How CIOs can get truly strategic...and why that matters

CIOs can earn their opportunity to advance at the strategy table, but to keep their roles, they need to make what IT does central to the business.

Chess pieces on a chessboard with the knight (horse) as focal point.
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CIOs are critical to success at organizational modernization and transformation. However, before CIOs become what Deloitte labeled “business co-creators” or “change instigators,” CIOs must first become strategic. What is involved in doing so? I asked the weekly #CIOChat group for their insights.

What percentage of a CIOs time should be invested in strategy discussions?

As you’d expect, answers vary. Some CIOs simply say as much time as it takes. One CIO volunteered an estimate but insisted they can't speak for others. They said that they spend approximately 70% of their time working with their CEO and business unit leaders to ensure they have an in-depth understanding of corporate and business unit opportunities. This CIO believes these meetings represent a sanity check to ensure IT is delivering value to business customers.

Most CIOs believe that the percentage should be greater 50%. Others say they don't think this is a prescriptive thing. These CIOs say, however, as much as you need isn't a terribly useful answer. However, they believe that CIOs need to build relationships, establish governance, and create strategic habits and skillsets.

In general, CIOs stress that IT leaders need to delegate so they can spend more time being strategic. CIOs say there is a built-in assumption here—it is that every CIO gets time with the CEO. CIOs say that they know of colleagues who don't get adequate time with their CEO. This may be the result allowing the urgent to supersede the critical. Being strategic clearly is about more than handling the urgent. As well, strategic discussions cannot be a ‘one-and-done’. Instead, they need to be a running dialogue. There needs as well to be an ebb and flow to strategic discussions. One CIO said CIOs should be 100% working toward supporting/executing on the strategic pathway forward.

CIOs need to bake time into their schedules for strategic alignment

CIOs stress the importance of making time for strategic alignment connection for the IT leadership team. The fact is strategy discussions consume a lot of time and effort--up, sideways, and through the organization. CIOs, for this reason, should bake into their schedule leadership meetings, board meetings, 1-1, etc. It is critical that CIOs always be ready to talk strategy. They should have their ‘talking points’ ready for any situation.

Everything, however, depends on what the CIO was hired for or what their organization needs accomplished. In some cases, a highly strategic CIO is needed. In other cases, an organization needs a more operational CIO. And in other cases, an organization needs a CIO that can pivot between being strategic and tactical. As well, there are organizations that are too small for the CIO to offload their operational duties.

In some organizations, CIOs need to work at getting the strategic dialogue started. This can involve getting into the CEO’s and other business leaders' strategic flow. Being part of the day-to-day strategic conversation organically should be the goal of every CIO. One CIO asks new business partners how often they want to see him when they first meet. These leaders are often stunned by the question, but they are told by this CIO that it's one of his goals to make them engage more frequently and more strategically. Importantly, the amount of time is less about enterprise maturity, and more about establishing a regular rhythm to lead via influence. CIOs believe that smart CIOs meet with all C-suite folks frequently. The more business-focused the CIO, the more the conversations will be strategic.

How can CIOs manage to what is important?

Some CIOs share that they like to build 3x3 or 5x5 matrices labeled ‘Urgency’ and ‘Importance’ and help coach others (including themselves) through putting what they're working on into the chart. If you're not up in the top corner where they combine, it may be useful to reassess a project/initiative. CIOs find this a great way to discuss technology direction and business strategy. This approach can be used for everything ranging from helping employees with adding focus on the right tasks to conducting enterprise risk management exercises. Axis labels represent a simple utility for seeing what you're are doing and its relative importance.

Is connecting at the hip the chief enterprise architect to the head of business strategy a good idea?

CIOs generally agree with the importance of an enterprise architect function. Most CIOs believe there is an innate synergy in connecting a chief enterprise architect and a business strategist. They should complement each other in the dialogue about where the organization is or needs to be going. Some CIOs, however, suggested that it depends upon the definition of the chief enterprise architect role. Nevertheless, CIOs think it is good to put them together. The point is that you want someone who can effectively marry business opportunities and technology solutions.

It is important to bear in mind that most of chief enterprise architects believe it is their job to understand the business impact that leads to a solution. The architect is most often better positioned to translate opportunity into a technology strategy.

