How (and why) to be a Pragmatic Visionary

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If there’s one characteristic shared by just about everyone in the diverse universe of IT professionals, it’s the desire to work at the leading edge of technology and innovation. There may be exceptions, of course, but virtually everyone who dedicates their career to the technology industry does so with a keen interest in pushing the envelope, exploring what’s possible, and leveraging innovative new technology to drive change. In other words, we all want to be visionary leaders – and that’s a great thing, especially for CIOs. The best CIOs I know are those driven first and foremost by a desire to bring visionary leadership to their teams and their organizations.

But, like all IT leaders, CIOs need to strike a balance, and even the most visionary CIO needs to keep her/his eye on the challenges of today. For while CIOs are justifiably excited about the unlimited potential of new technology, most of the IT professionals working in the trenches are still struggling the seemingly straightforward challenges of yesteryear. When I talk to most ground-level IT professionals, the conversation isn’t about cloud, IoT, machine learning, or cognitive analytics, but is instead about things like backing up data and applications, monitoring and optimizing databases, and managing and securing endpoints.

Does this mean CIOs should suddenly take off their visionary caps and focus entirely on block-and-tackle issues? Certainly not. But it does mean that CIOs – and all IT and business leaders, for that matter – must make a conscious effort to blend vision with pragmatism. After all, a great vision is only useful if it’s one that can ultimately be realized. And until IT teams get a better handle on the everyday challenges that still bog them down, the visions of tomorrow will never become the realities of today. That’s why it’s so important for CIOs to lead as pragmatic visionaries, for in doing so, not only will they help their teams address what ails them in the here and now, but they’ll actually better position their organizations to capitalize on the long-term plans they are envisioning.

Now, that might all sound well and good on paper, but how do you actually get there? How does a CIO create the balance required of a pragmatic visionary? In a recent article, I outlined the beginnings of a roadmap to do just that. In short, the strategy revolves around the following four core concepts:

• Assessing how the technology you purchase and deploy maps back to your business imperatives • Investigating the extent to which your organization is making optimal use of your existing technology investments

• Asking honest (and often difficult) questions about whether a given technology (old or new) solves problems or just creates new ones

• Understanding the desired business impact of every technology implementation you lead

Easier said than done, of course, but it can be done. For proof, let’s examine the strategic decisions of a CIO (someone I know well who prefers anonymity) at an international construction company. Her vision was to drive down operational costs for her organization by optimizing the way they store data, with the ultimate goal of moving all of the company’s systems into the cloud in a hosted fashion. What she realized early on was that in order to achieve her vision in the long run, she needed to be pragmatic in the short term.

So, rather than making overnight investments in the latest and greatest new technology, she outlined and championed a five-year plan that would over time move the business systems primarily into the cloud. The staged approach allowed them to slowly, over time, reduce their outlay on expensive database licenses and reinvest the savings not only in newer technology, but also in training their employees to effectively operate in the new systems in which they were investing. This investment made it far easier for her to retain her best and brightest even as the organization underwent a dramatic change in the way it ran operations.

She’s now three-years into her five year plan and continually moving closer to the long-term goal laid out at the start of the project, and doing so with a team of well-trained, highly-engaged professionals that feel equally invested in the long-term goal as she does.

For me, that’s what being a pragmatic visionary is all about.

For additional information, please visit: Dell.com/BigData

Joanna Schloss is in Systems and Information Management at Dell.

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