Bob Lewis

The CIO’s no-bull guide to effective IT

Feb 08, 2022
CIOIT LeadershipIT Strategy

Building effective IT 101: Looking to run a successful 21st century, digital-ready IT organization? Here’s an overview on how to pull it all together.

10 targeted training bullseye
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The best leaders don’t get things done. They build organizations that get things done.

That has been the impetus behind my recent series of “Building effective IT 101” articles: To help outline what it takes to build a 21st century, digital-ready, effective IT organization.

But if you’re looking for a high-gloss overview of the foundations of a successful modern IT organization detailed in this series, you’ll find it here, under the guise of four edicts for leading IT right.

Follow the links to previous installments to drill down further on what it takes.

1. Forget IT/business alignment — focus on IT/business integration instead

CIOs are frequently advised to “align” IT with the business. But alignment is weak tea. It was insufficient for the industrial age of business we’re emerging from. It’s completely inadequate for the digital era we’re enmeshed in.

What’s needed isn’t IT/business alignment. It’s IT/business integration, recognizing that there is no part of the enterprise that doesn’t have information technology built into it.

How do you go about establishing this? First, you need to redefine the IT/business relationship, putting an end to calling the rest of the business IT’s “internal customer.” Instead, focus everyone on intentional, collaborative business change.

Second, you’ll also need to make culture the new governance. Use it to give decision-makers their metaphorical lane-markers, and relegate formal governance to providing guard rails.

And third, for the governance guard rails you still need, inspecting every formal governance mechanism for traces of bureaucracy-hood. If it looks like a collection of flaming hoops, rethink it.

For a more in-depth view, see: The hard truth about business-IT alignment

2. Hone the right processes

“Process” is how work gets done. That doesn’t mean the path to process success begins with process design and completes when everyone involved has been trained.

That comes later. No matter how well-designed a process is, and no matter how good your process training programs are, it will all come to nothing — or at least very little — without four prerequisites: (1) a process culture; (2) clear differentiation of processes and practices; (3) expertise in designing, managing, and interpreting process metrics; and (4) trust among everyone involved in process execution.

As CIO, once you’ve established these four prerequisites, select no more than three IT processes whose improvement or transformation to personally oversee.

While no two CIOs face identical challenges, these three IT process domains are often the best choices:

  • The help desk, on the grounds that it is IT’s front line for ensuring a positive relationship with the rest of the business.
  • Application support. If IT and its business collaborators haven’t fully embraced agile methodologies — and not just that, but the right agile methodologies for various application support situations — this transformation will require direct CIO leadership.
  • Technical architecture management, incorporating portfolio management, information security, IT innovation, and DIY IT into its remit.

But what about ITIL or similar IT operations process improvement initiatives? They’re important, but as CIO you’re the public face of IT. You want IT to be top of mind for processes that are visible when they’re going well. IT operations is only visible when something goes wrong.

Also, IT operations can drain away every last minute of your attention. Far better to put someone else in charge of it, giving them all the budget and autonomy they need.

For a more in-depth view, see: The hard truth about IT process success and The 3 IT processes CIOs need most

3. Recognize that IT lives and dies on the excellence of its technical architecture

Technical architecture is the beating heart of what IT delivers for a living. Knowing how to assess it and plan its ongoing evolution is the difference between an inflexible “accidental architecture” whose costs increase and adaptability decreases polynomially over time, and a managed architecture adaptable enough to support dynamically changing business strategies, tactics, and goals without costs going through the roof.

That means putting the disciplines in place to (1) document what you have, (2) evaluate its suitability, and (3) create a practical plan. Here’s how to ensure these three centerpieces of sustainable IT success are done right:

Documenting what you have: Establish the current state of your technical architecture by documenting an accurate inventory, segmented into these portfolios and sub-portfolios:

  • Applications, which include systems of record, satellite applications, and the inter-application interfaces that integrate and synchronize them.
  • Data repositories, both structured and unstructured.
  • Technology, subdivided into two layers: (1) infrastructure and facilities; and (2) the platforms on which IT implements and runs applications, and manages data repositories.

For a more in-depth view, see: Technical architecture: What IT does for a living

Evaluating suitability: With your technical architecture now documented, it’s time to evaluate. Establish a standardized set of evaluation criteria for each portfolio, and for scoring each criterion for each component in each portfolio. Evaluation criteria include technical characteristics such as functionality, flexibility, and stability, and non-technical attributes such as product and vendor viability, version currency, and redundancy.

