Redefining 'heroic' IT leaders

During the past eight months I have been deeply involved in a multiyear global research project involving hundreds of CIOs and aimed at better understanding the evolving CIO 'habitat'

During the past eight months I have been deeply involved in a multiyear global research project involving hundreds of CIOs and aimed at better understanding the evolving CIO "habitat". I've discovered that it's a varied and exotic ecosystem, indeed.

The data collected puts the companies surveyed into four performance categories:

- Poor IT shops 22%

- Average IT shops 39%

- Good IT shops 23%

- World-class IT shops 16%

Paying particular attention to performance inflection points (that is, the practices that separate poor IT shops from average IT shops, average IT shops from good IT shops and so on), the data revealed several competency areas affecting overall performance of IT organisations.

One area of operational excellence inherent to all of the world-class IT shops in the sample was a "managed mind-set" toward IT. The concept of a managed mind-set shouldn't be trivialized as academicspeak or spin, nor should it be demonised as mind control.

Progressive CIOs in our research have revised how they think about IT. At the core of the rethinking was a fundamental change in the perception of what constituted heroic IT.

Popular culture paints heroes in bold, John Wayne strokes, portraying them as bigger-than-life performers riding in to save the day. Day-to-day workers are often stereotyped as Dilbert-like victims or George Babbitts, practitioners of narrowmindedness and selfishness, like the antihero of Sinclair Lewis' novel Babbitt.

Analysis of the academic literature on heroism indicates a perceptual bias that demands certain preconditions for heroism to occur. That is, for someone to become a hero, something perceptibly bad or extraordinary must happen first. It is no accident that America's most respected presidents all served during times of great national trauma, though not all trauma leads to greatness.

In "old-think" IT shops (those not in the world-class category), staffers perceived as heroes are the ones who fix things when they break, do multiple all-nighters to deliver projects close to deadline or deliver to business users what they were told was impossible to achieve. But how efficient is that approach?

CIOs are no stranger to heroic circumstances. Indeed, 63 percent of the CIOs in the Global 2,000 arrived at their position heroically — they're generally regarded as having salvaged a desperate situation left by a predecessor.

As an optimistic futurist, I am obligated to ask: In a world where IT doesn't break down as much as it does today, in a world where IT is well run, will there be opportunities for IT heroes to emerge?

World-class IT shops have redefined IT heroism to include the everyday heroes who build systems that run as promised, who are unafraid of personal responsibility and who are unwilling to accept quick fixes that gloss over problems without getting to their roots.

This is the definition for IT heroes you should be using in your company. You'll be surprised at how many of them you'll find in your organisation.

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