CIO priorities: How to set goals that matter

With too much to do and not enough time to do it, here's how CIOs make sure they are hitting the right targets.
Written by Mark Samuels, Contributor

Getting buy-in from across the business is key for ensuring the IT department meets its goals.

Image: phive2015, Getty Images/iStockphoto

Modern CIOs are continually told that success in modern IT leadership is all about helping the rest of the organisation to meet its objectives. So, how can CIOs turn that advice into a business reality?

1. Make sure everyone in your team understands their targets
Omid Shiraji, interim CIO at Camden Council, takes two approaches to goal-setting.

First, he distils the priorities of the organisation. "My job is to speak with business executives, identify their priorities, and then play those objectives back to my team," he says.

Second, Shiraji identifies which senior IT professionals in his department own those priorities: "I only describe the desired outcomes -- how my team gets there is up to them," he says. "There are some strategic things that need to be achieved that require specificity. But there are other things that are more general and I will try to work with the senior team to develop that objective. I'm also realistic that those targets can change on a weekly basis, so I'm always flexible to new ideas."

Shiraji has key objectives to meet, including reducing the cost of IT, creating architectural capability, building demand-management skills, and developing a new digital strategy. He agrees these aims with the executive board and then works with his senior IT leadership team.

"We worked through the issues and used a workshop process to decide how we would meet those objectives, which were then set into weekly performance plans. Everyone in the IT leadership team has their own targets," he says.

"When you have one-to-one meetings with your IT leadership team, make room for different sections, such as tracking progress, personal development, and providing feedback to you as the CIO. This last element is crucial -- find out what you could have done differently and then continue to improve as an IT leader."

2. Create looser frameworks to help people deliver change with confidence
Martin Draper, technology director at luxury retailer Liberty, says the old-fashioned way of setting goals no longer works. Workers in all areas of the IT department need much more than an annual appraisal: "Our jobs in technology are now all about continuous delivery, with elements of quality and risk-awareness," he says.

Draper says CIOs must create a nuanced approach that includes specific project-related goals and broader cultural objectives. "What matters to me is delivery," he says. "I want to create a modern working environment that recognises employees don't always have to be in the office to meet their goals."

It is also important to note that the nature of the workplace continues to change rapidly. Draper says most CIOs probably run teams that consist of both internal IT professionals and a remote group, which could be drawn from an external service provider or a separate business team.

This means traditional techniques for measuring and appraising performance are unlikely to work. "For me, setting goals is all about achieving those objectives with loose enough frameworks so that people can meet their targets with a little bit of breathing space," says Draper.

3. Understand what future success looks like and measure effectiveness
Scope CDO Mark Foulsham says it is crucial for executives to understand how their activities, and those of their team, have an impact on broader business aims. That focus is often closely related to improvements in customer service and becomes manifest through stronger brand recognition, increased profits, and greater margins.

"People talk about key performance indicators but I'm also a big believer in key success indicators," says Foulsham. "That's about knowing what success looks like in one, three, or five years' time. What you need to do is measure those factors as accurately as possible."

Alongside his work at Scope, Foulsham is helping a range of organisations in various sectors to make the most of digital technology, particularly regarding customer satisfaction. "I'm trying to create performance capture in real time," he says. "As consumers use products and services, I want to help businesses measure the effectiveness of that consumption."

Those measurements take place both qualitatively and quantitatively, covering elements such as time savings, cost effectiveness, and convenience. The organisations can then build this business insight into an iterative development process.

"The aim is to create immediacy in customer feedback and to deliver improvements to products and services as quickly as possible," says Foulsham. "I want businesses to measure their success at meeting set goals in customer service and to use that information to hone their product development cycle."

4. Develop a culture that encourages communication and collaboration
CIO consultant Andrew Abboud says technology chiefs face a broad sweep of situations as modern business leaders. Some things simply must happen, such as compliance and risk management. Other goals, such as targets relating to innovation, can be more ephemeral. The key to success is cross-organisation engagement.

"Involve people at all levels, particularly those on the ground, to help you set the right objectives," says Abboud. "People who have skin in the game are much more likely to be interested in a project being successful. Simply asking people to do things does not help foster a sense of engagement."

Great leaders will find a way to communicate with people and to set appropriate goals. "You need a mechanism that brings their feedback to you," says Abboud. "If you don't develop that mechanism then you will start to develop a cultural problem."

Collaborative tools can help with dissemination and feedback. However, Abboud says that technology cannot fix goal-setting problems by itself. "The culture you create must be right -- the tools won't challenge the autocracy you unintentionally create," he says.

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