IT’s technical architects will also need a taxonomy of business functions, capabilities, responsibilities, and processes. Developing and maintaining this “business capability model” isn’t IT’s responsibility. It belongs to the business architecture team, which is also responsible for providing an assessment of the relative importance, overall health, and mappings of which business functions use which applications.

For a more in-depth view: Evaluating technical architecture: 11 key criteria and how to apply them

Creating the improvement plan: To improve technical architecture you must first establish the disposition and priority ranking for every component in each layer and sub-layer of the architecture. “Disposition” is what you’re going to do with the component — retain, replace, consolidate, retire, and so on. Priority depends on how much pain will be caused by not taking action on a component’s disposition, as compared to the pain from delaying the dispositions of all the other components.

Improvement plans come in two flavors: top-down, application-portfolio-driven changes; and bottom-up, platform-driven changes.

Bottom-up planning starts with dividing platforms into “stacks” — combinations of platforms used by at least one application. Platform priorities are assigned by identifying the unhealthy platform that, if remediated, improves the most stacks the most. Remediate it, then loop to the next-highest-priority platform.

Top-down priorities start with the BCM, and specifically which business function has the highest importance and worst health. Applications mapped to this function are the ones with the highest disposition priority.

Resist the temptation to draw a roadmap. That’s a holdover of waterfall thinking. Instead think of the technical architecture’s component dispositions as epics in an agile backlog. Rank the priorities, fix what’s most important, then loop to what’s next-most important, recognizing that you’ll never end up with some optimal future-state architecture.

You’ll end up with an architecture that’s always better than it used to be.

For a more in-depth view, see: The secret art of technical architecture improvement

4. Human performance is more important than any other factor

Without the right people, pointed in the right direction and motivated to succeed, your IT efforts will be futile no matter how good your plans look in the PowerPoint. A CIO’s success depends more on human performance than all other factors combined.

Nor is the issue whether the individual humans in your IT department are performing. It’s about the factors within the CIO’s control or influence that foster strong employee performance if handled well, or inhibit it if handled poorly.

CIOs have three tools at their disposal to foster the best performance: compensation, organizational structure, and leadership. One of them even works.

Compensation. The myth: Managers can use compensation as an incentive to drive better employee performance. The reality: While unfair compensation is demoralizing, fairness, the best you can achieve by changing compensation, merely avoids performance disincentives. Here’s what one looks like:

  • Set base compensation so that employees have no financial incentive to look for a better position elsewhere.
  • Use the annual bonus, not to reward strong performance but to express your appreciation for a year of strong performance.
  • Give spot bonuses when an employee goes above and beyond — not as an incentive, but as a way to thank the employee with the evident sincerity that comes from putting the company’s money where its mouth is.

Organizational structure. Reorganizing is among the most popular methods for improving organizational performance. It shows the reorganizer has taken criticism seriously and is taking energetic action to address it. Too bad it doesn’t work.

Instead, reorgs distract employees from getting work done. They have to figure out how all the unwritten rules have changed and how to work with a new manager they don’t know and who doesn’t yet know how things are done around here. Changing the organizational structure rarely fixes anything that’s broken while usually breaking what’s currently fixed.

Leadership: If you’re getting others to follow, you’re leading; otherwise you’re not.

Elsewhere I’ve enumerated the “eight tasks of leadership” (Leading IT: <Still> the Toughest Job in the World) — specific techniques anyone can learn to make them better leaders. Underlying these eight tasks is the premise that effective leaders don’t get anything done. They build organizations that get things done.

The best organizations, that is, follow from in front. The best leaders, in their turn, make sure everyone in the organization they lead knows where “in front” is, agrees that moving in that direction matters, understands the role (or roles) they have to play in moving the organization forward, and commits to that role.

For a more in-depth view, see: The savvy CIO’s secret weapon: Your IT team

And in conclusion

Information technology was tough enough during the industrial age of business, when process optimization was king, cost reduction was the centerpiece of all business strategy, and IT’s job was to respond to requests from its business “internal customers.”

We’re way beyond that now. “Digital” refers to business strategies that create innovative products and customer experiences that increase revenue. Increased revenue is (finally) top-of-mind for business strategy. And IT is in the middle of it all.

I hope this series has been helpful for creating the IT organization your business needs to thrive in this new, and arguably more refreshing environment.

Building effective IT 101: