Process vs. outcomes in IT leadership

Long before we started working with Canadian IT managers and CIOs to define their future career path, a Canadian leader in an entirely different field was trying to figure out his own.

Some of you may be familiar with Bruce Mau, but for those of you who aren’t, he is a figure of almost legendary status in graphic design, architecture and many related fields. Besides his impressive body of work, he’s also well known for publishing a document which can easily be found online called, “An incomplete manifesto for growth.”

Along with encouraging people to ask the “stupid questions” that often get to the truth and not worrying about being “good” when you can be great (echoing the old Jim Collins philosophy), his third point in the 43-point tract is, “process is more important than outcome.” Here’s an exact quote:

When outcome drives the process, we will only end up where we have already been. When process drives the outcome, we may not know exactly where we are going, but we know we will want to be there.

This may seem rather counter-intuitive for those CIOs and IT managers who have been working so hard in the last few years to orient the IT work they do to further the outcomes of the business, whether it’s increasing sales transactions, reducing customer churn and so on. But I think when you apply the concept of outcomes to a career, you risk limiting the kind of contributions that an IT leader can make.

We all know some of the hoped-for outcomes of a CIO or IT manager, of course. We hope that they will become more strategic advisors to the business, and that the work they do will contribute more directly to revenue, growth and so on. But there are so many outcomes that may not even be possible to guess at now.

If you ask those on the outside to determine the outcomes, the results can be even worse. For example, at our recent CIO Exchange conference we spent about five or six hours exploring the theme of the “Future CIO: Seizing the Opportunity for Change.” If you asked the average knowledge worker to forecast the future of the CIO, I’d be surprised if they took more than five or six minutes. That’s because some of them don’t see a future for IT leaders at all; there’s an expectation that IT roles will simply be absorbed into the operations area, or that it will be outsourced to a cloud computing provider.

We don’t believe that at IT World Canada, which is why we invest in events like CIO Exchange, the upcoming ComputerWorld Canada IT Leadership Awards and our ongoing coverage in our print publications and portals. As you engage with us, consider it the beginnings of a process of discovery – but of what an IT leader is today, and what it could be.

This process, of course, is as forever incomplete as Mau’s manifesto. When you’re working on an IT project and have to go back to the drawing board, it can be quite painful. But the best CIOs and IT managers I’ve met have embraced this idea of being constantly in start mode. They have realized, in effect, that having a beginner’s mindset is the closest we’ll ever get to experiencing the future – career-wise or otherwise – before it starts.

Adapted from my opening remarks at CIO Exchange 2011 in Toronto. For highlights of the event, flip through the CIO Exchange 2011 Scrapbook.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada
Shane Schick
Shane Schick
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