by Chris Potts

The IT Numbers Paint a Thousand Words

May 21, 20083 mins
IT Leadership

While words and pictures are major tools in communicating strategy, it’s the CIO’s numbers that can cause the most (mis-)understanding.

If, like me, you enjoy travelling and exploring then this blog is for you.  It’s about two related journeys.  My recent speaking tour halfway around the world and back again; and the journey of communication, understanding and leadership that is the foundation of every CIO’s strategy.

I recently travelled from my home in England to deliver the keynote address at the IT Strategy 3.0 Conference a, stone’s throw from the Sydney Opera House in Australia.  My talk was provocatively entitled “IT Strategy is Dead.  Now What?”, and explored the four generations of corporate strategy for IT.   Then it was on to Auckland, New Zealand, a city that sits amongst 50-odd extinct volcanoes, for my two-day seminar “Corporate Strategies for Exploiting IT”.  While I was in Auckland the British Computer Society (BCS) contacted me to ask if I would address the Annual General Meeting of their Central London branch, within a few days of getting home.  Given my longstanding relationship with the person who was asking me, I juggled my calender to say yes – and we agreed that I should reprieve my Sydney address.  One of the 100+ people who attended the BCS event is the communications strategist for a CIO, and today we met to talk about areas of shared interest. 

Now, when talking about strategy, IT and communications, I’m always likely to ask these two questions somewhere in the conversation. 

– What, in once sentence, is your strategy ultimately promising to achieve?

– How are you exploiting the IT numbers to communicate your strategy?

To effectively communicate strategy, a CIO creates a (metaphorical) triangle of words, pictures and numbers – always offering a consistent perspective of the strategic journey, its ultimate promise, key principles and core tactics.  Depending on the audience, the CIO can shift around the triangle – changing the balance between using pictures, numbers and words, but never the fundamental messages. 

I’ve sometimes found that a CIO is very effectively using pictures and words to communicate strategy, yet the numbers often seem to tell a different story.  Meanwhile my repeated experience is that, typically, the most powerful communication for senior executives is to paint an eye-opening picture with the IT numbers, one that causes fresh exploration and new understanding.

For example, it’s a widely-held principle that there are no IT projects, just business projects – some of which involve IT.  But the CIO’s numbers sometimes illustrate the opposite of these words, just showing the IT numbers for projects but (somewhat inconsistently) the business benefits.  In which case is this principle true, or not?  And if it is, why do the numbers paint a different picture, and what journey of change would restructuring those numbers trigger?

The IT numbers paint a thousand words.  One of the key principles that travels around the world with me, and back again.