Background Matters

I had been invited to her office to discuss strategy. This CIO had been in her position for about 10 months. She had been struggling with implementing her vision. She wanted my opinion on how to kick start her stalled strategic plan.

She told me about all of her objectives and why she wanted to do them. She presented how they would benefit her company. She then asked the question “If you were me, where would you take the organization?”

I replied “Tell me about the history of your IT organization.” She responded “I don’t want you to advise me based on the past. I want to talk about the opportunities in the future.”

I paused for a moment and said “If we don’t talk about the past, there is no way to roadmap the future. Otherwise, we would be guessing at what is possible. Your past is a determinant in what your future can look like.”

In the IT field there is a term called “technical debt.” This means that an organization can build up a liability as a result of an aging infrastructure. When a CIO takes the reigns of an organization they inherit this “technical debt.” It is a fact of life.

There is another reality that is even more powerful than “technical debt,” and that is the concept of “historical debt.” This is also something a CIO inherits when they come into a position, yet it is not as widely discussed. This is the political liability that has built up as a result of the decisions of that organization’s past IT leadership. This debt is more subtle to identify and more complex to solve. As compared to the science of paying off “technical debt,” paying off “political debt” is an art.

Those CIOs who disregard this reality do so at their own peril. It must be addressed especially when considering a relationship with the business.

In The Tech BuzzKill question number six in the interviews was related to the barriers that IT faces when it deals with the business. Almost 100% of the interviewees spoke about past events that created barriers.

For example, one CIO came into an organization only to discover that his predecessor was known as the “See I Know.” Apparently, the former CIO thought he knew everything and would try to dictate to the business what was needed. That CIO met the predictable fate.

Another CIO inherited an organization that was modeled to be technical only. There was no business focus. IT had the stigma that IT was a bunch of “technocrats.”

In each case, the business had shut down the relationship with IT. It was evident that IT had a political liability that each incoming CIO had to address before real progress could be made.

This was the case for the CIO that had invited me in to discuss strategy from the story in the beginning of the chapter. In that CIO’s case, the organization she inherited had a conventional IT model that was not bringing new ideas to the business. IT was seen as too costly (another common barrier for IT), and they were in the habit of being “order takers” who had “no choice” but to say yes to every request.

When that CIO came into the organization, she made the mistake of pressing too fast to implement a vision of IT that she had formed prior to taking the position. Her vision was perfectly legitimate, and quite candidly was a modern vision. However, the organization in which she was trying to implement it was not ready. She violated the cardinal rule of relationship: she did not deal with people where they were at.

These examples are precisely the reason why background matters when dealing with the business.  No matter how elegant, articulate, smart, or advanced a leader is, they cannot make the business forget the past.  Only time and performance can do that.  So, strategies need to address multiple things to launch a business relationship model.

(Sample from Chapter 1 of The Levers of Embedded IT)

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