An Open Letter to Your CEO: What IT Really Needs


IT leaders are really good at beating themselves up for not effectively meeting the needs of the business. Time and again we hear about all the things that IT “woulda, coulda, shoulda” done to make a project more successful than it was. But every once in a while it’s worthwhile to remember that the business needs to stand up and take some responsibility as well.

Dear Mr./Ms. CEO,

I know that you often get pretty frustrated with the IT group. I know you want your IT group to be successful. I especially know you want to get the greatest return on investment for every dollar you are spending on information technology. That’s why I’m writing you this letter.

I want to help you dramatically increase the ROI on every IT dollar you spend. No kidding. I’m talking about a 100x improvement in efficiency and efficacy. Interested? I figured you would be.

Why you should listen to me

You’re likely wondering why you should listen to me, an author and consultant. After all, you have your own CIO with whom you can speak. Well, the fact of the matter is, we both know you don’t really listen to him–especially when it comes to hearing the hard messages. You’re tough, demanding, and don’t want to hear about problems. You want to hear about solutions. “Make it happen”– that’s your motto.

To be fair, your CIO isn’t always that great at delivering the tough messages. But then again, can you blame him? You’re the boss. Everyone wants to please you.

I’m an external consultant. I’ve got no axe to grind, no bonus on the line. It’s my job to “speak truth to power.” So, here goes.

A basic truth

It’s easy to blame IT for everything technology-related that isn’t quite right. It’s especially tempting when it comes to delays or cost overruns on high-profile projects. That’s because a new system implementation acts as the perfect focal point for the many issues of the past. It’s as if all of the buried business and process issues of the past magically become an IT problem when a new system is implemented. It is this basic truth that sets the stage for everything I am about to share with you.

Look, I know your IT group isn’t perfect. But you need to realize that the seeds of the problems you often face with large-scale IT projects were planted long ago. If you want to not only fix these problems, but turn your IT group into a powerful force for innovation in the process, you need to make some changes in the business.

The good news is that the changes I’m talking about don’t cost a lot of money or require activities on the scale of a large system implementation. They are basic changes in mindset and attitude combined with appropriate executive follow through.

3 Steps to Dramatically Improve IT Performance and ROI

Since I know you don’t have the time or interest in a philosophical discussion of IT, I’m going to focus on the three really big and important things you can do to dramatically improve the performance and ROI of IT at your company.

Number 1 – Get a grip on reality. I mean it. Stop expecting your internal IT shop, with its limited resources, to design and deploy systems that have a similar look and feel to what comes out of Google and Apple. Those vendors have tens of thousands of programmers and designers working day and night on their systems. It had better look great when they are done.

What’s more, not only do these companies have much greater resources than you do, they control the scope of what they deliver to the general public very tightly. By contrast, your internal IT team has to deploy systems across a complex corporate environment. This involves not only the tech work but also the highly charged political work of integrating systems with people and processes.

Another common departure from reality comes in the expectation that high-impact corporate systems can be deployed quickly. Forget about it. Nothing important and valuable happens quickly. You may want things to happen quickly, and you may use your force of personality and position to get the IT team to agree to unrealistic deliverables and time frames, but that doesn’t mean it’s going to happen.

Bottom line: spare yourself, and your organization, the pain of so-called failing projects. Instead, really listen to what your IT leadership says is a realistic schedule and budget.

Number 2 – Teach the business, firsthand. The IT group wants to do a good job for the business. But in order for them to be successful, they have to understand the business. The problem is, no one ever teaches them about the business. (The quarterly town hall meeting is far from sufficient.)

The IT team (and just about every other group, by the way) needs the opportunity to learn about the various aspects of the business beyond their departmental focus. They need to understand the goals, objectives, plans, organization, challenges, opportunities and more of the other departments and functions they serve. In short: they need to get inside their “customer’s” mind.

To make this happen, create an on-going learning program that teaches about the company’s strategy, operating model, competitive advantage, products, services, customers, distributors, competitors, logistics, manufacturing and so on. Make it a goal that no IT analyst in your company ever walk into a requirements gathering session with users and ask those painfully obvious questions like “what’s your role,” or “what exactly does your group do,” because there was no way for them to get that information on their own.

And don’t stop with classroom learning. That’s just the beginning. If you want the IT group to really “get it,” they need to walk in the shoes of their peers–or as close to that as possible. That means sending IT people out with sales reps and customer service agents. It requires having them work in the warehouse with the inventory managers, and getting them to crunch numbers with the finance team.

Bottom line: for the IT group to really “get the business” on a visceral level, they need to experience the business, firsthand. The CIO may be able to arrange for this on an episodic basis, but only you can make this a permanent part of your company’s professional development programs.

Number 3 – Tie IT project metrics to senior business exec pay. That’s right, you heard me correctly. If you want those big IT/business projects to work wonders in the business, tie the outcome metrics of the project to the pay of the senior executives the project is serving. It’s amazing to watch. I know because I have seen it.

When the senior executives have a direct and personal financial stake in the on-going success metrics of the system/business process–NOT, I repeat, NOT the on-time delivery date target of the system–the entire project rolls out differently. All of a sudden there is not only interest and attention to the project, but a genuine engagement at all levels of the organization. That’s because no senior executive wants to be out on his or her own. So, they quickly cascade those metrics and bonuses down their organization to ensure that everyone is working together in order to achieve a common objective.

Bottom line: If you want your business people to really care about IT project success, put their money where your mouth is.

Is that everything?

No, far from it. But it’s a great place to start. Besides, I know you have a limited attention span.

If you are interested in learning more, drop me a note and I’ll tell you about two additional things you can do that will not only improve your ROI from IT but will also boost the morale of the IT team.

Thanks for listening. I’ve got to get back to the IT guys now.

Sincerely, Marc J. Schiller

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