CIO suicide and the fight against conventional wisdom

CIO suicide and the fight against conventional wisdom

Summary: It's time for CIOs to rise up against the conventional wisdom of feeds and speeds to become true leaders. That's the only way to avoid four threats that can lead to CIO suicide.


Unfortunately, discussions about IT success often devolve into boring diatribes on the virtues of project management. For example, a major strategy consulting firm recently called me to discuss reasons why ERP projects fail. After reciting the conventional wisdom on project management – managing scope poorly, insufficient executive sponsorship, unclear business requirements – they asked my opinion.

It was an awkward conversation because these smart consultants had missed the most important point: the conventional wisdom of project management usually fails. How else can you understand IT project failure rates that approach 70 percent? I explained that real project success comes from deepening communication, collaboration, and knowledge sharing among stakeholders regardless of their role in the organization. If you get collaboration right and add a decent project manager, the chances of success rise dramatically.

The CIO challenge. Similarly, conventional wisdom asserts that deploying technical infrastructure, building useful applications, and generally handling an organization’s technology needs will create CIO success. Although these activities are foundational, achieving CIO greatness requires another dimension entirely – understanding the company’s business strategy and helping the organization absorb business process change.

With this in mind, I read with interest an article called Career Suicide and the CIO: 4 Deadly New Threats, from Bob Evans, a communications executive at Oracle.

Also read:
Ten Strategic CIO priorities for 2013

In his piece, Bob looks beyond the mechanical aspects of the CIO role and hits on more significant points of long-term value. Here is a summary of the four CIO threats that he describes:

Lack of Vision. No matter how technically astute, no matter how many wildly complex projects have been completed, no matter how dependable, CIOs today will not succeed and will need to be replaced if they don’t have an ability to see not only where their company and industry are and have been, but where they are headed, why they’re headed that way, and what all-new minefields and opportunities are looming.

Lack of Leadership. CIOs today need to be active and inspiring participants in those conversations and relentless contributors to new ways for their companies to get closer to customers, find new sources of revenue, create new products more quickly, accelerate all facets of their operations, and embed value-creating technologies in not just the IT infrastructure but in the company’s products, services, processes, and culture.

Trying to Resist the Social/Mobile Revolution. Social and mobile technologies and processes are triggering sweeping improvements in how companies communicate with customers and employees, monitor discussions around their brands, engage customers and prospects more immediately and precisely, and gain real-time insights into powerful market trends and possibilities. Any CIO who tries to hold back the surge because of well-intentioned but tactical concerns over security or governance or standards is going to get overruled, then marginalized, and then reassigned.

Surrendering to the 80/20 budget trap. Unless CIOs lead the way in reducing the portion of their overall IT budgets now spent on low-value infrastructure and keeping the lights on (it’s typically between 70% and 80%), then they will never liberate the funds necessary to invest in and create customer-facing applications and other innovative approaches to growth and engagement. The CIO’s mantra should be this: more innovation, less integration.

We are in a global period of great transition; economic upheaval remains an ongoing threat while the cloud-social-mobile nexus has forced change on many organizations. The big CIO leadership challenge, and opportunity, is helping your organization develop the cultural flexibility to navigate these profound changes.

Conventional wisdom tells us that CIOs should focus on "feeds and speeds," which is another way to describe infrastructure and applications. However, that coventional wisdom is wrong; today's CIO must become a business leader who stands on equal footing with other C-level counterparts. That's the best way to avoid Bob Evan's four threats that lead to CIO suicide.

Topics: CXO, Enterprise Software

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.


Log in or register to join the discussion
  • Focus on the Information

    Thanks for this entry, Michael. The statement "understanding the company’s business strategy and helping the organization absorb business process change" nails the problem on the head. For years, people and organizations have thought that faster computers, bigger computers, more this, and more that will justify the expenditures for IT. Over 12 years after the dot-com bust, and people STILL haven't learned this lesson. A decade of unfettered IT spending led to the dot-com bust. You MUST prove value in order to justify expenditures.

    CIOs still are being caught between the technology and the information. If the CIO cannot separate these, hire a CTO. Let the CTO be responsible for the technology. The CIO must focus on the value of the information. A good system with bad information is still a bad system.
    • More predictable to change process than software

      I agree.

      It is often easier to change business processes to match the expectation of the software designers than to modifiy software to match business processes. For successful packages the design will incorporate a successful model which will do the job well, howeever it is often difficult to convince the business to adapt to the new model - resistence comes from vested interests.

      Peessure will come to change the software, starting down the path of failure.

      The article is weong to group social and mobile together. The later a valuable tool, the former a waste of resources. The attemtion span of social media users too short, their interests outside trend driven. A waste of money. It's not a revolution but a squeeky wheel of imsignificant people.
      Richard Flude
  • Only 70% failure rate? Software does pretty well then

    ""Most products fail." According to some estimates, the failure rate is as high as 90%."
  • Vision and leadership are not important

    The main thing management in IT lack is proper organisational skills. Having a vision and churning out some inspiring rhetoric is pointless if all you do is create chaos. Leadership can inspire people to perform acts of catastrophal incompetence as well as good things. For a leader it doesn't matter, what matters is that he or she has followers.

    As former German chancellor Helmut Schmidt once put it „Wer Visionen hat, sollte lieber gleich zum Arzt gehen“ - "someone who has visions should go and see a doctor".
  • Eliminating leaders from the company

    As a shareholder I think it is important that a company identifies those with leadership potential as soon as possible and fires them before they can do any lasting damage.

    Once they have established themselves they can be very difficult to remove and can damage the reputation of the company irreparably. You might have to wage a war against them (Adolf Hitler, Gadhaffi) or wait until they are dead (Stalin, Genghis Khan) and these things are expensive and dangerous or take too much time.

    Bob Diamond instituted the "no asshole" policy at Barclays, only to reveal himself as the most complete and utter asshole of them all over Libor. I presume an "asshole" at Barclays was anyone who didn't agree with Diamond. In the meantime their share price has tanked.
  • It takes a whole team...

    Thanks for the link and commentary, Michael. It strikes me that the transition away from "feeds and speeds" to the vision articulated in the Forbes article is not just an individual challenge; it requires far more skills and knowledge than one person is likely to acquire in one great bound forward. How can a CIO assemble the right team to support his/her efforts and actively further them? I have to think this is a big piece of the puzzle if CIOs are to turn these insights into practice.
    Marlon Feld, WebINTENSIVE Software
  • What most CIOs lack

    Most CIOs aren't in tune with the business strategy of the company they work for.

    I suggest CIOs spend more time chatting with the CEO, CFO and business heads (these are the true IT apps and infrastructure stakeholders), and less time entertaining vendors.

    Only when the CIO has fully understood what aspirations the CEO & CFO have for the company, and the business pains that heads of department are experiencing, should he or she formulate the technology and business process plan and solution, which are then to be communicated back to those stakeholders.

    Unfortunately, capable CIOs who practise this are a minority.