What CIOs can learn from Jimmy Stewart and Alfred Hitchcock

For CIOs facing constant transition, this classic film serves as a parable about harnessing the power of paranoia and uncertainty to your benefit and the benefit of your organization and its customers. It also displays the danger of isolation in vivid Technicolor.

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In the 1954 Alfred Hitchcock thriller Rear Window, James Stewart portrays a paranoid magazine photographer convinced one of his neighbors murdered his wife. Stewart’s L.B. “Jeff” Jeffries character is isolated in his small Greenwich Village apartment recovering from a broken leg. He passes the time watching his neighbors through a telephoto lens as he sits in a wheelchair before a window with a panoramic courtyard view. Jeff collects snapshots of the truth, and he spends hours with his thoughts running amok. But in the end, he stays alive and helps solve the crime because he leverages his paranoia for good.

For CIOs facing constant transition, this classic film serves as a parable about harnessing the power of paranoia and uncertainty to your benefit and the benefit of your organization and its customers. It also displays the danger of isolation in vivid Technicolor.

Get out of your head

As a CIO, you have an unparalleled view of the friction points inside your organization. Your unique position affords you a landscape of what’s working and what’s not better than anybody else. It’s your professional duty to get out of your head and communicate your observations for the overall health of the enterprise. That means communicating with more than peer executives and core IT staff.

Maintain an open-door policy, and talk with everyday users of your systems and with your enterprise’s ultimate customers. Gaining an objective view of the organization around you helps you and your team anticipate the next best strategies for creating systems that pave the way for the organization’s best work for the customer. Isolating yourself in your office, attending only necessary meetings with other like-minded senior staff, and relying on limited snippets of reality feed professional paranoia in a negative way. Mingle up and down the organization and learn what you can do better.

Are paranoia and isolation truly bad?

Too much paranoia is toxic. But paranoia at a lower level can be healthy. In Only the Paranoid Survive: How to Exploit the Crisis Points That Challenge Every Company, Intel founder Andy Grove’s seminal 1999 management book, he explores the ways businesses make transitions big and small. Almost 20 years later, his observations and advice are still sound.

In my interpretation of his guidance, paranoia means developing a sense of urgency about delivering customer value to set yourself apart from the competition. That’s key for driving an effective IT strategy that propels the business. Too often CIOs become paralyzed by internal processes, and that does little to support your organization’s customers. We all know what happens when you ignore your customers: you’ll soon be out of business altogether.

Like paranoia, executive suite isolation can hamper your effectiveness. It underscores the need for breaking away to hear all points of view. Management consultant Ron Ashkenas wrote “How to Overcome Executive Isolation” for Harvard Business Review earlier this year, and he encourages executives to assess their level of isolation, step outside their “bubble,” and encourage senior staff to push back when they disagree. In my experience, all good points for remaining relevant.

Listen to naysayers and embrace the gut check

We’ve all got them: colleagues who are perceived as whiners. Real Debbie Downers. Sometimes they’re prima donnas gifted with a savant’s laser focus on the best ways to set up a new system or develop a new program but are incapable of effectively rallying others to the cause. Don’t ignore people with a different filter. Instead, determine which of the naysayers is sending out valuable signals along with the noise. Listen to what they have to say and put their views into constructive perspective with the other insights you regularly gather. If you can harness their unique view about the environment and suss out the pearls of wisdom, you’ve got something golden to work with.

It’s also important to rely on gut checks. Is what you’re planning to do still pertinent, or has the customer moved on? If you’ve done your homework and are still genuinely committed to what you’re doing for the benefit of customers, put on your game face and go all in. Don’t allow the suspenseful roller coaster of daily business life to sidetrack you and tragically demote your mission to just another have-to-do project. Being half-hearted about your strategy serves nobody. 

Spoiler alert: Raymond Burr did kill his movie wife

In the end, Jeff’s paranoia pays off. We discover neighbor Lars Thorwald, portrayed to creepy effect by Raymond Burr, did indeed kill his wife. When Jeff’s keen observation skills lead to the truth, Thorwald attempts to kill him, too. Stewart’s portrayal of paranoia and passion keep his character frosty and alert when many around him dismiss his theories as crazy talk.

For you, a lead character in your organization, thoughtfully creating your unique business view, communicating it compellingly, and remaining fully committed to it for the benefit of customers will help keep the lights switched on at your organization long after the end credits have rolled for the competition.

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