by Francois Estellon

How can a CIO provide clarity in a messy world?

Jul 27, 2016
CIOIT LeadershipIT Skills

From reading the tea leaves to understand Big Tech strategy to writing “The Idiot’s Guide” about any technology, a CIO has a lot of explaining to do.

Travelling abroad during the last few weeks with my two little girls, I have had to do a lot of explaining of truly “foreign concepts” to them in very simple terms. It felt like I was back in the office; IT leaders spend a lot of their time trying to provide clarity to a vastly diverse audience with limited knowledge and patience: explaining somewhat counter-intuitive business decisions and directions to their technical teams and/or trying to describe what “cloud” is to an executive team and why we are not “all in” there at this point.

The ability to cut through the fog is a key event of the IT leadership decathlon. Below are some tools and techniques I found useful in the last few years.

Know thyself

Start with your role: depending on your organizational need and culture, you need to define your role as a CIO and make sure you have your elevator speech ready for anytime somebody asks you, “what you are doing?” Some CIOs are more utility/operations focused, others are focused on Innovation, while still others drive to evangelize or the role could be a combination of them all.

Knowing what you are and how to clearly articulate it is critical. (For more on this, read “Clarifying the Ambiguous Role of the CIO,” a great research paper online.)

Read the tea leaves

With technology constantly evolving and vendors driving even faster strategic changes in their road map, CIOs must spend time understanding and planning for the future of their investment.

Strategic moves by large providers mean something to your company and your career; you need to be able to cut through the vaporware and explain to your teams and business partners the downstream cause-and-effect to your organization. SAP and Oracle pushing 100 percent cloud while most of your investments are in on-premise, code heavy applications, IBM and Apple working together, IBM shedding large parts of their business — with all these macro-events occurring, you need to stay on their pulse to understand, and anticipate the degree of impact to you and to your IT strategy and tactics.

Eliminating ambiguity

Technology can be applied and understood a hundred different ways by individuals and teams. A key to providing clarity is to ensure everybody is on the same page; leveling expectations. It may sound obvious, but making limpidity a core DNA element of your organization is critical: roles and responsibilities spelled out, tasks and timelines documented and agreed, regular reviews and alignment… all these tools should be embedded in the daily work packages and, over time, will become second nature for a clear and crisp organization.

Balancing “simple”

There is a fine line between simplification and being condescending. Know your audience when trying to simplify a topic: too much and you may end-up offending your conversation partner; too little and you will start seeing eyes glaze over.

When addressing complex discussions, especially in a potentially tense public situation (board meetings, key project reviews,…), it is always good to be prepared with the following:

  • Knowing what you are trying to achieve (decision, consensus, information);

  • Understanding your audience (technology savviness, patience level, interactions between people);

  • A defined agenda that works within your allotted time (allowing time for open dialogue and Q&A).

To help the audience better relate to my topic, two effective approaches I frequently use is (1) linking how it would solve a key business problem they are currently experiencing and/or (2) drawing a parallel with a decision/problem they may experience outside of the office. For example, liken a decision about an outsourcer to airline call centers… business people can relate to that!

Keep the conversation on point

Have you ever had the impression that your meeting objective is slipping between your fingers and a large black hole is opening under your feet? Of course you have; me too. Another critical item to master when trying to provide clarity in a group loaded with Type A personalities is to keep on-point.

A technique I use is what I would call the Repeat History/Upfront contract:

  • Repeat history – clearly layout the context of how the topic came to this crux-point by enumerating past decisions, constraints and discussions so that you do not end up in an endless loop of rehashing previous arguments.

  • Upfront contract – describe as clearly and as succinctly as possible what you are here for (decision, consensus, information) and what you are NOT here for. Make sure all agree around the table before proceeding. This will enable you, if/when the conversation veers off course, to remind all participants about the upfront contract they agreed on.

Repeat and make repeat

Finally, a lesson I learned from my dad who taught math and physics to teenagers for almost 40 years: “The key to education is repetition.” Repeat what you are trying to clarify a few different times using different approaches but, more importantly, have your audience repeat back to you, in their own words, to ensure sure they fully understood it.

There is no one single approach or technique to providing clarity as a CIO but if you know yourself and your role, master your topic and use these simple techniques; it should get easier.

“Clarity is the counterbalance of profound thoughts.” – Luc De Clapiers, French writer and disciple of Voltaire