by Susan Cramm

Tips on Better Decision Making for the CIO

Dec 01, 20064 mins

Many capable CIOs have fallen victim to the “incredulity cycle,” losing the trust of their business counterparts.

After only three years, Tom, a publishing industry CIO, got the boot. It’s amazing that an IT leader with such intelligence and years of experience could mess up so badly in such a short time.

Tom’s tenure started well: He inherited an IT organization with good relationships and a track record of delivery. However, the department lacked a coherent strategy and a cost structure attuned to the fiscal pressures facing the organization.

Faced with the difficulties of setting strategy in a decentralized business and bowing to his introverted nature, Tom decided that some strategy was better than none and initiated an effort that largely excluded the business. He launched an SOA initiative and a service-based organizational model—changes that were out of line with the maturity of the organization and increased the high IT cost structure.

Good CIOs make bad choices all the time. These decisions usually aren’t fatal, but they are painful, and it may take the CIO a while to recover. To help my clients make better choices, I have developed a framework called the CIO credibility cycle.

The credibility cycle helps CIOs foster organizational excellence and strong relationships across the enterprise. It starts with building an IT organization capable of developing good relations with the business. This is achieved by delivering projects on time and on budget in order to realize their business value. Meeting this objective will motivate both business and IT to forge a shared IT vision, strategy and tactical objectives. This, in turn, leads to the building of quality solutions that strengthen the overall organization and, completing the cycle, continues strengthening relationships.

By understanding the credibility cycle and using it to diagnose IS capabilities, CIOs can identify what they need to work on and in what order to build their credibility with the business. The cycle defines what experienced CIOs already know: that to inspire trust, one must accurately assess organizational capabilities and work them in the right order.

In Tom’s case, IT had strong business partner relationships and delivery credibility and was starting to be recognized as a lever to create business value. His focus should have been to facilitate cross-divisional discussions regarding priorities, synergies, and cost savings with the goal of gaining shared commitment and the allocation of scarce resources. Unfortunately, Tom’s decisions to set strategy alone and focus on SOA and organizational engineering created a cycle of incredulity with senior management (“I can’t believe he’s doing that!”) that led to his departure.

CIOs such as Tom who have been in the role for a while can get stuck in an incredulity cycle and need to step back from the issues at hand to gain perspective. For example, Roger, a manufacturing CIO, discovered that the product engineering group had installed another rogue messaging product on the network. Initially, he readied himself for a painful battle, taking satisfaction that policy was on his side. Fortunately, he sought counsel and realized that policy was the only thing on his side. He didn’t have the relationships necessary to collaborate effectively on delivering new capabilities. As a result, his business partners felt that to get anything done, they had to go it alone.

Roger realized that a confrontation on this issue was going to make him look like an officious, powerless Barney Fife (remember The Andy Griffith Show). Rather than hide behind policy, he decided to view the situation as a chance to build relationships and adopted the posture of partnering with the “early adopter” engineering group to identify user needs and define necessary capabilities and standards.

For new CIOs, it’s important to start small and test the elements of the credibility cycle to determine current positioning. Gail, a new divisional CIO, inherited a mission-critical project that was years in the making and way over budget. Gail could have asked for and received a check in any amount she requested, given the initial credibility conferred on a new CIO by management. Instead, she requested funding in stages and broke the initiative into smaller projects to test the capabilities of her organization and its business relationships. In this way, she reduced risk and established a track record for delivery as she and her business partners demonstrated completion of each stage prior to requesting further funding.

Good leaders make better choices by working with—not against—the credibility cycle. By facing the truth, CIOs can focus their efforts and set the foundation necessary for the future. It’s uncomfortable to look in the mirror and ask for help—but it’s less painful than letting the cycle of incredulity claim another victim.

Susan Cramm is founder and president of Valuedance, an executive coaching firm in San Clemente, Calif. Send feedback to