A modern EA process, for this reason, needs to do more than describe current state — it needs to prescribe business strategy and the technology to support it. So, connecting at the hip is the very least you should do with your chief EA and the business strategy folks. For some CIOs, this represents the distinction between an enterprise architect and a domain architect. CIOs say it is a good idea to leverage domain architects to work the operations, and enterprise architects to work the cross-connect and ensure direct connection to strategy.

One key role of an enterprise architect is to translate business strategy into technological solutions. It helps in doing this well to know the business. CIOs say they like to place an enterprise architect into high-level shared governance and prioritization process.

Should there be an IT strategic plan that compliments the business strategic plan?

CIOs believe the answer is yes. One CIO said that they may be an outlier, but they said that it stands to reason that an IT plan should be an outcome of a business strategic plan. At this point, another CIO suggested that the business is a system and IT is part of this living system. This is like Russell Ackoff who suggested that “business are purposefully systems that contain purposefully parts and are themselves part of larger purposeful systems”. (Creating the Corporate Future, Russell Ackoff, page 245).

CIOs suggest there is no effective business strategy that doesn't incorporate the impact/opportunity of every function, especially IT. And, yes, the IT function should have its own strategic plan. CIOs suggest that trying to survive without a technology strategic plan is like wandering in the wilderness. They, however, can build them into organizations even without a corporate strategic plan. Here, they enable better communication path forward to the broader team.

CIOs believe that IT should be a baked into almost everything the organization does. And the IT strategic plan should support the organizations mission, goals, and strategy. Otherwise, CIOs say IT isn’t being a good partner! IT needs to be integrated tightly with the business. CIOs say they have seen some great one-page strategic summaries with a one page for each business including IT. These are then tied to KPI and quarters.

Unfortunately, CIOs say they still find large Fortune 1000 companies without strategic plans or ability to transform the business. CIOs say they have had in these cases needed to build a straw person business strategy to build an integrated IT strategy. If your technology strategy does not correlate to the businesses strategic plan, then you're not driving real business value. A business strategy with bolt on technology rarely drives business differentiation. If you must bolt it on, then outsource the function. The business strategic plan must be built based on current state as well as what’s possible for each business unit. Then each business units strategic plan must be built on that plan. When starting a new CIO position, CIOs suggest the 1st priority should be to create IT plan.

How should IT measure whether strategic initiatives deliver against their goals?

CIOs say new initiatives should have “measures of success” defined via their business case. Post-delivery metrics need to be tracked. Some benefits are “hard” such as budget reduction or revenue growth. Others are soft. But all success criteria need to be defined and measured.

With this said, CIOs believe that measuring IT ROI in terms of top or bottom-line financials isn't always easy or correct. CIOs say there's a lot that can be in the eye of the beholder. Surveys that ask forward-looking questions about what you would do differently can be helpful. 

CIOs suggest that IT leaders start by defining what success for a project/initiative looks like. There needs to be clear goals, involved customers, and funding. It is important as well that projects are correctly resourced and then tracked for whether there is scope creep or loss of resources. It is important to make sure CIOs understand how their CEO, each business leader, and their board’s perceived ROI or value versus hard or soft ROI calculations. KPIs need be selected that reflect both.

The CIO job is to allow the business to execute its overall strategy. You need to know if you’re doing that or not. CIOs enable this by establishing benchmarks that can be used as a metric to measure against. CIOs need to agree on measurable outcomes as part of defining top priorities and sources/methods /rubrics of how those outcomes will be captured.

What is the biggest thing a CIO can do to earn a seat at the strategy table?

CIOs say start by delivering results on initiatives that make a difference. As well, demonstrate daily why you deserve to be there. Doing this should not only occur when asked. CIO need demonstrate they are business leaders by providing ideas about all areas of the enterprise. This should happen naturally and not be forced. CIOs need to deliver value and take the offensive in communications. This includes avoiding the use annoying acronyms or techspeak. CIOs need to earn their position by delivering and by knowing that winning cures all ills.

Several years ago, I was pushing my boss at a small public company to promote me from a director to a vice president. I was surprised and even a little upset by what he said, but in the end, it proved to be a learning moment. He said that I needed to move from a functional practitioner to a business person. As a part of this, I needed to frame my discussions in the language of the business. CIOs earn their opportunity to advance at the strategy table. To keep their roles, they need to make what IT does central to the business. They also need work at being part of the strategic plan and at documenting how IT helps to deliver on the strategic plan.

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