Be a king, not a joker

On a table in my office sits a wooden block inscribed with the words, “Well done is better than well said.” It serves as a reminder to me, my staff and all who enter that governance and leadership are not synonymous. There is too much focus today on IT governance — the reporting, quantifying and measuring of the IT organization’s output — and not enough on IT leadership. The confusion between the two is dangerous because it leads to an ineffective IT organization and a focus on the wrong things.

Rather than use governance to create accountability for results, CIOs employ it defensively, to apologize for and justify the existence of IT. The focus on governance is a trap: a downward spiral of decreased productivity, declining quality and distrust among business partners. Delivering results is the antidote. This column examines how CIOs can extricate themselves from the governance trap and enhance the value of IT.

Why CIOs get trapped in governance

Time and again I have witnessed technology executives fall into the governance trap by issuing reports when business units express dissatisfaction. I know one IT executive whose project was not going well because the business unit had not clearly communicated its requirements. Instead of sitting down with business unit members to establish new requirements, this IT executive’s solution was to justify IT’s output with reports about the business unit’s failure to articulate its requirements.

Meanwhile, an outside vendor established an informal relationship with the business unit and worked with them to change the application. The business problem was ultimately solved by the vendor focused on delivering results while the internal IT team wasted valuable time trying to justify its work. The company ultimately hired the leader of the vendor team.

It’s easy to understand how we get to this point. The barrage of articles and a cottage industry of conferences that claim to make CIOs better leaders espouse increased governance in the form of productivity measures. This proliferation of formulas and methodologies for governance are being marketed to bridge the communication gap between CIOs and their business unit counterparts. We have gone from counting lines of code to measuring unit cost and man-hours. These tools provide an inward focus on the IT organization, rather than what it delivers.

Unfortunately, as CIOs try to achieve better results, they increase the reporting burden on their employees (which in turn leads to a decrease in productivity). Business units respond by imposing additional governance requirements, resulting in the downward spiral. The CIO winds up starting every budget meeting with an apology for spending money, followed by a presentation using measurements that someone has deemed appropriate for helping the businesspeople understand IT better. This subordinate existence eventually affects the quality of output from IT. IT managers start to feel that their work is not appreciated and that their superiors are either ineffective or not valued as highly as other business unit senior managers.

Output measurements don’t really matter if the CEO and other senior managers don’t believe the CIO is delivering results. If the chief marketing executive isn’t confident that the IT group delivers technology when needed, reports on man-hours per project won’t change his mind. Good governance supports accountability, discipline and strategic thinking, but it depends on the quality, not quantity, of information that is available.

Because CIOs have custodial responsibility for the technology of the organization, they must behave that way. Evaluations of the technology organization should be based on how many innovative products and services IT brings to the organization. An insightful leader does not use governance as a crutch to prove his worth — doing so only serves to train his business unit counterparts to expect ancillary reports, rather than to have meaningful discussions about IT’s role within the business.

How CIOs can escape the governance trap

To become better leaders, CIOs should stop spending countless resources on reporting to justify IT projects. Instead they must assume IT has strategic importance and take charge of determining its role in aligning their company competitively.

The CIO who can lead thinks and acts like a businessperson. She is in control of her department’s performance, so no one from another department thinks he knows better how to improve IT operations or cut costs. At the bottom of the downward spiral caused by increased governance is the business units’ perception that IT is a financial drain, staffed with technologists who do not understand business, finance or strategy.

Here are three first steps for getting out of the governance trap.

1. Understand finance. Governance does not take the place of a CIO who can talk to other senior officers in a language they understand: finance. Embrace it. Communication with other senior managers will be stronger, improving a CIO’s standing with her peers. Budget discussions with the CFO should be about the best use of IT spending as a strategic company resource. How the money is managed within the IT department should be the responsibility of the CIO.

Using business language skills to talk about application development and project management will yield the autonomy the CIO needs to be a peer with her business unit counterparts.

2. Require other senior officers to understand technology. If CIOs speak the language of finance well, then the language of technology should come naturally to business unit leaders: not “techno-speak” that is filled with esoteric jargon, but meaningful discussions about IT and strategy.

Business unit and IT executives should collaboratively report on IT projects. This behaviour forces business units to understand the business case and gives them a better appreciation for what it takes to get an IT project done. It also makes them — not just IT — accountable for results.

3. Take action. Fight the urge to produce yet another report justifying IT performance when a business unit identifies a problem. Instead, communicate with the business unit about the problem. Find its cause and put a plan in place to resolve those issues within a specific amount of time. Often CIOs, because of their analytical background, fall back on analysis when their energy could be better spent getting the problem solved. CIOs don’t get fired for not having enough governance. They get fired for not getting the job done. Constant communication at multiple levels within the business unit will reveal the IT group’s performance without over-measurement.

Effective leadership fosters accountability, discipline and consistency. Many CIOs are skilled at managing complexity and driving corporate initiatives throughout their organizations. Even so, many lack vision, shy away from risk and become deferential when they interact with business unit peers.

Dynamic leaders do not allow themselves to be relegated to being merely good scorekeepers. Keen vision for the role of technology within an organization, willingness to take risks and confidence to communicate effectively will ultimately result in technological value that is self-evident. Lead, don’t just govern. Stand up and deliver — because well done is always better than well said.

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