IT leadership deadlock

IT leadership deadlock

There is one very obvious reason that executives are emotionally unengaged with IT.

Many CIOs continually face the same persistent IT leadership challenge — executive disinterest in IT combined with ineffectual IT governance, resulting in weak ownership and accountability for IT initiatives outside of IT. When faced with this paralysing combination of tightly-coupled events, it is easy for a CIO to unwittingly become part of the problem. It occurs when the CIO ignores the obvious opportunity to take control and break out of this leadership deadlock. It’s typically a situation where everyone is aware that there is an issue, but there has been little progress in resolving it for an extended period. Therefore I use the word
deadlock. Conventional management practices are not generally effective in situations like this, as the issues are more about the way the rest of the business and the IT organisation feel about and experience each other. Although the three elements of this situation — executive disinterest, ineffectual IT governance and lack of accountability — all combine to create this toxic situation, if we break them apart we can work on a response for each and break through the deadlock. This month I’ll focus on approaches to remedy executive disinterest.

Lack of interest and engagement in IT remains a common problem. It can be exasperating for the IT organisation and results in second-best resources being allocated to projects, lack of representation at the right level for important decision-making and increasingly successful direct approaches by vendors that reinforce the notion of internal IT’s waning relevance. It can also result in a working relationship characterised by mistrust and confusion. Many will point to a root cause as “lack of alignment of management systems”. This is HR-speak for the enterprise requiring successful performance from the IT organisation but not linking it to the performance required of other business executives. Be that as it may, from a management perspective, it ignores the vital people aspect of this issue. I consider this to be the reason for the lack of the executive’s emotional connection with the goals and requirements of the IT organisation.

There is one very obvious reason that executives are emotionally unengaged with IT. IT-related communications are frequently not translated into business issues and outcomes that executives understand and care about. Most IT documents and presentations are viewed as being very dull by the rest of the business staff, because they are long, difficult to understand, not connected with other executives' "hot buttons”, and not professionally or creatively presented.

A number of IT organisations have begun to address this issue by engaging communications professionals — by hiring permanent staff in IT, by getting some time from the public relations department or by using external consultants. Often, these result in much more engaging and compelling communications and interventions that get business executives' attention and interest.

One example of this breakthrough approach was related to me by a Gartner Executive Programs member. This member’s IT organisation was having trouble explaining the poor internal customer experience to executives. So they decided to put the executives through a similar experience when the executives arrived for a meeting. They were asked to come to an unfamiliar building, where there was a queue at reception, the receptionist did not have the executives’ names, and there were physical obstacles (boxes) in the path to the meeting room. When the executives finally arrived at the meeting room, a video was shown to them of their experience, and an analogy successfully drawn to the customer experience issue. Obviously this approach was not without its risks. However it succeeded in getting attention and buy-in from the executives who had previously been unengaged.

Other techniques that have met with success that you may also consider are:

Storytelling At a recent Gartner event, a speaker who taught corporations how to use storytelling to communicate within the work environment used many powerful narratives to convey important points of his messages. When reflecting on the learning that took place it was amazing how many attendees had almost total recall regarding points that were delivered as part of a story.

Highly visual communications I recall one organisation that engaged an external creative expert to create a cartoon story-board to communicate the IT strategy to the Board.

Interactive communications through facilitated play and simulation A number of consultancies and techniques are emerging using digital storytelling, play or simulations to improve communications.

Regardless of the method you decide to use to create more compelling communications, this is critical to breaking the common leadership deadlock of the unengaged executive.

Executive disinterest in IT is most damaging when coupled with poor governance and lack of ownership and accountability for IT-intensive business projects. And yet all too often these three circumstances are each a by-product of the other. Next time, I’ll examine some effective techniques to combat lack of governance and improve accountability for IT-intensive business projects.

Linda Price is group vice-president, executive programmes, Gartner. Email comments to

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