Saving a dysfunctional IT shop: Part 1

Most new CIOs arrive in an IT shop that's dysfunctional to some extent. The following steps will help you establish yourself as a trusted leader, both to your peers in the C-suite and those in IT that work for you.

Arriving on the scene of a "broken" IT shop can be a daunting experience. Except in the cases where a new CIO arrives as a favored old hand retires or moves up the ranks, most new CIOs arrive in an IT shop that's dysfunctional to some extent. Unraveling the current state of affairs and putting remedial actions into place in the first 30 days can create a set of initial impressions that can take years of effort to reset, so this time is obviously extremely critical. The following steps will help you establish yourself as a trusted leader, both to your peers in the C-suite and to those in IT who work for you.

Step 0 - Realize almost everyone wants you to succeed

Entering any new environment can be challenging, whether stepping into the new boss's office for the first time or holding the first meeting with a new team; most of us get a butterfly or two in the pit of our stomachs. Perhaps the best remedy to this is to realize that most of the parties you will be interacting with want to see you succeed. From the people who hired you who obviously want to see you do well, to staff who have struggled under a challenging environment and hope you will soon improve it, other than a few malcontents, everyone you will be interacting with wants to see you do well in your new role.

Step 1 - Assess your key "lieutenants" and staff

There is a temptation when arriving in a dysfunctional IT shop to immediately attack the most pressing project or technical challenges; however, taking the time to assess your key direct reports can pay off in spades later. Spend a few hours speaking with your top managers and briefly assess their capabilities. You are looking for good operational managers who can take a task and run with it with minimal supervision. These are the people you will need in resolving the most pressing challenges in the coming days, since you will become a bottleneck if you attempt to stay personally involved with all of them. Assign the most promising leaders to the most difficult tasks, and use this as an opportunity for further evaluation.

Also take this opportunity to get a general handle on the staff you have available, which you will use for a more in-depth assessment later. Incapable or undermotivated staff could be the root of many of your challenges, and as you work through the coming weeks with your staff, keep an eye out for the keepers and those who might be better served elsewhere. Expectations are high that you will make some staff changes soon after your arrival, so take advantage of the opportunity to restructure your staff.

Step 2 - Get a handle on the "burning issues"

During the interview process, you likely heard hints of the most pressing problems facing IT. Using this list as a starting point, delve deeper into what challenges are facing your department. Explore them from two dimensions: first, perceived challenges from the perspective of your IT staff, and second, IT's biggest problems from the perspective of line of business management. With that complete, break the list down further into operational problems and more strategic problems. Usually the former are things related to access, uptime, and quality of service, and the latter are project or organizational problems like "IT is difficult to deal with" or "that software implementation seems to be accomplishing 'something,' we're just not sure what!" With these two lists complete, look for the overlaps and identify "big win" areas that you can solve quickly that have the highest perceived impact.

You will likely have to focus on the operational challenges first; no one wants to talk about strategy or vision with the CIO when their e-mail isn't working. But don't lose sight of the "big picture" problems as you should be laying the foundations for solving them during the initial 30 days you are in your new position.

In the next installment, we'll discuss how to approach tackling the initial operational challenges you are facing, laying the foundation for solving the "big picture" issues, and then rebuilding the culture and image of your IT department.