After a working lunch at a workshop, a senior IT manager
at a global telecommunications company approached me with a
problem. Over the course of several mergers, acquisitions and
reorgs, his firm now had three work-order processing systems.
His boss had told him to get it down to one over the next six
months. He wanted advice.
So I asked, which system did the users seem to like best and
why? He said he didn’t know. I suggested he organize a
meeting between the three user groups to thrash out which one
made the most sense for the most people. Make them pick. He
hadn’t thought of that. Unfortunately, his firm’s
IT culture had IT, not users, “owning” systems
consolidation after reorgs. Baby-sitting interdepartmental user
meetings was frowned on, he asserted.
I couldn’t help myself: I told him he was setting
himself up to fail. If he unilaterally imposed a system, he
would tick off the two groups whose systems lost out. Even if
he were able to sell his choice internally, he’d have to
understand the ins, outs and usage of each system. What’s
more, while he might know the IT budget for each system, he
probably didn’t know what the real business costs were
for the business units. This was neither his decision nor
IT’s to make, I argued. The users knew more about what
they needed than he did. They should own the choice.
Substituting his technical assessment of systems for their
business judgment about work-order processes guaranteed
As we talked, I was shocked to discover this wasn’t
some rinky-dink consolidation of a few backwater apps; these
systems managed and tracked billions of dollars in equipment
and servicing orders. While the need for enterprise
standardization was completely understandable, the notion that
IT should set those standards was not. I pleaded with him to go
to his boss’s boss—the CIO—and request
that he call the users together. “Have the CIO position
you as business partner,” I begged. “If
you’re seen as the systems dictator, these users have a
real incentive to help you fail. Please…CYA.” He
said he would.
Recipes for Success and Failure
This story had a happy ending. Unfortunately, too many CIOs
set their people up for failure. How so? By allowing their IT
leaders to draw utterly false and dangerously misleading
distinctions between their role as technologists and their
responsibilities as business partners. They’re allowing
their people to make the wrong decisions in the wrong way.
IT accountability doesn’t mean IT monopoly. Yes, there
are infrastructure investments that truly are the sole province
of IT, but even these can’t be managed by fiat. IT should
always be able to articulate how its decisions reflect user
needs as much as technical optimization. CIO leadership means
making sure that your people know how to share accountability
before they accept it. Is this a cop-out? No! The more
important IT’s impact is, the more essential shared
My favorite story on this theme comes courtesy of JPMorgan
Chase CEO Jamie Dimon, one of the savviest executives in
America. His grasp of technology’s operational role in
banking is superb. Dimon heard two rival IT factions
present plans on why their system should be adopted
enterprisewide. Because Dimon is not a CEO snowed by IT
hyperbole, both presentations were exceptionally well done.
Dimon listened carefully and offered an operational
oversight that CIOs all over the world should take to heart and
mind. He told his teams, in essence: I’ve heard you; I
understand. Now you guys have two weeks to decide what to do
and come back here to tell me. If you can’t agree on what
choice to make, I’ll make the choice for you—and
you won’t like it.
Needless to say, the IT teams came back with an
appropriately integrated proposal the fortnight later. As CEO,
Dimon inherently brought a broader perspective to the
enterprise impact of a systems integration than the typical
However, Dimon also did something more CIOs need to do: He
insisted that people in the best position to make the right
recommendation actually agree. He made his IT people
accountable for a single recommendation. He made the
consequences of their failure to agree crystal clear. Yes.
I’ve read the leadership literature celebrating
“transformation” and “inspiration” but,
frankly, the most inspirational and transformational leadership
behavior the majority of CIOs could display would be to insist
that their people behave as professionals. Accountability would
have greater operational meaning if more C-level executives
emulated Dimon’s example.
The essential principle about the link between IT leadership
and IT management must be clear: If the right constituents
aren’t present when priorities are set and choices are
made, then IT is neither leading nor managing. A CIO whose team
unilaterally imposes consolidations or apps on a business
process the members don’t quite understand should hardly
be surprised when “shadow apps” begin sprouting
like weeds. Indeed, they should be surprised if “gray
market” disintermediation doesn’t take place. IT
leadership in the new millennium of software as a service means
CIOs need to ask the right questions well before they start
proposing the right answers.
Let me expand that: CIOs need to make sure their people ask
the right questions of others before they start
proffering—and imposing—the right answers.
It’s Called Leadership, Not
I don’t believe in consensus—rough or otherwise. I
have little but contempt for management gurus and consultants
who condescendingly declare that the customer—and the
user—is always “right.” That said, I’ve
witnessed breathtakingly ill-considered systems implementations
by IT shops that have allowed the problem at hand—or
their budget—to be defined primarily on technical
grounds. I’ve seen smart CIOs organizationally scalded by
well-intentioned direct reports who let their accurate
spreadsheet calculations overwhelm their common sense and
This happens for simple reasons: We interpret responsibility
and accountability the wrong way. Remember how annoyed we get
when HR unilaterally imposes policies that counterproductively
constrain our people to do their best work in a timely manner.
That’s a microcosm of the frustration people feel when IT
has unilaterally made seemingly minor systems changes that
everyone now has to live and work with.
My senior IT manager should become a Dimon in the rough: Get
those three groups in a room and make them accountable for what
they need so that he can become accountable for delivering it.
If they won’t do their job, how on earth can he do
Michael Schrage is codirector of the MIT Media
Lab’s eMarkets Initiative. He can be reached at