Monday, January 28, 2013

Risk, Reward, Recognition

He took a calculated risk with a new solution from a start-up vendor for a critical part of the business. The project started well and then ran into huge issues during a recessionary trend that hit everyone; under pressure the users started taking a cautious approach to every bit of functionality and wanted every remote condition part of the solution. Everyone who had signed off on the risk matrix now conjectured about the decision putting the CIO in a spot which lead to his movement.

Fast forward to another era, the CIO now with another company took on the challenge to rescue the underwater reputation of IT. He took a bold step to choose a smaller and relatively unknown vendor for an even larger business critical project; the selection process was unquestionable with sign-offs from all CXOs. The project went live with flying colours and was recognised by the users, the company – locally and globally, and acknowledged as a paradigm shift in the industry.

News about his risk ability and success was coupled with the many awards he and his team had collected. The business too was bestowed with many industry awards as they leveraged the technology solutions with due credit to the IT team. The Midas touch was such that even though the company had normally been on the leading curve of technology adoption, now it was a playing ground for every IT company wanting to invest and explore use cases that the weak hearted would shy away from.

Through the years many started seeking coaching and mentoring from the CIO; he acknowledged all, was ready with a piece of advice, networked across layers with ease, growing in stature feeding on the recognition. Industry bodies and forums wanted him as an advisor, conferences vied for his participation; everyone was satiated with his response and participation. He became larger than life in his embodiment of success and the persona became bigger than the person.

One fine day he sold the Ferrari like the Monk from the famous book and gave up all the glitz and fame to start all over again. There was shock and rumbles of “something must have gone wrong; after all he was taking too many risks; it was too good to last”. Puzzled people who knew him or thought that they did, queried “Why ??”. A few bold ones asked the question in vain, others wondered, the void he left behind was too large to fill and thus remained a vacuum with his absence being felt by everyone.

I caught up with the CIO who had retreated into a dark hole, asking the obvious hoping to gain some insights into the compulsions and rationale that had many wondering. He quizzed me instead to postulate the reasons of which I denied him the possibility instead pushing for words from his mind and heart. I found it hard to believe his story but it was his story only in a way that he could think of the future. I sought his permission to write about it which was granted. In brief I reproduce the same.

I thought I was invincible; I always took calculated risks though they appeared to be undue from the outside. Every success fed my ego, my success went to my head until I failed; I could not believe it, I tried justifying it to myself, oscillating between being the victim, blaming circumstances and everyone else. Until I realized that it was not about others, it was about me. That made me introspect on what success means to me; I analysed my situation, my behaviour, sought feedback, and decided to use it.

I shared my ideas with my teams and the business who took them on as their own thereby reducing the risk of failure. Success brought rewards and recognition which slowly and steadily began to once again boost my ego and self-esteem where I was becoming uncomfortable with the situation. I had been to the peak and had fallen hard. The heady feeling of invincibility beckoned again and was difficult to resist. So to put to rest the temptation, I quit; to start all over again. I feel at peace and excited to once again conquer new peaks !

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Action, Reaction, or Discussion ?


The order was released to the vendor after multiple demonstrations and discussions with the business teams. Everyone agreed that any step is a step forward from their current reality; the vendor, IT team, and the users were excited with the new capability that was being attempted for the first time which would create a new way of working in the industry. The teams believed that all who mattered had been aligned with thorough groundwork done by the business and IT teams.

And then the CEO raised a few fundamental questions that setback the project to square one. Have you considered the buy-in across the layers ? Why will it create a better future for us when our competitors using the same solution have not benefited ? What are other industries doing and is there a learning that we can imbibe ? Who are on the team and who is not, are they the best we have ? Do you really know the reality on the ground ? The team intuitively knew the setback and irrelevance of the discussion at this stage. They had updated the CEO through the process, but no one raised the head to be shot !


The marketing team proudly presented to the Executive Committee their success from a cloud based solution that brought them kudos. They had won the Social Media Innovator award; everyone applauded the success. The CEO turned to the CIO and offered his compliments to the IT team too. The CIO was going from pink to crimson and blurted out that he was not even aware of the existence of the solution. The CMO undeterred mentioned that the solution was so simple that it did not need IT help.

Recovering the CIO ranted on the collapse of governance and shadow IT compromising the information assets of the company; customer data risk and reputation were at stake should anything fail at the un-assessed IT solution and vendor. The CIO gave instances from the past and the industry that highlighted the business risk in such situations.  He then skilfully turned the situation around with an agreement to review, recover and secure the customer data while also offering to extend the solution to enable better analytics.


Opening up of the market was an eventuality that everyone agreed to; everyone was discussing and debating the impact it would have on the industry at large and different segments of the market. Some companies made elaborate plans to leverage the new reality as and when it happens. The CIO benchmarked his company well locally and discovered an opportunity looking at upcoming trends in the mature markets. He presented the use case to the CEO and stakeholders who agreed with some caveat.

