How is IT Doing? Ask Business Leadership FIRST

Business IT alignment

“We do a great job.  90% of our KPIs and projects are in the green, and we had 99.9% uptime last month…”

  • …Comments like this can be indicative of successful IT shops, hitting on all/most cylinders and empowering their companies to great results.
  • …Comments like this can also come out of IT leaders’ mouths in departments which are completely failing their businesses – possibly without them even knowing it.

Wait, you say.  How could Key Performance Indicators be put in place, or projects approved, without the business being on board?  And if 90% of them are in the green isn’t that a good sign?  Not necessarily.  They could very well be meaningful, but KPIs may not really measure how well IT is supporting and empowering the business.   Consider these common situations:

  • KPIs surrounding reaction times to requests, but none addressing proactivity
  • KPIs about bug fixes, but none measuring the actual quality of the systems
  • KPIs about system uptime, but lacking any measurement of efficiency or effectiveness

It is well-said that what gets measured gets managed, but this is far from guaranteeing that the activities will yield desired results.

What about projects?  If they’ve approved projects, surely business leadership would be happy those projects are going well?   In our experience, it’s not that leaders would prefer that IT projects run into trouble, but more often that they truly don’t see any connection between IT projects and the thriving of their companies.  Experienced business and IT leaders will recognise these patterns:

  • “Upgrade” projects are often required.  “v2.0 will be deprecated next year so we have to upgrade to v2.1”  Business leaders go along with many of these project requests because they’re convinced that being on an “deprecated” system will sound bad to the auditors; it’s hard to build any significant amount of excitement on that theme.
  • “IT Automation” projects often promise savings in the IT budget through internal efficiencies, etc., but business leaders know they’ll likely get pressured next year to spend the savings with some kind of argument that “Gartner says the average % revenue spend on IT in our industry is <x> and we don’t want to fall behind our competitors”.
  • In the era of Agile software development, “projects” are often “minimum viable projects”, i.e. systems which barely do anything to move the needle in an organisation.  “Viable” in fact is sometimes in the eye of the beholder, and these early pilot projects often create more angst than uplift.

The bottom-line is that achieving 90% KPIs, projects in the green and great uptime truly can indicate great success for an IT group, certainly.  But these stats can also mask the true situation.  So the question becomes…

How can we tell if a company’s IT department is succeeding?

Our approach is to talk with business leadership FIRST.  We don’t say “exclusively”, but we do suggest speaking to them FIRST to get a sense of how the company perceives the effectiveness of its technology AND the people building and supporting it.

Indirect questions often highlight more of the truth than direct ones (e.g. “Do you think your IT systems and people are good?”)  For example, these open-ended questions may lead to clear insights about whether/how an executive team feels their IT is empowering them:

  • What is your company’s IT strategy?
  • What kind of advantages do you feel technology gives you in the marketplace?
  • If you had a magic wand what would you change in your IT department?
    • …in your systems capabilities?
  • What goes through your mind when your CIO mentions having an idea to run by you?
  • What was the last idea you brought to discuss with the CIO?
  • What are the most common themes in what your staff says about IT?
  • Why do you have an internal IT department rather than another model like outsourcing?

We seek to understand IT’s perspective AFTER talking with business leadership

Now, if you’re an IT leader reading this article because your company has just engaged Innovation Vista to evaluate its IT group, don’t lose heart.  We absolutely believe that it’s impossible to accurately assess an IT department without speaking to multiple people within that group.   But with insights from business leadership’s answers to the questions above, discussions with IT leadership can be directed to the most meaningful themes.

Are some business leaders overly optimistic?  Without doubt.  Are some overly critical of anything less than perfection?  Some are; we will not hesitate to calibrate expectations if we believe that is an issue.  That may be part of why they are funding an assessment!  In our experience, though, executives’ expectations are rarely in as much need of calibration as an IT department’s mindset and culture:

  • Is the main goal running an efficient ship or sailing the business to the right destination?
  • Are “best practices” imported into IT from industry experts (or from an IT leader’s previous tenures) without tailoring them to the company’s strategy, positioning, etc?
  • Do people in IT identify more as “IT professionals” than they do as employees of the organisation?
  • Is the benefit of efficiency or capability being judged without measuring impact on the business?
  • How are unique requests handled?  Exploration of the need or forcing an alignment to “standards”?
  • Is IT misunderstanding their role as “the dog” instead of “the tail”?

One of the major themes of our CXO advisory practice is that much of success in IT Leadership comes from ensuring everyone rightly understands what their job actually is.  IT jobs are so critical and impactful to the success, or lack thereof, of an organisation!   It is worth an investment of time and attention to ensure everyone is aligned.  Companies who have that alignment ensure that if their projects and KPIs are on track, that is having a material impact on the success and growth of the entire organisation.

Please contact us to explore how our C-level IT experts can assess your IT group and give you actionable insights to maximise their impact.