by Steve Trautman

Beating CIO overload: 3 questions that could change your life

Jan 23, 2019
CIOIT LeadershipIT Strategy

To eliminate CIO overload, you have to move away from always putting out fires and instead create a Big Picture strategy that allows you to develop a healthy, productive team capable of making smart, strategic decisions.

overwhelmed man stressed analytics information overload
Credit: Thinkstock

If you’re like most CIOs, beating overload tops your list of New Year’s resolutions. But avoiding the dread and panic that comes with overload takes more than changing your mindset. Feelings of overload come from real, systemic problems — teams missing deadlines, projects going over budget, and you being dragged into endless meetings to untangle staff confusion. Beating overload can be done if you’re ready to make real, strategic, and tactical changes.

There’s a tool CIOs can use when they’re struggling to keep teams clear, aligned, and productive. I call it the “Big Picture.” If your teams “get” the Big Picture, you’ll spend a lot less time putting out daily fires. Unlike initiatives that scratch the surface, the Big Picture tackles a shaky foundation.

I use three questions to learn exactly how aligned my team is. These questions may seem obvious, but they’re powerful. Especially when you ask them of front-line employees. If your workers don’t have confident, crisp, and clear answers to these questions that guide their daily routines, then they don’t understand your company’s Big Picture and you have work to do.

Question #1: What are three things our unit does to support the company’s business strategy?

Overload is often the result of poor decision making. Haphazard, stress-induced decisions lead teams to prioritize requests from the wrong customers. Bad decisions can result in busy work that doesn’t need to be done — at least not right now — and that gets in the way of delivering A-level work.

To make good decisions about how staff spend their time and energy, you need to help them draw a line between their daily work and how it contributes to the organization’s Big Picture.

Some years ago, I met an IT leader at Boeing who ended every team meeting with the rallying cry, “let’s go build an airplane.” He made a direct, real connection between the work his business analysts were doing and the end product. To emphasize the Big Picture, he routinely brought his team out into the field to meet and hear feedback from their internal clients. He made sure they understood the competition so that they were firmly grounded in the business. When workers see the Big Picture, they start making smarter, more strategic decisions.

Question #2: How do we measure success?

CIO dashboards and success metrics are becoming commonplace, and that’s a good thing. But too few CIOs use this data as a roadmap to guide employees’ work. How can our staff make good decisions if they don’t know how to prioritize all those metrics? Do your employees know whether cost savings is more important than on-time delivery? Or if customer satisfaction trumps speed to market?

I witnessed an example of this when analyzing the workload of a highly valued and critically overworked engineer. He was spending up to five hours a week on “special requests” for a VP because the engineer felt obligated to keep her happy. He was prioritizing “customer satisfaction” over what really mattered to the business — hitting project milestones.

A CIO’s life gets easier when dashboard numbers come to life in a way that leads to good decision making, not just for CIOs but for teams that fully “get” business priorities.

Question #3: How does our organizational structure support our strategy?

We’ve discussed how poor decisions lead to daily flare-ups. I truly believe role clarity is key to happier staff who make better decisions. Roles become crystal clear when your team grasps who does what work, where, and why.

Role clarity isn’t just a pressing issue at the manager level. It’s an epidemic on the front line, especially for global teams that require consistency across locations. When technical experts aren’t clear about who on their team sets the standard of work, who is working to that level, and who’s still learning, they’ll be banging down your door with complaints and finger pointing.

I recently helped with a cleanup after a reorg gone wrong. Two longstanding teams were split into three to better serve their internal customer. The strategy was sound. But simply rolling out a new org chart hadn’t worked. Experienced, committed employees felt they couldn’t leave their old jobs to start new ones — they weren’t confident they could trust the new owners to handle the work. Production was in limbo  until roles were explicitly defined and staff could see their old jobs would be covered by competent experts.

If you continue spending your days putting out fires, you’ll never beat CIO overload. But when your staff “gets” the Big Picture, you set a solid foundation for a healthy, productive team that’s primed to make smart, strategic decisions. Put the Big Picture into practice in 2019, and you’ll finally be able to reduce the endless parade of problems that lead to overload, overwhelm, and exhaustion.