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Secret CIO: A Simple Scoring System For Complex Times

Our IT group scores its accomplishments (or lack thereof) according to three simple numbers: -1, 0, and +1. That's it. Here's how it works.

There are some fundamental differences between what you learn in school and what you need to do in business. For example, I was taught that if you have three hours to finish an exam, use the full three hours. If you're done in an hour, spend the next two hours reviewing and checking your work. But in the workplace, if you can complete an objective in one-third the time, get on with the next assignment. Spending time working for diminishing returns is generally a bad strategy in business.

Another major difference is the way you're evaluated. At the $1 billion-plus company where I'm the CIO, instead of assigning our IT organization standard letter grades for various initiatives, we score our accomplishments (or lack thereof) according to three simple numbers: -1, 0, and +1. That's it. Here's the breakdown.

We reserve the +1s for the clearly visible "wins"--new functionality and enhancements and new products that create noticeable, tangible business improvements. These are the IT deliverables that the top execs and end-user employees alike talk up without any prompting. It's the stuff we're most proud of.

We give 0s for doing the expected--for keeping e-mail and other critical applications up and running nonstop year after year, for picking the right software platforms, for completing projects on time and on budget.

The dreaded -1s are handed out for the screw-ups--for when the corporate e-mail system goes down, the smartphone e-mail gets disrupted (doesn't matter that some third-party cloud provider is responsible), system upgrades go wrong, projects spill over budget, customer invoicing is delayed, etc.

Sure, we run many reports and keep track of scorecards, benchmarks, and other metrics, but few non-IT execs really understand that complex collection of data. The -1, 0, +1 system is the way things work here, even if this system's numbers aren't published. My personal scoring system is a translation of the true assessments of my peers and boss.

The Dreaded -1s

Shots at IT from senior executives score -1. My objective is to move them to a 0; rarely do they become a +1. We've had a few more of these lately. For example, Vic, our VP of marketing, has been under pressure to clear up some sales reporting issues, some of them a result of recent staff reductions. While our IT organization historically has had a fabulous relationship with the marketing group, "the system" has recently become a tempting target for them. We go on the defensive. I point out that the system hasn't changed in two years. The company has lost knowledge of business practices with the departing staff. Our team figures out where the problems are and helps create a plan to address them. I mention all of this to the company president, of course, because my scoring system is the one everyone else uses as well. And we move the score from -1 to 0. It's frustrating to take time away from building some +1 momentum in other areas in order to drag the slider from -1 to 0 in the marketing area.

I try to ensure that we always have a base of 0s across the board. If that doesn't sound too inspiring, it's because it's not. That's one of the frustrating parts of being in IT: So much of the hard, creative, and innovative work being done--especially during a recession--is within operations to keep everything working smoothly at the most cost-effective level. And for this, we generally score a 0. Sure, we celebrate these important successes and yak about virtualization this and iSCSI storage that, but my score for them is still 0.

I cringe when we score a -1. Our Internet provider dropped our headquarters connection for three hours a few weeks ago. We do have redundancy, but part of the circuit is still part of the circuit, and an outage will be felt by some employees. We scramble and get service restored, but the score stands.

Even the most rock-solid services fail from time to time, and a very small interruption will generate an immediate -1 score. Like at many companies, most of our senior staff access e-mail from BlackBerrys. Our aging BlackBerry Enterprise Server acted up a few weeks ago, delaying e-mail delivery to the smartphones for a few hours. After the second incident, there was no escaping the -1.

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