In an environment of seemingly endless digital business opportunities, CIOs must help their clients and stakeholders focus limited IT resources on what matters most.

I have always been an observer of human nature. I find the things that people do and say fascinating. Perhaps one of the best places on earth to watch human behavior is Las Vegas, Nevada. I’ve delivered so many keynote presentations and workshops there that the MGM Grand feels like my second home. I truly love Vegas, not because of the casinos (I work too hard for my money to give it away to the house so easily), but for the people watching. 

How many of you have ever been on a buffet line in Las Vegas? If you have, you’ve probably seen some guy carrying two plates filled with prime rib, spaghetti, an omelet, and ice cream! Under normal circumstances, no one would ever think of assembling such an array or volume of food. But a funny thing happens when a human being is faced with a  rich array of buffet options: they often turn into pigs!

My love of people-watching aside, there’s another reason I’m painting this picture for you. I’ve seen many companies treat IT just like an all-you-can-eat buffet. They keep throwing projects and requests over the wall with the expectation that somehow, someway IT will complete all this work. What compounds this dynamic is that most IT people I’ve met — present company included — have a hero mentality. We will do everything we can to accomplish all that is asked of us, to the point of utter exhaustion and collapse. I often tell my clients that the good news about heroes is that people write songs about them. The bad news is that these songs are often written after the hero has died. Not a great tradeoff if you ask me.

As a CIO coach and mentor, I find prioritization to be a big topic of discussion these days. It’s something that the IT leaders I work with struggle with, particularly in today’s environment of seemingly endless digital business opportunities. But one of the primary skills of a successful CIO is the ability work with the business to help them prioritize their technology demands.

Why the Answer Isn’t Yes or No

I had a dear friend named Marty whom I worked with at Pfizer. In his office was a framed sign that said: “When everything is a priority, nothing is a priority!” No words have ever rung so true.

When I started my role as CIO, I quickly learned that I was the third person to occupy that office in less than four years. As someone who values self-preservation — and having a mortgage, a family, and a daughter in college — I made it my business to find out what had happened to my predecessors. Here’s what I uncovered. The woman two CIOs before me said yes to every project and request. Clients loved her… until inevitably she failed to deliver on all these commitments and was fired. The man who was my immediate predecessor took the opposite approach. Under his leadership, IT was considered “the island of no and slow”. His response to every new request was that he didn’t have enough resources or budget to address them, so he didn’t do any of them. Needless to say, he also was fired.

I lasted in that role much longer than my predecessors by taking a different tack. I learned that the answer to an unlimited flow of requests isn’t “yes” or “no.” It’s “How?” How can we take on this project given our human resources and financial limitations? Are we willing to go back to the board of directors for more budget? Can we adjust the cadence of the project  to address the key issues first and put less urgent issues on the back burner? Are there non-critical issues that could be eliminated from the plan?

Just as importantly, I recognized that my role in this process was not to make these decisions in a vacuum. It was to facilitate the dialogue with my clients and stakeholders so that they understand the limitations we collectively faced and together we could ensure that IT was working on the initiatives that would allow the business to accomplish its most critical objectives.

Handling Hallway Requests

Another prioritization challenge IT leaders often face is what I call the hallway request. The CMO sees you on our way to the restroom and asks if IT can do a “small project” for them. After all, she says, it will only take a couple of weeks. Of course, what the CMO doesn’t realize is that this extra couple of weeks, when added to the other dozen hallway projects we’ve have been asked to address, will push back the launch of her mission critical project by two months.

These “small projects” are insidious. They will accumulate, eating up limited resources that should be devoted to key business priorities. But instead of seeing them as a nuisance, I encourage IT leaders to welcome them as an opportunity to start conversations with stakeholders about the impact of these requests and their willingness to either put them on the back burner or reevaluate their current priorities. None of these conversations are easy. But they are critical to effective IT leadership. Otherwise, the IT leader becomes just an order taker who should be asking if you wants fries with that meal!


Related article:

Moving From How to Why: The Secret to Motivating Your Team

By Larry Bonfante


“What Matters?”: A 3-Step Prioritization Hack

Although prioritization isn’t easy, there is a straightforward exercise I share with my clients who are struggling in this area. I call it the “What Matters?” game, and here’s how you play:

1. If I woke your CEO up at 2 a.m. (not a recommended best practice in real life as people tend to be cranky at that hour!) and asked her what the three to five things your company needs to accomplish over the next three years to become the company it aspires to be, what would those be? Write those things down on the left hand side of a whiteboard.

2. Down the right side of the whiteboard, write down all the projects and initiatives your team is being asked to accomplish.

3. Start drawing lines between the business goals on left side of the whiteboard and the business requests on right side. When you do this, you will find that the requests fall into one of three buckets:

•    Aligned: These are initiatives that directly further the CEO’s agenda. If the CEO wants to enhance customer experience, for example, a digital transformation effort that fully engages consumers will help deliver that outcome.
•    Foundational: These are the initiatives that don’t directly achieve a business goal but lay necessary groundwork to accomplish it. If the CEO’s  goal is to increase revenue by 30% over the next two years, for example, implementing a cloud-based CRM solution may provide your sales team with the tools and information they need to grow existing revenue and acquire new customers. 
•    Immaterial: These are projects that don’t help accomplish any of the CEO’s key objectives. It doesn’t mean they aren’t “good” things to do, but the good is often the enemy of the great. Spending time and money on these initiatives robs resources from key priorities. And I promise you, your CFO is not going to show up with Brinks truck of additional funding or deliver a bus of thirty more people to your door to save you if you’ve overpromised to the business!

Remember: the CIO’s goal shouldn’t be to make these decisions for their organizations, but rather with them. We should never be so arrogant as to assume that we understand the business better than our C-suite peers. Our role is not that of judge and jury, but that of trusted partner to help guide the conversation about prioritization and business impact.  Effective IT leaders have the courage to facilitate these conversations with clients so that they are better equipped to make informed business decisions. That’s the best way ensure that the work the IT team performs for business partners meets key goals. 

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