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John McGreavy
John McGreavy
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Secret CIO: Speed To Market Battles Consensus-Building

As the pace of tech change accelerates, we struggle with striking the right balance between risk-taking individualism and executive buy-in.

Another two-day senior management meeting, and I wonder what we accomplished. On one hand, face time is so important in building an effective management team. Certain information is exchanged only over a meal or a drink at the bar. On the other hand, these meetings can seem frustratingly ineffective.

Striking the right balance between risk-taking individualism and the comfort of consensus continues to be an elusive goal of ours. New ideas are at the core of every meeting, even when we discuss the most mundane topics, and IT pervades many of those discussions. Consensus lowers the risk of idea implementation and presumably results in higher organizational engagement and adoption of change. But consensus takes time--time we often don't have.

The rate of change within our business has increased. We're in an era of disposable innovation. Innovate, and get on with it. If an idea fails, move on to the next one. We need to institute changes more quickly. We don't have the time we used to have to build consensus.

Here's where I get into trouble. While I'm not afraid of failure, I also don't want my title changed to VP Of New Ideas That Turned Out To Be Stupid. Call it ego or risk aversion. Transforming apparent failure into career advancement is even tougher than it seems.

My approach is to develop ideas into models that are visible and understandable. Recently, for example, I appointed one of our brightest analysts to oversee a number of development projects. Her job is to represent our users and their future needs. This position should be filled by an innovator from the relevant line of business, but that person doesn't exist today.

We develop skunk works projects, taking an idea from concept to working model or prototype. We then put the prototype in front of our management team and use it to help the team understand the value of our idea. Success depends on our ability to a) fund these projects and b) know our business well and thus present a compelling idea.

Luckily, I have few issues with funding. However, knowing our business can be tricky. Ideally, I engage LOB help on a volunteer basis, but often I rely on IT project managers who really understand our business needs and can grasp the idea and its business value.

A good example is a prototype we're developing of a new prospecting system. I believe we're leaving a key market segment untapped, and with the right data analysis we can open the door to new customers and sales opportunities. I have an IT project manager leading this effort, in lieu of a marketing manager. It's important that we get user screens developed and visually illustrate how the analysis and user interface designs can lead to new business.

At some point, though, I will have to get this new system, and idea, in front of our management team. And then I face the dilemma: Either be patient and build consensus, or move ahead without the full team's support. Building consensus will result in a much stronger commitment to this new approach, but can we really afford the time to achieve it?

With the rapid change in technology creating many new innovation opportunities, I wonder if we have time for organizational buy-in. My sense is that it's time for a change in approach--time for more personal risk-taking and less conventional wisdom.

The author, the real-life CIO of a billion-dollar-plus company, shares his experiences under the pseudonym John McGreavy. Got a Secret CIO story of your own to share? Contact

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