Thornton May

2 CIO action items for 2022

Mar 02, 2022
CareersCIOIT Leadership

A futurist’s observations on the CIO role in the year ahead.

There is a structure and discipline to the art of futuring. Every quarter I conduct a conversational walkabout in the CXO community seeking to understand the mindsets, projects, and priorities defining the IT landscape. In Q1, 2022, I am asking in situ CIOs two questions:

  • What categorical bucket[s] does the organization place you in?
  • How are you dealing with the uncertainties of the current zeitgeist?

Categorical buckets

Are you friend or foe (i.e., are you part of the solution or part of the problem)? Are you a top-of-house insider or an outsider? Are you part of the apparatus that imagines the future or a tool that merely executes the dreams of others?

One of the first things technology futurists examine when assessing an organization is whether the voice of the CIO is represented by a sitting member of the Board of Directors? Is there a person like Kristen Blum (former CIO at Abercrombie and J.C. Penney); Cheryl Smith (former CIO at McKesson and West Jet); Jody Davids (former CTO at Apple, former CIO at Cardinal Health and Pepsi); Marv Adams (former CIO at Ford, Fidelity Investments and TD Ameritrade) or Becky Blalock (former CIO at the Southern Company and author of DARE: Straight Talk on Confidence, Courage and Career) on the board?

Most organizations do not have a former CIO on their board of directors. This is a problem. Ashwin Rangan, award winning SVP of engineering and CIO at ICANN told me, “There is a reason we were given ‘Chief’ as part of our title. We are supposed to have a voice at the Big Table.”

One of the reasons organizations have such a hard time hiring CIOs is that senior management and board members have never really had any significant face time with high-performance CIOs. They don’t know what that kind of animal looks like.

Additionally, at most organizations, the CIO does not present to the full board at each board meeting. CIO issues are typically addressed either by the Audit Committee or the Risk Committee, meaning that the full board may not be aware of or understand key digital issues.

Dealing with uncertainty

As 2021 ended, the mainstream media was pushing a narrative of existence-threatening uncertainty. Uncertainty in politics, in society, in business and in technology IS NOT A NEW THING. Humans have always lived in an uncertain age. As our ancestors emerged from the trees and started walking on the savannah, every rustling twig invoked the probabilistic determination, “Is it lunch, or am I lunch?”

This is not the first time in history when nearly everything seems up for an overhaul. John Kenneth Galbraith, the Harvard economist and ambassador to India working under President Kennedy, wrote his book The Age of Uncertainty in 1977. In The Inferno, Dante Aligheri wrote about limbo in the 14th century. Uncertainty defines the human condition.

On the one hand the press presents the unambiguous empirical evidence that “It’s simply impossible to forecast the economy or the markets with accuracy and consistency.” (Jeff Sommer, New York Times 3 DEC 2021) and on the other they amplify the dysfunctional emotional response, “Everything is as an imponderable morass…” (Stuart Jeffries, The Guardian 26 July 2016).

Complaining about uncertainty is akin to a person in Chicago complaining about the cold, or a fish whining about the wetness of water.

The Economist tells us, “it is time to face the world’s predictable unpredictability.” Donald Rumsfeld, the United States Secretary of Defense told reporters at a Department of Defense news briefing on February 12, 2002:

“There are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns—the ones we don’t know we don’t know.”

Great CIOs have always been exceptional at what the poet John Keats termed “negative capability”—the ability to thrive in uncertain circumstances. That, in a nutshell is the CIO’s job description.

Your action items for 2022:

  • Know where you stand in the organization (i.e., your categorical bucket) and work on changing it if it isn’t where you want to be;
  • Celebrate and act upon the things that you know (i.e., the certainties—of which there are many) and create knowledge expansion initiatives to get smart about critical things that you don’t know but need to know (i.e., the uncertainties).
Thornton May

Thornton May is a futurist. He has designed and delivered executive education programs at UCLA, UC-Berkeley, Babson, Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, THE Ohio State University [where he co-founded and directs the Digital Solutions Gallery program], and the University of Kentucky. His book, The New Know: Innovation Powered by Analytics examines the intersection of the analytic and executive tribes.

More from this author