Machiavellian lessons for CIOs

Machiavellian lessons for CIOs

Few people want colleagues to think they are cunning or devious. But CIOs could do worse than consider Machiavelli's philosophy.

I’m sure that most of you recoiled when you saw the title of this piece and said quietly to yourself, “It’s not good to be seen as Machiavellian…” But is that really true? Niccolo di Bernardo dei Machiavelli was a 15th century Italian diplomat, political philosopher, musician, poet and playwright – a true Renaissance humanist. After a period of living in political favour and holding influential positions, Machiavelli was wrongly imprisoned by the ruling Medici family. His best known treatises on realist political theory (The Prince) and republicanism (Discourses on Livy) were written during his exile. Machiavelli’s philosophical views on politics were such that his surname has since passed into the common dialect, referring to any political move that is devious or cunning in nature.

The career of a CIO has many analogies to the life of Machiavelli. CIOs are sometimes in favour with senior leadership and at other times they are not. Large investments fail, security breaches happen and companies merge, which often results in one CIO squeezing out the other. While falling out of favour can be deserved, often CIOs are targeted for political reasons. When a CIO faces political challenges however, Machiavelli will nearly always have some gem of wisdom to offer.

So how Machiavellian are you? Here are a few of the indicators you can use to judge your current approach and plan future tactics.

Project Management

“Hate is gained as much by good works as by evil” The Prince

The CIO’s leadership approach to project management determines how the organisation perceives IT and the CIO’s leadership style. The IT project management process and the Projet Management Office (PMO) are the centre points in the enterprise for managing demand, and the primary point at which key business peers interact with IT. Does your PMO say yes to all business requests, but deliver less than is expected? Or do you say no to some business requests and deliver more than expected? Successfully leading the PMO requires the use of Machiavellian techniques. Success can help the CIO build credibility and, as a result, their power base. When project management is challenged, it can be a point of weakness for all IT perceptions and compromise the CIO’s position in the enterprise.

IT Communications

“The majority of mankind is satisfied with appearances, as though they are realities, and are often even more influenced by the things that seem than by those that are.” The Discourses

Even Machiavelli believed that “perception is reality” and this is certainly true for IT. Communication style determines whether IT is well regarded, ignored, or despised. Communication style will also determine if a CIO becomes a victim of political tactics, or a master of them. CIOs must communicate appropriately about IT accomplishments in times of prosperity, and protect that reputation in an aggressively Machiavellian fashion. Those who fail to do so will find themselves ‘unarmed’ when under attack and in times of adversity.

Centralised vs. Decentralised IT

“The causes of success or failure of men depend upon their suiting their conduct to the times.” The Discourses

Centralising IT budgets and resources is amongst the greatest political battles any CIO can face. This is the equivalent of converting a Machiavellian republic to a kingdom. How great a kingdom will you amass, and how great a kingdom will the business require? Centralisation is sometimes about personal ambition, and at other times it is simply a business necessity. Many businesses cannot afford to bear the expense of a decentralised IT department, particularly in the face of a more operationally efficient or effective competitor. But it is equally important to be aware that excess centralisation can bind the business and destroy innovation. For enterprises that compete on the basis of continuous product innovation, an overly large Machiavellian IT kingdom is not only unwise it can be business ending.

Bottom Line

“A prince…ought to choose the fox and the lion; because the lion cannot defend himself against traps and the fox cannot defend himself against the wolves. Therefore, it is necessary to be a fox to discover the traps and a lion to terrify the wolves.” – The Prince

Traditional IT management strategies focus almost exclusively on data and building credibility through demonstrating IT performance. This is the Machiavellian equivalent of being the fox. The CIO as a fox uses intellect to make points and solve problems. He carefully considers the situation and the facts to find the best data to apply to the problem and the course of action. While these techniques are management essentials for CIOs in times of prosperity, they can actually be detrimental in times of adversity, particularly if they are the only tools in the CIO’s arsenal. To prevail in time of adversity, CIOs must be able to act as the lion. When power is available as an option, he must use it. Force is necessary when confronted by force. Machiavellian tactics require building strength and power so that they are available as needed in times of conflict. Machiavelli would argue that when wolves gather the lion is more likely to survive and succeed than the fox.

Mary Ann Maxwell is group vice president, executive programs, Gartner.

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