He pushed ahead with the business, the IT team and the vendor to deploy the solution seizing the early mover advantage and consolidated the market position with additional 5% market share over and above the already dominant position. The initiative was acknowledged by the CEO, the industry at large and strengthened the credibility of the CIO as a business leader rather than a technology innovator.

Where are you ?

Three narrations, each disjointed from each other, each happened to different people at different times, each created different impact to the business and for the CIO, each has learning for the business and the CIO. The stringing together of these portray how people behave to stimulus influencing the outcome and thereby the impact to the company at large. We all have gone through similar experiences and been in similar situations.  What would you do differently in situations given above ?

I hope that many will associate with the last one and a few with the first two situations. I believe that each situation challenges us and also gives us an opportunity to break the mould and do something differently. Next time take a step back and determine what step you would like to take. We all face adversity in our life; and so many times how we react to it will determine our destiny and outcome. Go ahead, exercise your choice.

Monday, January 14, 2013

A Strategic Discussion

Recently I had a very interesting discussion with a CIO friend. She is by most benchmarks a successful CIO who has a credible record of delivering many solutions that business has used effectively across her many assignments. Over a year back she joined a company that is well established though does not score well on IT maturity. She took that as an opportunity to make a difference and help them bring mature IT to drive business value. Her road appeared well charted with buy-in from the Executive team.

The initial period or the “honeymoon period” was a dream run getting to know the business, the initial plans and fixing the basic stuff typically referred to as the “low hanging fruits” or “quick wins”. She brought the IT team together and with frequent meetings, coaching and guidance had them working towards the defined common objective for the team. Initiatives got off the ground soon enough with her team working with vigour to achieve success that had eluded them in the past.

Some of her direct reports who were new to the team; they quickly learned the business with help from other team mates and discussions at the ground level across operations. She started reaching out to her peers to gain their confidence and plan for the long-term. The projects were handed out to project leads to go and engage the business teams in a dialogue to discover current process as well as identify the critical success factors. The team charged by initial success garnered by the quick wins and the changing perception decided to approach the next level of managers and operational heads.

The IT team scheduled meetings with the operational managers to discuss the strategic intent of the new initiatives. Their progress was far from satisfactory; they had too many questions on why the need for change, what will happen to existing data, how will it impact the people down the line, etc. They were obviously not aligned to the direction agreed to by their bosses. This disconnect caused by lack of information flow downward caused heartburns on either side. The CIO attempted to moderate the discussion with limited success.

Some of the teams had no inkling of the new initiatives; looping back to business leaders the discovery was the fact that there was no consistency in communication. Some had informally spoken to their direct reports while others expected the CIO to drive the change initiatives. She was expected to broadcast and/or communicate the decisions, rationale, plans, motivation, methodology which they had endorsed. As the initiator of the proposed change the ball rested with the CIO. Not a healthy situation as she recollected to me.

She took charge and formulated the communication that was approved by the respective business heads. Then she realized that if the communication did not originate from the business owners there was a risk that the project will become an IT project with reluctant participation. Back again she coerced the CXOs to disseminate the same. The tone of the discussions now was different with the endorsement of the respective department heads.

Strategic discussions can only succeed when both sides have a complete agreement on the process and the outcomes. For the CIO to make progress, it is imperative to get the message across the layers of the functions which are impacted directly or indirectly. Any gaps here will lead to unaligned objectives; I believe that CIOs should manage the process such that they are able to create the ownership and urgency towards the meeting of objectives. My friend did make progress until one incident.

In a meeting with one such middle manager where she too was present, he got the meeting started on the wrong foot. He said "Are you folks really ready for a strategic discussion ? First fix the email system that keeps breaking down before we can get down to serious business !". Not that the email system had failed in the last six months, the experiences of the past continued to color the perceptions of progress negating any gains. And that is a story for another time.

Monday, January 07, 2013

The CEOs pet project or the Emperor’s New Clothes

It was evident that the project wasn't going anywhere in a hurry even though the CEO had endorsed and inaugurated it in a gathering of all key stakeholders. It was (had become) the CEOs project which no one believed in. The floundering state of affairs had the IT team and the CIO wondering on the steps they could take to come back on track. After all abandoning was not an option considering the large sunk capital investment and the CEOs belief. The CIO started asking around in the network to explore possibilities.

Almost a year had elapsed since the licenses were procured and the hardware installed; everyone had delivered to promise more or less within the timelines they had agreed to. The IT team had done their bit and ensured that everything worked the way it should. None of the business heads or the key users believed that the priority set by the CEO mattered; their level of thinking was far removed from the ideas perpetrated by the CEO. This disconnect resulted in sporadic half-hearted participation.

