Special Report: What Should Today's CIO Really be Managing?

By Daniel Burrus

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As a CIO or leader in your organization’s IT department, you’re managing many things: the company’s network, numerous technical projects, and (hopefully) a talented group of IT people. But you’re also managing many other important things including the perception others have of IT; constant change from outside forces; how distracted you and your team are on a daily basis; and many other things you may not even be aware of. For many people, these “other” things are just part of the job, how things have always been done, and the expected stressors of business.

But do they have to be that way? Let’s start with perception. The fact is that managing perception is just as important as managing reality. For decades, the perception of the IT department, the CTO, and/or the CIO was that they were the technical backend. Even though we in the technology business know better, the fact is that many people in the organization viewed IT folks as "plumbers". In other words, the job of IT was to make sure everyone knew how to turn the equipment on and off, to ensure there were no "leaks", and to keep everything in working order.

In recent years, however, that perception has begun to shift. Through hard work on IT’s part, we are now seen as a strategic component of the organization that enables it to do things that are seemingly impossible and to gain new competitive advantage. IT now has a seat at the top decision making meetings in the organization. IT not only enables strategy to happen, but we also provide opportunities for new strategy to shift. However, not all the perception shifts are positive, which is why leading the IT department is challenging.

In the past, everyone in the IT department, from the newest employee to the CIO, was viewed as an innovator – as the people leading the technological change. In the process, they often brought the rest of the organization kicking and screaming into the present and the future. Even though the executives and employees wanted new features and functions, they complained when they got them. The organization and its people simply didn’t like change, yet they desperately wanted change. IT led them through the change.

Now in the last several years with distributed computing, cloud computing, and powerful home computing systems, the challenge is that the organization has the perception that IT is holding everyone back, keeping the company locked in the past rather than jumping into the future. How is this possible? Well, every level of employee, from the mailroom clerk to the CEO, is able to go home and use a multitude of cloud-enabled tools, from Google and Yahoo to Facebook and Twitter. But then they go back into their company, and depending on the size of the organization, they don’t have access to the technology they use at home. Yes, IT is concerned about security, and all these new technologies open up a giant can of worms. But the more you try to keep the worms contained, the more people view you as holding the company back.

Take a good, hard look

So why is managing perception important? Because perception is often more important than reality. And, in fact, your reality will not be a happy one if you’re not managing perception.

You’ve likely seen many examples of how perception is more important than reality. For example, a stock might be beaten up horribly because of the way people view the company, whether that view of the company is accurate or not. The opposite is true, as well. Consider what happened in real estate recently. Home prices went much higher than they should have because the perception of the home’s value was much higher than reality. This led to a real estate bubble, which, as all bubbles do, burst.

So the point is that perception is something you have to constantly mange. Whose perception? Everyone’s: from the C-level executives, the employees, the competitors, and most important, your own. Therefore, ask yourself, “How do I perceive myself?”

Do you perceive yourself as trying to keep up? Trying to protect and defend? Trying to integrate the new?

How you perceive yourself is going to reflect how others perceive you. So you need to perceive yourself and everyone in the IT department as a major competitive advantage and as a major strategic asset for the organization. As long as that’s how you perceive yourself and your team, that’s how you’ll act, and that’s how others will see you as well.This issue of perception management is critical to your personal success and your company’s success. Remember that any organization can use technology for two key things: to lower costs and/or to create new products, services, and markets. Typically, the CFO drives many decisions and focuses more on using technology to lower costs. While that’s often a good move, it’s simply not enough. Your company has to be equally focused on using technology to create new products, services, and markets. The only person who can drive this aspect of technology use is the CIO. The CFO, CEO, or anyone else is not going to know what’s technically possible or feasible.

Plug into your future

Equally important to managing perceptions is managing change. In today’s marketplace, change is coming at us fast and it’s only getting faster. That means organizations will be facing more problems than ever before.

One thing we know for sure is that most problems or changes come from the outside-in; external factors impact the organization. This causes people to react, crisis manage, and continually put out fires. This is doubly true for the IT department. Not only do we have breaches and security issues, but we also have new technologies and upgrades, new software and hardware, new smart phones and smart pads, new video conferencing options, and new government regulations and compliance issues ... just to name a few. These changes force many CIOs and IT personnel to focus on putting out fires and managing crisis. There’s little time for anything else let alone innovating.

But to be a strategic asset to your company, you can’t simply be a crisis manager you also have to become an opportunity manager. That means you devote time to creating change for yourself and for your organization from the inside-out. Changes that come from the inside-out are far more controllable, while changes that come from the outside-in are often out of your control. As such, crisis managers live in an uncontrollable world, while opportunity managers have a handle on their future.

