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Author: Abid Mustafa

A Cornered CIO’s Strategy: Protracted Border Wars With The Business

It is an established fact that between Business and IT, relations are hardly ever harmonious. Moreover, each one endeavors to blame the other when things go wrong and both scramble to take credit when things go right.  When questioned about why Business and IT find it so difficult to get on, claims of being misunderstood is the rallying cry for both departments and often used as the first line of defense to conceal ulterior motives, incompetence and failure.

Interaction between the two departments can vary depending upon the political dynamics of the organization, and the individual personalities of the CIO and CBOs (Chief Business Officers). However, where the relationship is heavily tilted in the favor of the business, IT can find itself in a tough predicament. Continuously flooded with a tsunami of business requests and expected to deliver results in the face of never-ending cost rationalization drives; CIO’s often struggle to meet day-to-day deadlines. Increasingly, CIOs find themselves isolated at the executive level and are coerced to do ‘more with less’. Capitulated and brow-beaten by the business executives, the CIOs dare say no!—for the consequences maybe too grave to contemplate. Gone is the spare time to think about strategy, optimize processes, improve the delivery methodology and lift the morale of over-worked IT workforce. The only recourse left for CIOs is to dream better times and make do with what they have.

CIOs need not to accept this fate. In fact, if they exercise their options correctly, they can turn the tables on the business and move from being viewed as an obstacle to an enabler of business value. But first, the astute CIO must get his/her own house in order. This often implies, finding the time and space to think and act strategically, and to restructure the IT department. This is no mean feat, especially when the business enjoys the upper hand amongst the executive team, and expects IT to deliver to its beckoning call.

An effective course of action is to adroitly manipulate the volume of requests from the business.  This does not imply that the CIO has to look at implementing industry best practice demand management techniques, even though it is essential and part of a long term solution. The immediate requirement is for the CIO to create enough time and space to think strategically and implement important decisions that produce a sea change in the IT landscape and bolster its capability to deliver real value to the business. 

One way to do this is to make the entry point into IT a legitimate choke point for the business i.e. to use business language to increase the time it takes to sign off requirements. Typically, IT requirement teams do not have the mindset or the skills to engage in endless border wars, which are intended to sap the energy in this case of the business units. Yes, the IT requirements management team is staffed with competent business analysts who specialize in low-level business requirements, but more often than not, the business analysts are not considered domain experts by the business and are usually treated with contempt. Moreover, the business analysts are in no position to question business’s ‘holy grail’ i.e. the high-level business requirements.

To reverse this equation, it is important to augment the IT requirements management team with domain experts, who understand the business needs better than the business and have a proven track record of  delivering ‘best in class’ business solutions. In other words, these domain experts must be able to challenge, poke holes and make fun of the business requests (while keeping a straight face of course!). So if Sales, HR and Finance are the biggest requestors (IT’s biggest adversaries) of demand then the IT requirements management team should be staffed with domain experts from these three areas. These experts are charged with the responsibility of delaying the processing of the demand by demonstrating flaws in the business requests and quantifying the cost of these flaws. Subsequently, the business will be forced to listen and take note. In this way, the CIO should be able reduce the business demand to his liking, and at the board level is armed with enough information to shoot down any re-requests or threats.

Oddly enough, by inserting domain experts in the requirements management team, the CIO is able to enrich, and fast-track requests from other business units thereby effectively dividing the business into allies and enemies.  Hence, at executive meetings the CIO is no longer isolated but supported by other business units who value IT’s contribution.

Therefore by making the entry point into IT a legitimate choking point affords the CIO extra time to make radical changes to the IT landscape. The amount of time devoted to strategizing and re-organizing IT depends to a large degree on the quality of the domain experts and their ability to fight ‘border wars’ with different business units. Given the current recession, it is not too difficult to find C-Level executives on short-term contracts playing such intimidating roles.  This short-term strategy is only effective if the CIO can keep the business divided and demonstrate value in rejecting business requests from the most powerful business units.

Don’t forget to leave your comments below.

Abid Mustafa is a seasoned professional with 18 years’ experience in the IT and Telecommunications industry, specializing in enhancing corporate performance through the establishment and operation of executive PMOs and delivering tangible benefits through the management of complex transformation programs and projects. Currently, he is working as a director of corporate programs for a leading telecoms operator in the MENA region.

