Is your management to-do list stopping you from getting anything done?

One of the biggest management challenges is finding a way to stop fighting fires for long enough to get long-term projects off the ground. Here's how.

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"You need to get the business' priorities sorted first and then worry about the short-term concerns as they arise," says IS manager Doug May.

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A great strategy is at the core of a successful approach to IT leadership. The best CIOs engage with line-of-business peers and ensure the activities of the technology team are aligned with the wider aims of the organisations.

But sticking to that strategy is no easy task: modern IT leaders are bombarded with demands for innovation and at the same time there is an expectation that CIOs will keep day-to-day operations humming along happily too.

Research from consultant Deloitte suggests global CIOs cite innovation and growth as top business priorities, yet 84 per cent of IT budgets are still spent on running day-to-day operations and incremental change. In a digital era characterised by fast-changing business requirements, how can CIOs ensure they balance day-to-day needs with keeping long-term goals in focus?

1. Make sure you take a pragmatic approach to planning

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Doug May, regional IS manager at manufacturing specialist Messier-Dowty Limited, says it can be very tricky for time-precious CIOs to get an effective equilibrium between the present and the future. "Long-term goals are always about helping the business to be more successful and profitable," he says.

"Short-term goals, however important, can really interrupt your attempts to meet long-term targets. I think the key for CIOs is to always have their strategic aims in place. You need to get the business' priorities sorted first and then worry about the short-term concerns as they arise."

May has been in situ since early 2015. He has taken time to weigh up the business' priorities and to place these carefully within the context of available IT and human resources. "They key to success, at both the long-term and short-term scale, is planning," says May.

"I always take time to sit down with the business owners and consider how changes to systems and services will affect productivity and performance. You need to have a pragmatic take on business and IT priorities, especially once your systems start to get old."

2. Review your priorities to stay focused on business need

Nick Hopkinson, CIO at Devon Partnership NHS Trust, is directing his attention to business transformation at his organisation, which was established in 2001 and supports 18,000 people across Devon and Torbay in the UK. The Trust's IT strategy forms a crucial element of that change approach -- and Hopkinson recognises an effective balance between immediate and future aims is key.

"It's definitely a big challenge for modern IT leaders," says Hopkinson. "It's an area I work on to make sure that my long-term aims are understood by the rest of the organisation."

Top of his list of priorities is a move towards agility and a desire to change how information is used. Hopkinson and his team are looking to modernise services so that care staff can cut the amount of time they spend on non-clinical activities. He says that approach might include apps that allow staff to send information back to the office via mobile devices.

"Day-to-day concerns can't be your only priority," says Hopkinson. "If that's the case, then you're choosing to fail. You must regularly review your priorities are make sure that your short-term aims are helping the rest of the business to meet its long-term objectives."

3. Get out and find new people who can foster great ideas

Former CIO turned digital advisor Ian Cohen says achieving an effective balance between short and long-term goals should be seen as nothing more than standard practice for CIOs. "It comes with the territory of being a modern and engaged IT leader," he says.

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However, not every CIO has achieved an effective balance. Strategy -- and the link between IT and business outcomes -- might be crucial but true alignment still remains a pipe dream for many CIOs and their c-suite peers.

Cohen says the majority of IT leaders need to become much better at communications. Too many technology professionals are not strong enough when it comes to describing options to business colleagues, particularly in ways that non-IT people can understand.

"Those kinds of communication skills should really be a basic hygiene factor for a successful CIO," says Cohen. "Too many IT leaders still focus on operational concerns. Many CIOs need to think in a more creative manner. They need to get out, speak to startups, and find new people that can help foster great ideas in both the short and long term."

4. Match leading-edge research with day-to-day targets

Colin Lees, CIO at BT Business, says one of the advantages of being part of a much larger organisation is the ability to set longer term goals. Lees says he knows exactly what he expects to be doing during the next 18 months. More than that, he has a technology roadmap that looks three years in advance.

Lees has to forecast the projected capital expenditure across the entire BT Business estate for the next 36 months. Future thinking also plays a part. Lees says the BT research team at Martlesham Heath in Suffolk looks towards technological advances across the following five years, using 'hunt teams' in Silicon Valley, Israel, and Europe.

"I get those three perspectives and then the things I hold my team to account for are the details of implementation," he says. "I want them to know what they'll be involved in for the next 18 months, their three-year roadmap for their part of BT Business, and I need them to consider input from the strategy and hunt teams as they look into the future."

Lees says his role would be much harder without input from the research team. That involvement has grown increasingly important during the past two or three years. "A lot of research at BT never used to see the light of day," he says. "Now, we get input on everything, including some of the latest developments, such as G.Fast, which massively increases the broadband speed over copper lines."

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