Ten worst mistakes CIOs can make

Life’s too short to make stupid mistakes–or I should say, Your career is too short to make the same mistakes others have been making for years and years. We have all seen promising careers derailed too early over something that could have easily been avoided, if only they had known.

Wouldn’t it be great to peer into the minds of seasoned CIOs and extract their wisdom? Unfortunately, few mentors are secure or reflective enough to share their mistakes in a way that could benefit others. And once CIOs assemble at a conference, they become charter members of “the great liars club,” in the words of one of my clients. In an attempt to fill the void, I’ll share with you some of the well-intentioned, stupid mistakes that my clients (and I) have made over the years.

1. Reign from your office. Let your assistant book your calendar on a first come, first served basis so that you have meetings every half hour with your direct reports and vendors. Don’t listen to the little voice telling you that the majority of your time should be spent with your customers and the front line of the business. Instead, delegate those activities to your staff.

2. Be strategic, not tactical. Believe executives when they say, “We need a change-agent CIO to help lead business transformation.” Dedicate all your time to leading strategic initiatives. Ignore the grumbling about your high cost structure, poor customer service and uneven operational performance.

3. Be tactical, not strategic. Believe executives when they say, “After a period of hefty IT investments, we are well positioned with our capabilities and need somebody to get the costs under control.” Focus solely on operational excellence, relying on budget constraints to manage demand.

4. Address demand on a “you pay, we play” basis. Cash all the checks the business is willing to endorse to IT. Assume that a willingness to pay corresponds to a value proposition and that you will not be held accountable for unrealized value and soaring operational costs.

5. Say “yes” to everything. Agree to all client requests, and trust that you can get internal supply to flex infinitely with demand by using tactics like outsourcing, skill development and improved processes. Ignore the fact that there is a practical limit on the number of investments that can be well managed and the amount of change a business can absorb.

6. Always say “no.” Institute a governance monarchy and appoint yourself king. Assume that you were hired to take tough stands, and eschew the other tactics for managing demand (strategy making, senior executive governance and investment management) as inefficient.

7. Subscribe to the big bang theory of development. Ignore the mountains of research about the need for short cycle time of projects. Approach multiyear initiatives as a single project with a known destination. Assume that the business context and leadership will stay stable over the long term.

8. Treat architecture and security as outputs rather than inputs. Shape infrastructure on a project-by-project basis, and ignore your fiduciary responsibility to leave the place in better shape than when you arrived.

9. Pretend that your organizational weeds are really untended flowers. Deal with poor-performing employees by working around them or lowering your standards. Use outsourcing to get critical skills, and focus your in-house resources on keeping the business running.

10. Rely solely on your gut. Support the Balanced Scorecard approach to drive and monitor strategic change, but don’t bother putting measurement systems in place for cost and urgency reasons. Use gut and instinct as your guide, and assume that your unwritten record of accomplishments will stand on its own as the political winds kick up dust in your direction.

As an executive coach, I help clients avoid stupid mistakes. Stupid mistakes are the type that will get you thrown out of the game before you really get started. In the course of your career, you will still make mistakes, but they will be more sophisticated–and, although painful, will enhance your competence. Once you have the basics of the IT game covered, you are free to develop your own playing style. As long as your batting average is pretty good, you will live through the mistakes to play another day.