I’m often asked to review new books – I usually decline.  There’s a couple of reasons why I stay away from book reviews:

  1. It’s just not what my blog is about – there are many sites that do a great job reviewing books, and I love the “wisdom of the crowd” effect you get from customer reviews on sites such as Amazon.com, so I don’t feel the need to add my own voice to the book review universe.
  2. I’ve been asked to review some books that were real clunkers!  I felt an obligation to say something (after all, the author has had a hand in getting me a review copy!) but I wanted to keep my authenticity, so I tend to end up “damning with feint praise” as they say!  (e.g., Fred’s book is nothing if not short!”)

Notwithstanding the above, when the request to review The CIO Paradox by Martha Heller came in, it was accompanied by sufficient clues as to its content (including a table of contents and a sample chapter) to convince me I’d enjoy reading the book, and have no problem creating an honest review.  It also helped that I was familiar with Martha’s writing for CIO magazine, including her first article on the CIO Paradox back in 2009 – a piece that resonated strongly with me from my work with CIO’s.  I suspected this book would be of value to my readers.

The CIO Paradox

Martha sets up the book with a question she started asking CIOs in 1999:

When you walked into your most recent CIO job, what did you find?”

She almost always got the same response:

I inherited a mess. IT had no credibility with the business. Projects were overdue and over budget. We had no project management discipline, no governance, no career paths, and the team had outdated skills.”

Thirteen years later, Martha points out, she is still asking the question, and getting the same response. CIOs continue to inherit a mess.  She goes on to ask:

How can this be? How can CIOs strive tirelessly to improve their IT organizations only to leave “a mess” in their wake? … is there something so inherently problematic about the CIO role that even talented, intelligent, and experienced leaders have trouble making it work?”

Great question!  From her work with the CIO Best Practice Exchange and the CIO Executive Council and as an executive recruiter, where she talks to hundreds of CIOs and helps them build their teams, she concluded that there are a set of paradoxes – conflicting forces that are deeply embedded in governance, staffing, executive expectations, and even corporate culture.  She groups these into four major categories which become 4 major sections of the book:

Your Role

  • You were hired to be strategic, but spend most of your time on operational issues.
  • You are the steward of risk mitigation and cost containment, yet you are expected to innovate.
  • You are seen as a service provider, yet you are expected to be a business driver.
  • IT can make or break a company, but CIOs rarely sit on corporate boards.

Your Stakeholders

  • You run one of the most pervasive, critical functions, yet you must prove your value constantly.
  • Your many successes are invisible; your few mistakes are highly visible.
  • You are intimately involved in every facet of the business, but you are considered separate and removed from it.
  • You are accountable for project success, but the business has project ownership.

Your Organization

  • Your staff is most comfortable with technology, but must be good with people.
  • Your staff is doing more with less, but must make time for learning finance and the business.
  • You develop successors, yet the CEO almost always goes outside to find the next CIO.
  • You are forced to seek cost-efficient overseas sourcing, yet you are expected to ensure the profession’s development at home.

Your Industry

  • Technology takes a long time to implement, yet your tool set changes constantly.
  • Technology is a long-term investment, but the company thinks in quarters.
  • Your tools cost a fortune, yet they have the highest defect rate of any product.
  • You sign vendors’ checks, yet they often go around you and sell to your business peers.

Leading and Interesting Practices

For each paradox, Martha shares leading and interesting practices from CIOs.  She names names, and writes clearly and insightfully about approaches that have worked – some simple, some more involved.  This makes for an easy and interesting read.  It also provides a comprehensive compendium of improvement ideas to consider.

A Suggestion for a “Meta-Practice” Based on The CIO Paradox

As I was reading the book, thinking back over my many years of management consulting and helping my clients think through and address some of these paradoxes, I found myself running through a thought experiment.  In the experiment, I had some of the IT leadership teams I’d worked with read the book.  Then they’d come together for a one-day retreat, where they’d discussion questions such as:

  • Which CIO Paradox have we made the most progress on solving?  What were the keys to our success?
  • Which CIO Paradox seems like it is the toughest for us to solve, and why?
  • Which practices suggested in the book should we be implementing, and how?

A variation on this theme would be to share the book with senior business executives, and run the retreat with them – perhaps as a prelude to a business-IT strategy/roadmapping process?  That could open up some invaluable dialog!

Two “Killer Practices”

Finally, as I was reading the book’s closing chapter – a “Breaking the Paradox” checklist, I was sorting out in my own mind which practice could have the highest transformational impact for an IT organization that was already doing well in terms of business-IT maturity.  I tried to distill this down to a single practice, but in the end, I whittled the list down to two:

  1. Reach beyond IT. CIOs are picking up new titles left and right. We see “CIO and VP of customer care,” and “CIO and VP of strategic planning” all the time. Whether they take on an additional title or not, it is time that CIOs apply their leadership far beyond the IT organization.
  2. Move closer to the revenue. When technology data is directly related to a company’s products or services, the CIOs of those companies have a shot at driving revenue.

To view the table of contents, advance praise and a sample chapter click here.

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