the best possible solution.
Depart from budgeting mentality
A typical conversation between a CIO and her business peer may go something like this:
“Say, Judy, how much do you think it would cost to let our customers track and redeem coupons via our web sites?”
“Well, I’ll have to get my guys to figure out exact numbers but I’d say 150-250K.”
“Oh, forget it, we’ll never get it approved.”
There are two issues here. First, the conversation starts with a solution, not a business problem, which I discussed above. Second, albeit we are all used to the budget-driven approach of sizing an effort, to make things happen we need to be able to depart from it and actually try to find a solution before blindly stating the number. We need to be able to look at the issue and say, fine, how can I make it happen?
One of the key disadvantages in the outsourcing of development, which is now coming to a head, is that you give up the capacity and the associated flexibility that comes with doing it in-house. If your development is outsourced, in most cases you cannot have an architect do a quick prototyping without having to go through red tape and receiving a bill for these services. You cannot simply give a developer a “filler” project, something to work on when she’s not doing anything else. The requisite agility is just not there. And if these guys are halfway across the world, that adds a whole new level of complexity to the issue. I am convinced that those organizations that resisted the urge to outsource their development are much better positioned to withstand the economic challenges and emerge as leaders in their field.
Tinkering, skunk shops, prototyping, whatever you call it, has a great tradition in R&D for trying things, failing and getting better at them. Somehow, a few years ago, we started to depart from it, sacrificing the sense of innovation and learning, then pretending that there are “guaranteed” methods or frameworks that bring about fail-proof systems and services. The manna of predictable IT has never arrived and organizations that are most proud of their strides in building a “business-like IT” through implementation of IT service frameworks, have neither the business-like IT nor the agility and innovation.
We need to encourage innovation, knowing we will make mistakes along the way. You don’t have to have a special budget for it, nor do you need to change anything structurally. Just challenge your people with tough problems, allow them to work on them and celebrate success. They will find the time in the areas where you thought you were stretched.
No cost-cutting can help an organization propel the business forward. Layoffs don’t generate value. They merely (sometimes) lower operating costs. Tangible business value and long-lasting business success comes from strong leadership, hard work, and innovation.
IT leaders, it is time to shine.
Ilya Bogorad is the Principal of Bizvortex Consulting Group Inc, a management consulting company located in Toronto, Canada. Ilya specializes in building better IT organizations and can be reached at email@example.com or (905) 278 4753