The IT team discovered bottlenecks in the master data, correlations between systems and disparate formula for the same KPI across functions. Getting everyone to the same platform was resisted actively or met with indifferent attitude and claimed conflicting priorities. The CEO in the infrequent status meetings pushed the CIO and the team with little change in outcome. The CIO explored all advice thrown at him and decided to take a few bold steps to recoup the situation.

The starting point was revisiting the outcomes expected from the project; what is the need ? Who benefits from it ? Do expected key users feel threatened with the new process ? Is there a problem with the technology ? Did we get the architecture right ? Are internal and external resources deployed the best ? Were timelines set realistic ? The answers were what he thought they would be. Everything was fine, it is just that people nit piking and splitting hairs, blaming the tools and the result.

So what were the real causes of the lack of traction and belief ? Evidence pointed to the fact that the CEOs thinking process was ahead of the curve which his team found it difficult to connect with. Sycophants in the team prevented others from raising the issue and everyone was on a merry-go-round. End result, the CIO was left with the orphan baby crying for attention and an adverse impact on his performance bonus. So he had to find a solution and that too quickly.

Working diligently through the layers with open communication flowing through the hierarchy, the IT team and the partner worked step by step resolving all direct and ambiguous queries. External Subject Matter Experts were brought over the next six months to educate the users on why the CEO defined path was the way to go in the future. Global benchmarking helped in reinforcing the way less trodden locally. Finally one business head saw the value and agreed to be the guinea pig and the proponent.

The BU head worked with the CIO for further six months reaping the benefits and promoting the cause to his peers who grudgingly began to acknowledge the benefit. The CIO pressed hard this time and found no push backs  The acceptance and traction was good. Three years since the start and two years from the time the problem was elevated, the solution was a big hit. Everyone quoted it in internal meetings and external seminars as the strategic differentiator. People raved about it as one of the best implementations.

Incidentally the CEO had moved on just when the project started turning around. His last words of advice to the CIO that he believed in the solution, he should continue to pursue it. We all see such favorite projects of CEOs and other CXOs faltering after a great pomp and show. They take away a lot of energy, budgets and resources to see through to fruition though rarely anyone wants to challenge the need or the relevance at that time. The emperor’s new clothes will always be a parable with learning for everyone.

Tuesday, January 01, 2013

Role of the CEO, Part 2

Sometime back I was party to a great discussion between CIOs on how to ensure that their boss the CEO is an ally rather than an adversary or a bystander. The CIOs were pragmatic in not expecting the CEO to become tech savvy or understand why server sizing or database tuning is a complex task or engage in a discussion on the merits of NL SAS on the SAN box. The discussion focused on how the CIO should approach the CEO; s/he is a customer as well as the final decision maker and that can make things complicated.

Today most companies have the CIO directly connected to the CEO with IT becoming an integral part of running the company’s operations. CIOs played different roles during the economic uncertainty some gaining in prominence and others falling behind a bit. Measurement criteria changed for some CXOs and market dynamics transformed roles and expectations. The CEO under pressure to deliver growth and whatever expectations the Board and shareholders set for the management in turn raised the performance bar.

The CEO as a consumer of information started demanding ad-hoc and complex analysis of historical information and future trends that sometimes challenged imagination. Doing more with less never went away, the constantly shrinking budget and stratospheric expectations created a precarious situation for the IT team and the CIO. Challenging the CEO on his need and at the same time ensuring that one experience does not influence the other decision created a tightrope like situation.

Customer is always right is a maxim has always been professed until one company decided that the customer does not know what s/he wants; so let’s tell the customer what she would need and s/he would happily embrace it. We all have been at the receiving end of this for a while now; only recently the sheen has been wearing off. But can the CEO be convinced using such a simplistic premise ? Every leader intuitively knows what they need to succeed, the CEO is no exception.

So can the CIO be the confidante to the CEO and give him/her the inputs s/he needs in various scenarios and business situations ? Should the CIO even attempt to get to that position ? What will be the acceptance of the CIO in such a role by other CXOs ? Will the CIO be able to live up to the demands and pressures of being a shadow to the CEO ? Is the CIO being too ambitious in his/her reach ? And how many will be able to get there and stay there ?

A CIO flooded with operations will rarely have the opportunity, this requires the CIO to first create a strong team which frees him/her to engage with CXOs on what matters. The CIO also needs to imbibe all the soft skills that help him/her form lasting relationships and manage expectations. Finally the CIO needs a support ecosystem to consistently deliver to promise. Only then can the CIO can expect to even begin taking the baby steps required to engage the CEO in a way that brings the two together.

Coming back to the CEO as a customer, every consumer of information starts with a broad idea which takes shape with discovery of various facets as the solution evolves; this is what we in IT call iterative development or scope creep. It takes a huge amount of effort along with loads of credibility to challenge and engage constructively without getting beaten up. Having said that I believe that CIOs should explore this uncharted territory; if done well it takes the relationship to the next level which is a great place to be.