“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair…in short, the period was so far like the present period that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.” — Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities.

As I was rereading this amazing opening sentence from one of the great works of English literature, I was struck by how apt a description it is of the state of business technology leadership today. Some noisy authorities are proclaiming that IT is a commodity; others, that it’s the key to competitive advantage. Some say CIOs are little more than digital plumbers; others, that they’re the new masters of a fiercely competitive global marketplace.

It’s a wonder more CIOs don’t suffer identity crises.

In fact, IT is both utility and innovation engine. But what does that mean for CIOs? Should the role be split, as Peter Drucker predicted it would years ago? Must a CIO choose between the critical work of operational excellence and the game-changing job of business strategy and differentiation? Can one person play in and lead in both realms?

VC legend Tom Perkins advises CIOs to be, above all, cautious and cost-conscious, while management guru Gary Hamel tells you to spend your time on the fringes of the Web because that’s where the innovation is taking place.

How do you make sense of these kinds of disconnects? Or maybe you just have to stop worrying about making sense.

Hamel offers these tips for innovation:

— Challenge industry dogma.

— Be alert to early harbingers of big shifts in demographics, technology, regulation or whatever it is that most of your industry isn’t paying close attention to.

— Discover the hidden or unarticulated needs of your customers.

The most successful CIOs I know think that way and are cost-conscious too. For them, this simply may be the best of times.



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