So what’s the solution? The key to becoming an opportunity manager is to have the discipline to unplug from the present at least once per week and, instead, plug into the future. It’s about taking an hour to not think about the economy, the stock market, the balance sheet, the IT projects, and all the things that are part of your day to day world. Rather, it’s a time to plug into the future, because that’s where you’re going to spend the rest of your life. It’s where you’re going to make all your money from this moment forward and it’s also where you can lose everything in an instant. Since you’ll be living in the future, doesn’t it make sense to give the future some thought every now and then?

Giving yourself one hour a week to notice opportunities and be strategic is the only way to actually drive change. And let’s face it if you’re not driving change then someone else is, which means the change will be coming from the outside and forcing you to focus on fire fighting. Therefore, the only way to gain control of your future and avoid the increasing number of problems is to ensure that some of the changes come from the inside-out; that both you and the organization make a change before the marketplace dictates it. An hour per week for strategic contemplation will enable you to do so. Here a few ways to ensure you will use your one hour effectively:

Mark the hour in your calendar - In order to make sure you take the time to plan, you need to put the time in your calendar. Make an appointment with yourself just as you would for any other important business meeting. If you don’t put it in your calendar, you’ll never take time to plan. You’ll be so busy putting out fires that you’ll never get to it. And if you think you don’t have time to do this because you’re too busy, then you’re likely in a habitual crisis management mode.

Think about it: In the last five years, were all of the top executives and IT team at GM busy? Were the executives at Chrysler and Merrill Lynch busy? Was Wall Street busy? Yes, they were all busy, but it didn’t help them. Being busy isn’t the answer. Rather, being busy can get you into trouble fast. The recent recession was caused because people were too busy being crisis managers and not dealing with what was coming at them. The only way to get time back is to spend the time to stop tomorrow’s problems from happening.

Know whether you’re dealing with a cycle or a permanent change - The good news is that most changes are cyclical rather than permanent. For example, home values will always rise and fall, the stock market will always fluctuate between bull and bear, and a company’s sales will continually ebb and flow with the seasons. Those are all cyclical changes that are a bit easier to deal with -- provided you know how long the cycle will last.

Sometimes, though, changes are more permanent. For example, someone gets an iPod and starts listening to music on that device rather than buying CDs. That person now has all her music with her at all times. That’s a permanent change, because she’s not going back to music on CDs. Permanent changes, even those that are seemingly small or incremental, can have devastating effects on a business.

So think about the IT changes occurring today. Is cloud computing cyclical or permanent? Are visual communications cyclical or permanent? Is people’s need to do more with their computers and equipment cyclical or permanent? Pinpoint the permanent changes that are on your radar and then …

Solve predictable problems before they happen - During your hour ask yourself, “Based on the direction I see things going, the trends I see happening, and the market cycles I’m aware of, what are the problems I’m about to have? And, equally important, what are our customers’ predictable future problems?” Then determine a strategy to solve those problems before they occur. Keep in mind that a future problem represents a future opportunity.

For example, if you’re implementing a new strategic plan, predict the problems the plan will create and solve them before they start. If you’re launching a new product, figure out the problems associated with that product and solve them before the launch. If you’re implementing a company-wide IT change, identify those who are likely to fight the change and why, and then develop solutions for their concerns beforehand.

It’s about becoming more anticipatory. If you don’t take an hour a week to look at what’s about to occur, you’re going to keep doing what you’ve always done until you inadvertently go off a cliff. Rather than be a crisis manager and only react to problems as they occur, you want to be anticipatory, identify opportunities, and capitalize on them.

Look at the future of your profession - In addition to looking at your industry and organization’s future, also look at the future of IT in general. Based on all the things you’re seeing with your organization and all the technological changes out there, how will you be doing your job in the next few years? If you can start to see the future of your career, you can chart your own course, identify problems before they occur, and solve them proactively so you end up ahead rather than behind the curve.

Unplug from the present - To be an opportunity manager and strategic asset for your organization, distraction is the enemy. To provide major new competitive advantage and to create new products, markets, and services, distraction is the enemy. Unfortunately, we have never been more distracted.

Not only is everyone in your organization distracted, but so is everyone in your competitors’ organizations. But in a way, this is actually good news, because it means there’s a huge competitive advantage in pulling out of that mess of distraction. To do so, though, takes leadership and discipline.

