Retail CIOs: It's Time To Get Off Your Dead Horse

Franchisee Columnist Todd Michaud has spent the last 16 years trying to fight IT issues, with the last six years focused on franchisee IT issues. He is currently responsible for IT at Focus Brands (Cinnabon, Carvel, Schlotzsky's and Moe’s Southwestern Grill).

Are you dreaming of the day when your business partners provide detailed requirements before the project starts? Keep dreaming. Are you longing for a time when you get unanimous support from your franchise community for a decision? Get real. Do you anxiously await the day when the rest of the C-suite wakes up and realizes that the demand for IT greatly outstrips the supply and then bolsters your team and budget to "appropriate levels"? Not gonna happen.

It's time for IT execs to stop trying to explain how the world works and start accepting how others think it works. I'm not saying that "If you can't beat 'em, join 'em." I'm saying it's time to make your own way. The way of the Maverick CIO.

Rather than bemoaning the state of IT and how everyone else "just doesn't get it," CIOs everywhere should realize that that particular "horse" has been beaten to death. The gap continues to widen between how CIOs want to be seen and how they are, in fact, perceived. Now is the time to dismount and try a different approach.

Many different factors play into the current state of affairs. Here are a few of the big ones:

  • As much as 70 percent of IT spending goes to supporting systems that do not work the way the users "expected" them to work in the first place.
  • In trying to protect themselves from supply and demand issues and a lack of clear requirements, most IT departments have made it easier to submit a requisition for an aircraft carrier with the Pentagon than to start a new IT project. IT governance is not an answer; it is an excuse.
  • By cycling through new IT leaders every three years (because of the incumbent's lack of progress), companies doom themselves to both repeat mistakes of the past and suffer from the "not invented here" virus.
  • Because most companies cannot afford to "do it right," IT teams are left to try and string together a series of inadequate systems like a Rube-Goldberg machine straight out of a Tom and Jerry blueprint.
  • To the business partners reading this column: The majority of high-value IT systems are "hard" and "expensive." If they were easy and cheap, they wouldn't be high value. Let me give you a hint: The answer to the question "Well, can't you just…?" is never going to be the answer you want to hear, so stop asking. Next time you want to ask, think about the Tom and Jerry blueprint.

Whenever a group of CIOs get together, these are among the topics that typically come up. They pepper online discussion groups and come up in moderated panels at conferences and on e-mail distribution lists.

But before you start to think that I am a complete whack-job, I do believe that IT Steering Committees, Software Development Lifecycles (SDLCs), Requirements Definition and the like absolutely have important roles to play in an organization. I just think that most IT leaders try to use these things to compensate for a broken mindset and "victim" thinking. Nor am I advocating a completely unstructured environment, one devoid of any process or compensating controls. These things are also an extremely important part of the process.They say that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. Why is it, then, that so many IT organizations continue to function the same way even though they produce "less than optimal results?" It's almost as if IT is stuck in the movie Groundhog Day. We are reliving each day, trying somehow to get it right.

So what can a CIO do to break out of this vicious cycle? The first thing is to adopt the "Maverick CIO" mentality. Maverick CIOs think about problems differently than traditional CIOs. They don't focus on the inherent challenges of their role. Rather, Maverick CIOs accept the reality of a situation and work to maximize their ability to excel in this environment.

Here are a few things that set a Maverick CIO apart from a traditional CIO:

  • They build an organization that defines the business requirements for their partners and defend them vigorously. Maverick CIOs do not start with a blank sheet of paper and ask partners what they want. IT project leaders need to act like they are the CEO and offer solutions that they think will meet both business and functional needs. A Maverick CIO gets very good at selling ideas to the organization.
  • Maverick CIOs implement an agile project methodology that assumes a large percentage of the requirements will change. They make sure the methodology accommodates refinements in requirements over a period of time as business partners actually see and feel the technology.
  • They have a backbone. Maverick CIOs do not give their business partners bad options to choose from. Many traditional CIOs get caught in the "Well, technically it's possible, but I wouldn't recommend it" place. DO NOT DO IT. If it is a bad idea, a Maverick CIO doesn't even present it as an option.
  • Maverick CIOs think about delivering results more than they think about following process. They understand that a great process that delivers crappy solutions is NOT a great process. (If it was your salary being used to pay for the 18 people sitting in a worthless weekly status meeting, would it still happen?) A Maverick CIO does, however, work within industry rules and regulations as required (SARB-OX, COBIT, etc.).
  • They are not optimistic, but instead realistic. Maverick CIOs quadruple the expected effort and double the budget estimates before giving them to the C-suite. They know there are always surprises in scope and timeframes, and they don't count on a risk register to save the day. Maverick CIOs secretly long to be called a "sandbagger."
  • If given the goal of removing 10 percent of costs from the IT infrastructure, Maverick CIOs figure out how to remove 15 percent--by enabling functionality in existing applications (versus implementing new ones) and retiring systems that no longer deliver ROI (in spite of the political fall-out from the one VIP who still uses some part of the system).
  • Maverick CIOs invest 20 percent of their resources into making IT better. They make it a priority to reduce the application portfolio, streamline support processes, implement better monitoring and train staff. And if, after a hard-fought struggle, that 20 percent is cut from the budget, Maverick CIOs quit and go to some place where they can be successful.

Maverick CIOs realize that traditional thinking produces traditional (read: poor) results and work hard not to get caught in the "that's the way we've always done it" trap. By improving the way technology is delivered (both at a project level and through support), Maverick CIOs start to build a platform of success. Over time, this approach allows IT to be seen as a strategic asset to the organization, as an "enabler" of success.

What do you think? Love it or hate it, I'd love to gain some additional perspectives. Leave a comment, or E-mail me at [email protected].