The built-in challenges that set up IT for failure


Last month, I introduced the concept of the CIO paradox, a set of pernicious contradictions that permeate the core of your role. I also issued a challenge to make that paradox a thing of the past. To be sure, what I propose is a marathon, not a sprint. The paradox has been around since the dawn of IT. But by using professional associations, forums and events, you can put together a long-term plan of attack. If you do nothing, these contradictions will continue to undercut you and block your successor’s path to the Future-State CIO.

The first step is taking the CIO paradox from an amorphous notion to a framework we can use to generate understanding. The common contradictions listed below were culled from my conversations with CIOs over the past 12 months. Grouped into four categories, they constitute a well-defined target at which you can take aim.

* You were hired to be strategic, but you are forced to spend most of your time on operational issues.
* You are the steward of risk mitigation and cost containment, yet you are expected to innovate.
* Your function is seen as that of an enabler, yet you are also expected to be a business driver.
* IT can make or break a company, but you are not a member of the corporate board.

“CIOs must look at risk with a pragmatic lens, which is sometimes viewed as contrary to creativity and innovation,” says Maurizio Laudisa, CIO of LifeLabs. “The cost of artistic creativity is often complexity and error; our delivery mandate can afford neither of those.”

Your stakeholders

* You run one of the most pervasive, critical functions, yet you must prove your value constantly.
* Your many successes are invisible; your few mistakes are highly visible.
* You are intimately involved in every facet of the business, yet you are considered separate and removed from it.
* You are accountable for project success, but the business has ownership.

“It’s one of those ‘You have to but you can’t’ situations,” says David Hartley, CIO of Arch Coal (ACI), “How do you insert yourself into the business and drive something you can’t really own? If you drive it yourself, people will say, ‘Why is this guy doing things to us?’ “

Your organization

* Your staff loves technology but must embrace business to advance.
* Your team members are uncomfortable with people, but to succeed they must build relationships and influence others.
* You develop successors, yet the CEO almost always goes outside for the next CIO.
* You are forced to seek cheap overseas sourcing, yet you are expected to ensure the profession’s development at home.

Your industry

* Technology takes a long time to implement, yet your tool set changes constantly.
* Technology is a long-term investment, but the company thinks in quarters.
* Your tools cost a fortune, yet have the highest defect rate of any product.
* You sign vendors’ checks, yet they try their darndest to sell to your business peers.

What else needs to be on this list? What resonates most? How are you making progress on these issues? I will be teaming up with the CIO Executive Council to produce town halls and workshops to further clarify these paradoxes and strategize how to solve them. Watch for us at and e-mail me your thoughts.

Martha Heller is managing director of the IT Leadership Practice at ZRG Partners, an executive recruiting firm, and a cofounder of the CIO Executive Council. She can be reached at


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