Problem Solvers and Fixing the Corporate Order

In companies that are obsessed with politics and intrigue, problem solvers rarely fix issues and are more likely to spawn new problems that weigh heavily on the organization’s ability to serve customers and respond to market trends. This is because most problem solvers in such organizations avoid thinking about the political dimension of problems. For them problem solving is apolitical and necessitates issues to be understood and analyzed, root causes identified and validated, and initiatives developed and implemented that eventually result in workable solutions. The solutions— by and large—are delivered in the form of processes and governance models, roles and responsibilities, training, automation etc. Problem solving in this manner always conforms to the politics of the company or what I like to call the “corporate order”.

No matter how hard problem solvers try to fix problems, the corporate order always ensures that facets of the solution they deem threaten their interests are either lobbied away or sufficiently diluted before the green light is given for implementation. Even the implementation of the solution is not secure from the prying eyes and ears of the corporate order. If they discover that red flags can expose their incompetence or heap embarrassment upon them, project and operational reports are skillfully manipulated to steer initiatives into paralysis or the initiative is given a death blow.

In such environments problem fixers— executives, program directors, project managers, line managers etc— quickly learn to mould their thinking to accommodate the interests of the corporate order, even if it is detrimental to the corporate interests. Subsequently problem fixers spend huge amounts of intellectual capital, invest considerable money and exert much effort in producing and delivering solutions that are fundamentally flawed both in scope and application. From the outset the purpose of such solutions is to maintain the status quo i.e. keeps the executives that preside over the corporate order in power. Problem fixers are only permitted to solve those problems that enable the custodians of the corporate order to meet their performance targets and maintain good relations with the board.

Problem solvers who adhere to the purity of their thinking and are sincere to the corporate interests find it extremely difficult to conceal their frustrations in such working environments. They often clash with the interests of the corporate order—many do so with a poor understanding of the political situation. In the end—depending upon the level of seniority and political influence—they are either brow beaten into submission, contained but isolated or their employment is terminated. This usually happens after a lengthy war of attrition—often disguised in business jargon, so that unaware employees do not become suspicious and can be used as pawns in the ensuing power play—and the company’s resources, money and time are wasted in such pursuits.

Those problem fixers that survive the onslaught are intellectually scarred and find it difficult to even attempt to solve future problems. They procrastinate fearful that their solutions will be rejected by other employees who work under the shadow of the corporate order. Such problem fixers very quickly lose credibility and relegate themselves to problems they cannot solve.

If problems solvers truly want to solve problems in politically charged companies, then they must frame the problems in the context of the corporate order. But to do so, they must excel in three areas.

First, develop a firm understanding of the corporate order and its political influence on the entire company.

Second, learn to think politically and not intellectually. Unlike intellectual thinking, political thinking has no rules. Its source is the statements and deeds of those who engage in politics at work. Techniques such as generalization, modeling and analogies rarely work to uncover or counter the motives and plans of the corporate order. Conversely, the corporate order is apt at exploiting such techniques to imprison problem solvers in their thinking thereby rendering them impotent. Hence, it is incumbent upon the problem solver to build a profound understanding of all the major players at work, their domains of influence and how they maneuver politically to safeguard their interests. In sum the problem solver needs to possess a crystal clear picture regarding their personal political plans and actions.

Third, the problem solver must have the courage to challenge the existing corporate order. Challenge here should not be confused with mere confrontation with the guardians of the corporate order that ultimately yields a compromise—this will never lead to proper change. At best the problem solver’s concerns will be accommodated by the corporate order, but at the mercy of their terms and conditions. Moreover the problem solver will be regarded by other employees as a lapdog of those executives under whose control the corporate order thrives. To produce effective change the problem solver must expand the support base to include other executives willing to spearhead the cause, and then challenge the corporate order until it is reformed or reconstructed. This is a high risk strategy—failure will certainly be a career-ending move for the problem solver, but success will usher in an era of genuine problem solving and propel the company to new heights.

Don’t forget to leave your comments below.

Abid Mustafa is a seasoned professional with 18 years’ experience in the IT and Telecommunications industry, specializing in enhancing corporate performance through the establishment and operation of executive PMOs and delivering tangible benefits through the management of complex transformation programmes and projects. His experience has been gained in industries as varied as utilities, telecoms, financial services, transport, and education, working for several blue chip companies such as Centrica, London Underground, British Telecom, Oracle, Enron, Logica, and Wateen. Currently he is working as a director of corporate programmes for a leading teleco operator in the MENA region.