Realize that our distraction level has gotten worse over the years rather than better. Why? It used to be that we had several different realities. We had our home reality with our spouse and children, and we had our work reality with our co-workers. Often the spouse and kids didn’t know what we specifically did at work, and all the people in our work reality didn’t know much detail about our home reality. We also had our leisure friends, or our personal reality. And we belonged to a club or church group and had that reality. Finally, we had our vacation time reality.

As we went through life, we would go from one reality to the other. This was a good thing psychologically, because it allowed us to recharge. Then, when we went from one reality to the other, we were refreshed and mentally sharp.

Today, technology has allowed all those realities to become one reality. But before you blame technology for this merging of realities, realize it’s not technology’s fault. Technology is neither good nor evil. It’s all about how we use it. We have the choice whether to plug in or unplug. Therefore, to reduce the level of distraction in your own life, you need to understand the power of unplugging on a regular basis.

Unfortunately, most people are afraid to unplug, even when they’re on vacation. They believe something might happen, so they have to be always connected to work. But this means they’re never really on vacation, and when they’re home, they’re not really home, they’re always working. But if your people are always working, how well are they functioning? The answer: not very well. They’re certainly not as creative and innovative as they need to be. And if you’re not unplugging on a regular basis, then you’re not as creative and innovative as you need to be either.

Unplugging leads to better results in all areas of life. Realize that your mind is always working on a subconscious level to solve your business problems and IT issues. No matter what you’re doing, your subconscious is at work. Have you ever noticed that your best business ideas tend to come when you’re working on or doing something else, whether walking the dog, woodworking, or playing with your kids? Great ideas generally do not occur when you’re in the midst of trying to come up with one. It’s when you’re in one of those other realities that many business issues get solved. However, if you never unplug, you develop something called "blur" where all your realities blend together and your mind never gets a chance to rest and recharge.

The good news is that you can be a responsible employee or executive and still have a life. But since there are no guidelines on how to do that, you can have to create them for yourself, for your team, and for your organization.

First, it’s time to stop thinking in terms of just productivity. While you may think that working all the time means you’re more productive, you have to ask yourself if that’s really the case. Maybe you’re not able to be as creative and innovative as you need to be. Maybe you’re not tapping into the fresh perspective that unplugging yields you.

Next, be disciplined and create strict guidelines for yourself. At a certain time in the evening, close the laptop and turn the phone off. Detail when you’re allowed to work and when you’re not. This may seem extreme at first, but even though we’re adults, we often act like children and need the same rules and guidelines that kids do.

If your kids have an X-Box, a Playstation, a computer with unlimited Internet access, and a Facebook and MySpace account, and if they can use these things whenever they want, they tend to act like the little monkey that keeps pushing the button that gives him food. That’s why parents set rules: “Do your homework before you play.” “Only one hour of TV after school.” “Turn off the computer at 9 p.m.” Because you want well-rounded kids, you encourage certain behaviors and activities. You send your kids to sports and dance lessons, help them learn a new language or how to play an instrument, and make sure they have enough time for rest. You know that your child will not be well-rounded if you let them decide what to do, as they’ll tend to focus on just a few things.

Adults are no different. That’s why you need to come up with your own guidelines in terms of when to plug in and when to unplug.

So is there a time to be thinking strategically, a time to be installing new systems, and a time to focus on innovation? Or are you going to get to those things “someday” because you’re constantly checking emails or troubleshooting some new technology installation?

Granted, you may not be able to change everyone else and get them to unplug, but you can start by changing yourself and then grow it outward. Can’t change the world? Then don’t. Can’t change your company? That’s okay. Start with yourself and then bring it to your team. They’ll bring it to their team, who will bring it to their customers, who will bring it to another group. It's called leadership and very soon you and many others will start realizing the real benefit of taking control, unplugging from work, and harnessing the creativity and innovation you never knew you had.

Your future awaits

At the end of the day, being able to manage perceptions, change, and distractions is just as important as being able to manage people and projects. No matter who you are or what size company you work in, all the suggestions in this article are doable. Before long, you’ll become a master of managing perceptions, addicted to your hour per week, and more refreshed than ever as a result of unplugging. When that happens, you’ll open yourself up to a whole new world of possibilities. So don’t wait for your future to unfold randomly, only to end up in a place you don’t want to be. Instead, invest the time into yourself and watch your success grow.

Daniel Burrus is considered one of the world’s leading technology forecasters and business strategists, and is the founder and CEO of Burrus Research, a research and consulting firm that monitors global advancements in technology driven trends to help clients better understand how technological, social and business forces are converging to create enormous, untapped opportunities. He is the author of six books, including The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal best seller Flash Foresight: How To See the Invisible and Do the Impossible as well as the highly acclaimed Technotrends.