Peter Waterhouse on what CIOs must do for their organizations in a counterintuitive business world driven by software.

For the first time this year I had to think carefully before deciding a number of April fool’s day technology announcements were actually hoaxes. Some like an Internet Service Provider’s “cats as roaming wireless access points” was easy to dismiss, but oddly plausible – hey, why the heck not? If we can hook up a toaster to the Internet, then why not have an Internet of felines?

All pranks aside, you have to acknowledge we live in a counterintuitive world. Not too long ago the act of renting a car without visiting the rental lot (a la Zipcar) would have been dismissed as silly, while the notion of a hitching a ride from your neighbor without calling a taxi would have only raised a cynical smile – certainly not the $258 million of VC funding netted by Uber last year, right?

The problem with counterintuitive is the disruption it causes. I’m not talking slightly annoying disruption in the ‘ignore and it’ll all go away technical category’, but rather, applications that operate in the business model ‘blind spot’, agile and powerful enough to drop a gear and overtake your own business.

Every day we see this happening, with new innovations operating in the counterintuitive slipstream of our companies. The counterintuitive thrives in your thermostats, bathrooms, TVs and cars. It can even turn your bedroom or kitchen into cash, transforming products we’ve always taken for granted (hotel rooms and restaurants) into services more in touch with the behaviors of consumer.

So what’s a CIO to do in a counterintuitive world increasingly driven by software? You can keep checking your mirrors with a “didn’t see that coming” approach, or take control by becoming, guess what? – a counterintuitive business leader. Here’s how:

Fix what isn’t broken

Video stores aren’t going out of business because their business model was bad. They just didn’t realize the legitimized online movie subscription model was about to emerge from the business blind spot. Similarly in IT, stop having a soft spot for infrastructure and applications that work just fine and start questioning their relevance in a future owned by your customers.

Surrender the fort

The traditional castle IT is dead, defunct and even derelict, so get over it. Mobile computing, social media and cloud is turning IT inside-out – but it’s not all Shadow IT doom and gloom. Rather than maintain the last bastion of control with rigid policies, spend time encouraging purposeful experimentation. That’s doesn’t just mean with department heads, but also with the geeky, dreadlocked guy sitting in the corner cubicle. Remember - resistance isn’t futile, it’s an opportunity.

Stop hiring experts

MBA graduates aren’t necessarily entrepreneurial or every application developer a team player, so stop pigeon-holing your workforce according to the credentials they carry. Now more than ever seek out talent than can flex and adapt to a variety of situations, remembering that folks who develop your applications should be able to run and support them (and vice versa). Similarly, an injection of business savvy is fine, but only when it’s baked in real-world realities – like, for example, considering candidates who have the paper qualifications, but have also tried (and even failed) to run a business.

Take off your suit

Business stakeholder engagement is overrated. A good CIO friend of mine recently described how she’d dutifully collaborated with her business peers to deftly execute the delivery of a major CRM application – on time and on budget, so to speak. The trouble was none of the sales teams wanted to use it. My advice: get out of your ivory tower and test assumptions where they really matter – with customers and employees. This is especially important because mobile computing now enables them to engage your business at many more points in time.

Turn things red

“Five nines” of availability or mega web page visits count for zip if profit is declining. They’re what many call vanity metrics—they may make you feel great at the time, but never guarantee the business will love you in the morning. My advice: start developing a meaningful set of metrics aligned to meaty business outcomes—like customer capture, mobile app sales conversion rates and time-to-value. Next deliberately turn them red and work to understand what IT wonders will turn them green. Once green, flick the red switch again.

These counterintuitive practices are just the beginning. Successful application will depend on your own appetite for risk and the ability to fail fast and learn quickly—together, of course, with the prevailing business culture and markets where you operate. But in the digitized world and increasingly application driven economy, you can be sure of one thing: there’ll always be someone ready and able to take the chance.

So the question for the CIO is: Are you staring in the rear-view mirror, or are you looking ahead?

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