Accost managers at your peril

As is a frequent habit of mine, I sat down last week with a friendly neighborhood CIO over coffee.

And on this particular day, this particular CIO was in a bad mood, and angry at his fellow senior executive types. Granted, his bad temper may have been partly attributable to the fact that this is the budget silly season for most IT organizations. But the majority of his wrath seemed directed at non-IT execs. “The big bloody gap is especially clear at this time of year,” he said, “when we’re doing our damndest to make sure that the budget explicitly speaks to the priorities of our organization.”

“I’ve been pounding it into my guys’ heads,” he continued, “corporate strategy drives IT strategy, plain and simple – we can be a partner sometimes, we can lead sometimes, but everything we do has to connect explicitly to the strategic thrust of the larger organization we live within.”

Seeing agreement in my face, he softened a little. I had to concur with him – like this CIO, I can’t fathom an IT shop that can’t ultimately link everything it does back to fundamental strategies of its host organization, whether those strategies involve stuff like keeping employees happy (those who said we need an objective metric here, go to the front of the class) and the senior execs out of jail, or reducing average transaction costs for customers or entering a new market and gaining a certain market share.

We agreed that the connections between corporate strategy to, and down through, IT were like a series of bridges. With some variation organization to organization, the building blocks between the bridges look something like this:

Corporate Mission drives Corporate Objectives, Corporate Objectives drive a list of Corporate Strategies, Corporate Strategies drive a list of Required Functionalities, a list of Required Functionalities drives a portfolio of IT projects.

“And that’s the bloody problem,” he fumed. “No articulated corporate strategies is like having a big bloody hole in the ground between corporate objectives, which are at too high a level for us to work with, and our IT portfolio.”

And then he took off on a rant: “Next executive meeting I’m gonna show those guys that we don’t have any strategies, that the management emperor has no clothes…”

And that’s where the discussion got dangerous: in my experience, any IT person has to tread carefully when pointing out deficiencies to non-IT management.

Even assuming he drank his chai tea and calmed down first, can you imagine the start of his presentation? “Hello fellow senior management team members – we in IT just wanted to say how much we love you and admire the job you’re doing in general, but we did feel a need to point out, with the deepest respect, that you have your heads up your collective rectums when it comes to clearly articulated strategies for our company.”

No matter how politely you put it, or how true it us, all they’ll hear is the “heads up the collective rectums” part – wouldn’t you?

Unless we IT types want to be chewed up, we’ve got to take a different approach. For IT, better to volunteer to help pull the strategies together. Try this: “Based on what we’ve heard and the need to line up what we do with the priorities of the organization, how about we take a run at pulling the corporate strategy together?”

In my experience, you’ll tend to get a better response from the execs when you give them something to shoot at.

Better to be a light than curse the darkness. And better yet not to be crunchy with ketchup.

Hanley is an IS professional in Calgary. He can be reached at