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Business Mentor: IT Leadership Requires Seeing the Real Forest for the Trees

Don't just put out fires; prevent them.

In keeping with this issue's theme of preparing for the new year, I offer my own prescription for CIO success and sanity in 2006. It's a fairly simple activity, but it does require time for introspection. I promise that the effort will be worth it.

Consider how much CIOs' lives resemble those of smoke jumpers. We see smoke and flame and then parachute from a plane to put out the fire. Then we clamber back into the plane and fly off to the next conflagration. As smoke jumpers, we rarely dedicate the time (and focus) to think and plan. So we're forever destined to smoke-jump instead of preventing these fires in the first place.

If you want to progress beyond smoke-jumping, make time to ask yourself (and answer) these five questions about your organization's IT:

  • Whom do we serve and what do they want and need most?
  • What services do we provide to help them?
  • How do we know we're doing a good job?
  • What's the best way to provide these services?
  • How do we organize to deliver these services?

As you answer these questions, be brutally honest with yourself. In the early 1990s, Joel Barker, author of Paradigms: The Business of Discovering the Future, did research showing that many of the scientific and technological breakthroughs of the 20th century were passed by because of the human tendency to make evidence fit a perception of reality. When engineers created the quartz movement for watches and presented it to Swiss watchmakers, the Swiss rejected the new technology.

For the Swiss, reality was that watch movements came from springs and gears, not a vibrating quartz crystal, so they missed out on this innovation. By contrast, companies in Japan and the U.S. (Seiko and Texas Instruments, for example) took advantage of the innovation and developed the quartz movement watch. Within a year, the Swiss share of the watch market decreased from 85% to less than 20%.

So as you answer these five questions, beware the human tendency to ignore realities that don't match perceptions. You may also be tempted to make your answers to the first four questions fit into your existing organizational structure.

After you have answered the five questions on your own, gather your IT team members and solicit answers from them. They will likely have insights that improve the quality of your own answers. Finally, validate those answers, formally or informally, with your customers.

I confess that in my first IT leadership role, I did a lot of smoke-jumping. I spent months reacting to every request. I enjoyed being the hero who could put out fires but suspected there might be greater value in preventing them altogether. So I scheduled a retreat to ask myself the five questions.

After I shared my answers with the IT and management teams, we changed our focus. We dedicated time and people to work directly with our customers (to answer whom we serve and what they need). We implemented performance measures based on system reliability and customer involvement (to answer how we know we're doing a good job). We de-emphasized our rigid organizational charts so we could quickly assemble results-oriented teams. Within a few months, my smoke-jumping days were over; I had become an IT leader.

Taking the time to reflect on what and how we're doing makes better organizations, teams and service providers. I'd welcome the opportunity to hear about your plans for the new year -- and I wish you well in 2006.

Niel Nickolaisen is CIO and vice president of strategic planning at Headwaters Inc. in South Jordan, Utah. To comment on this story, email

This was last published in December 2005

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