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The Ability to Execute

By Kevin Pool, Asia Chief Technology Officer, TIBCO Software

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Kevin Pool, Asia Chief Technology Officer, TIBCO Software

What makes a CIO Successful? What makes an IT organization successful? As the regional CTO for one of the major global technology vendors, I have had the opportunity to meet with 100’s of CIO, CXO’s, and IT leaders over the past few years.  As I met with these leaders, I’ve started to ask myself if I think they will be successful or not, and why?

To completely address this topic probably deserves a whole book, or perhaps a series of books. There are the three-legged stool metaphors of people, process & technology. Others will say that at the CXO level it’s a lot about politics & political alignment. These topics are variable and subjective, so I’ll defer that discussion to one of the aforementioned books. Instead, lets discuss something which I have noticed as a common capability of successful leaders and teams, and something which if missing then the individual or team is not viewed as successful.  That characteristic is the ability to get things done.

I deliberately use the term “done”. There are lots of organizations where everyone is working hard, but not much gets done. Or perhaps it just takes more time and effort than ever imagined to get things done, which is preventing them from getting other things done. I’m currently working with one customer where the traffic gridlock analogy is appropriate; they are trying to get everything done, all at the same time, and the conflicts and dependency issues are so big that hardly anything is getting done. I have another customer that that is working on a multi billion dollar initiative. I’ve been visiting them periodically for 3 years now, and every time that I visit them they are killing themselves trying to complete tasks for the same, original, first product launch that is scheduled for 6 months in the future from now. Except every time I visit them there is a new launch date, which just happens to be 6 months away.

As a major technology vendor, we get evaluated and ranked by industry analysts.  The evaluation is summarized on some quadrant or wave graphic that have several dimensions or axis. While there is always a lively debate about these analysis (after all the analysts are selling “news” just like any publication, and they are human), they generally seem to do a reasonable job at identify the leading and trailing groups of vendors. So what makes one vendor a leader vs another? One of the more popular graphics has “vision” on one axis and “ability to execute” on the other axis. I like this graphic, even if sometimes it’s not clear if ability to execute means getting things done, or selling things to lots of customers.

When I meet with leaders at my customers I sometime pull out one of these graphics (typically one where my company did quite well).  We have a nice chat about the relative merits of my companies’ offerings vs. the competition.  Then I put up the same chart, except its does not have any vendors listed.   “Now” I say, “Lets do a similar analysis for you, your industry, and your competition”.   A strained silence, or a nervous laugh, commonly follows.  “Seriously” I say, “this is important.  “You need to realistically do this to understand where you stand”.

"Prioritization, focus, and completion of key tasks are something that is present in every successful IT organization"

Some Executives say that their objectives are to reduce cost, or to provide a stable platform for the business. While I get cost management and business continuity, I would’t actually call this visionary. Other customers list objectives that don’t quite seem in touch with reality. “Infinite Scalability” said one customer, because they plan to acquire 200 million customers very quickly after they launch their product (yes, this is the customer that is always 6 months from product launch).   “Delivery of new business features so fast, that it seems like we get it done before the business thinks of it,”said another customer, (yes, this is the customer that was experiencing gridlock because they were trying to do everything at the same time).      The worst situation is where the CIO says, “What do you think we should be doing?  What are our competitors doing”?   While I have my opinions, this objectives setting is really something that they must be doing, which they must own.    My observation is the successful CIO have a vision that is clear and bold, but achievable.   And conversely those organizations that struggle commonly have unachievable, vague, low, or missing objectives.

“Ruthless Execution is what we need!”said my CIO.  A few careers ago I was part of a multi-billion dollar start up, responsible for delivering a very significant portion of the business capability. “What do you mean”, I asked.  “Do things ruthlessly” was the response. That never quite set well, but over the years I’ve come up with my own definition, which is linear prioritization of tasks and working on the top few items only until they are completed.  Which means lower priority items frequently just don’t get done.    There are various methodologies such as Agile or Kanban that embody this concept. Prioritization, focus, and completion of key tasks are something that is present in every successful IT organization that I have worked with.

“But we’re being held hostage by the Blue or the Red vendor” some CIOs say to me.  Or, “we gave the large Integrator a multiyear contract to do everything, now we can’t get anything new, bold or innovative done”. Recently I more frequently hear about organizations that a few years ago picked the latest-and-greatest open source fad technology.  Now the open source spotlight and energy has moved on to the next fad, and they are stuck with a pile of buggy code they cannot manage.And the list of excuses goes on and on.  These are definitely strong detriments to success for the CIO, but excuses never get very far with the business or the board of directors.  My observation here is to be very careful which bedfellows you pick and which long-term commitments are made. Agility and the ability to do course changes are key. You also need a powerful and flexible platform that is rock solid, and that you can bet your business upon, perhaps even bet your career upon.

So what’s the secret recipe for a successful CIO and associated organization?  There are lots of variations, but every winning recipe includes bold but achievable objectives, ruthless execution, and a rock solid but flexible technical platform. Put these together and you have the Ability to Execute.

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