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Secret CIO: Shut Off Options At Your Own Risk

Pre-empting decisions can cut off valuable discussion at the top.

I come across a lot of articles about aligning IT with the business and the latest 10 steps to achieving power in the boardroom. I even believe some of what I read. What I wonder, though, is why I don't see anything about the single most important way to ingratiate yourself and your organization with businesspeople: Present them with sensible alternatives.

It doesn't take an excess of techno-smarts to suggest a multimillion-dollar enterprise-resource-planning system to fix a grievous supply-chain malady. More than one CIO has made his or her reputation by doing so and then implementing successfully. What takes a little more creativity is solving a problem without becoming a significant line item in next year's capital budget. It's not easy--or necessarily safe--to propose a less-comprehensive choice to a business problem. If it fails, you run the risk of being accused of not seeing the "big picture." On the other hand, if it works, you can win some friends for life--or at least through the next budget review. You may even have enough resources (people and capital) left over to fix a few more things, thus earning extra points with your business partners.

A long time ago, before we centralized IT, each business unit had a divisional CIO reporting to me on a faint dotted line. As the corporate head, I was invited by one divisional CIO to a presentation on improving production efficiency and customer satisfaction in his European operation. The slides were beautiful. I soon became entranced with the dissolves, wipes, and fades, as well as the starburst rebuilds. It was almost as good as a Fourth of July show. Unfortunately, the content didn't quite measure up to the graphics.

Phil, our CEO, isn't a fan of pretty slides unless they're his. After a few minutes, he asked why the big system, when another one of our European operations (reporting to a different executive) had just installed a similar system (at no small cost). Couldn't the two groups work together and save money? The stuttered answer about different products and processes was brushed aside, with good reason. The next 10 minutes were ugly to watch. Naturally, the divisional president was furious with his IT guy because no one likes to look ill-prepared in front of the big boss.

The whole mess could have been avoided had the divisional CIO thought about alternatives instead of fixating on the launch of a big project. Phil--who first and foremost wants results without spending his birthright to get them--would have welcomed the option of trading off interdivisional political problems for a lower cost.

The sad part is that the divisional CIO, who is a good guy, had discussed the proposed project with me, and I had suggested presenting the two alternatives: a standalone system and a shared system that was less expensive but more difficult to manage. I thought it wise not to try to preempt the decision and instead to show the pros and cons of each approach along with his recommendation. He disagreed, saying he didn't want to risk "opening a can of worms," as he colorfully put it. As a result, he not only opened the can, he had to swallow it. The lesson I walked away with from that painful presentation is that if you want to be treated as a trusted member of the executive team, you best act like one.

Herbert W. Lovelace shares his experience as CIO of a multibillion-dollar international company (changing most names, including his own, to protect the guilty). Send him E-mail at

To discuss this column with other readers, please visit Herb Lovelace's forum on the Listening Post.

To find out more about Herb Lovelace, please visit his page.

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