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CIO Atefeh Riazi: IT innovation requires breaking some eggs

New York City Housing Authority CIO Atti Riazi uses analytics to question assumptions about public housing. In this podcast, she ruminates on the CIO's role in IT innovation.

Atefeh "Atti" Riazi, CIO at the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA), is what you might call the anti-CIO. She's certainly the antithesis of the popular cliché of a CIO, someone mired in the technicalities of technology. Iranian-born, with a lilting voice that bears traces of her Middle Eastern roots, Riazi expends a lot of mental energy on understanding the role of the CIO and IT innovation -- not just within an organization but in society as a whole. In addition to her job at the NYCHA, she serves as executive director of CIOs Without Borders, a not-for-profit charity she launched that is patterned after the well-known medical humanitarian organization. The CIO version is dedicated to using IT to provide medical information to underserved communities worldwide.

Riazi talked about her approach to IT innovation and the CIO job in business transformation when SearchCIO.com interviewed her about her use of predictive analytics and business intelligence at the NYCHA for our CIO Innovators series. What's one crucial element to IT transformation that many CIOs don't exercise, according to Riazi? Power.



Hi, I'm Linda Tucci, senior news writer for SearchCIO.com. With me today to talk about IT innovation is Atefeh Riazi, CIO of the New York City Housing Authority. The authority is the nation's largest, with 13,000 employees. Its 2,300 buildings provide public housing for more than 400,000 New Yorkers. Before joining the housing authority, Ms. Riazi spent a decade as CIO at Ogilvy & Mather, the New York-based advertising agency. She began her career at the Metropolitan Transit Authority, where she helped transform the way New Yorkers ride the subways with her work on the MetroCard.

Atti, thank you for joining us today.
Riazi: Thank you, it's a pleasure to be with you today.

Before we get into the particulars of how you used technology to innovate, I'd like to understand more about the mind-set of the innovative CIO. How do you weigh the costs and benefits of IT innovation as part of your CIO job?
Riazi: That is a complex question, and I think it changes with time, the economy, and the environmental and political situations. You know, I always think of a CIO as someone who is a mix of a Kamikaze pilot, a Churchill and Mother Theresa. So, depending on where the organization is, where your customer is, where your competitors are, how your product offering is, you change your approach to innovation.

I think historically we have thought innovation is making big things, completely transforming the business; and as a result of that, we forget innovations -- smaller innovations -- that can have tremendous results. So, I think and I believe the CIOs who are transformational and can help the business grow and increase margins and improve customer service, improve the relationship between the agency or the company and its customers, are the ones who look at the way the business is done and try to transform the way the business is done. And if technology has a role to play in that transformation, that is terrific, but ultimately it is thinking outside the box and bringing new ways of working, taking time and cost out of processes.

So, it is critical. Without innovation we are all doomed. And there is such a fiction, when you talk about innovation between the different influencers in an organization. You have the innovators -- which when you look at the bell curve, they are the outliers really. And you have the laggards that are the outliers. But for innovation to actually deliver an outcome which is positive and transformational, you go through these phases of dealing with the pragmatics and the conservatives and the laggards, and there is a great deal of resistance.

So, I think the strength of a good CIO is, innovation is a part of it, but the most critical part is delivering on the innovation. And it is working your way through this curve of convincing and bringing with you the whole organization and your customers and to show them that actually the innovation will deliver -- and delivering it. Because, you know, after the great excitement of innovation dies out, the pain of adjustment starts. And the "pain of adjustment" phase is a phase where all of your supporters disappear. And that is when the strong CIOs can kind of get to the finish line and actually transform the business.

And our job is -- you know, there is a CIO paradox. We used to think that our job was about technology, about hardware, about deploying software. Today we know that it is not about that. It is the experience of technology and it is about the way it makes the business become more robust. So, we are in a different business. We are kind of moving, I would say, from the left brain CIO to the right brain CIO, and you have to really be transformational and innovative; and without it, I think that the future of the company and stakeholders is at stake.

You brought up two issues related to IT innovation. One is the necessity of thinking outside the box. What does that actually require or mean for a CIO -- to think out of the box? And the other question I'd like to delve into more, is your point about delivering on an innovation, and how that requires bringing a spectrum of people to the finish line, from the enthusiasts to the doubters.
Riazi: So, thinking outside the box is generally what we -- it is our job, it is what we are required to do. As a CIO, your job is deploying innovative tools, using innovative tools, to do the business differently than it was done before. Now, if the organization doesn't have the stomach for it -- and many organizations don't -- what you end up doing is computerizing an old process. And when you computerize an old process, you've tried to think outside of the box, [but] there is a great deal of resistance that comes from the business that says, "You know, I like the way I work and I don't really like the new way of working." So, that kind of idea dies of a quick death.

You have to break the way work is done, and you have to break it every few years. You have to go back to the basics and question,
Atefeh Riazi, CIO, New York City Housing Authority

So, I would say most CIOs are basically innovating as we deploy technology, as they automate other change processes. And some of us, I think, focus more on the process of the business; and some us focus more on the power of technology.

Now, I mentioned power. The problem we have as CIOs or IT professionals is that we think when it comes to the power play in the organization, we think the organization itself is a rational organization, but most organizations are political. We also think power -- and if you look at the power quadrant, we only play in a small segment of that quadrant, which is the expert power. So, we are the experts in technology; we know what we are going to do and we are going to deliver it.

But if you look at the power quadrant, there are different aspects of power as a C-level professional -- it is persuasive power. So we have a great strength in awareness, much less sophistication in persuasion. That is something we have to build. Because now you have come up with an idea, you have kind of shown where Nirvana is in terms of how wonderful business is going to be in taking cost out, but you gotta take everybody with you. It's not -- it is your responsibility as a C-level executive as much as the business to drive the change. And some CIOs think, "No, it is just my job to drive the technology." You can't do one without the other.

So, you have to play in a full power quadrant -- even the power of fear and hope, where you force the organization to move forward because without it, many organizations are going to be asleep. So you have to play the power quadrant, and you have come out of this mind-set that power is bad. When you are in management, the power is given to you, and if you don't use that power properly, you are not doing your job. And the power is to deliver the best for the customers and to improve your business.

And then the understanding that the organization is driven, not so much rationally, that different departments have different interests, and their interest is not necessarily central, it is not the same common mission: When you do understand that different departments have different interests, that it is give and take, that the power is not central, and it is decentralized, then you start to build influencers that support you, going forward. We think if we can just stay in the expert field and do our job that the company will see what is right to do. In fact, changes to our business are the most difficult thing to perceive.

So your question, I want to answer with a quote from [Nassim Nicholas] Taleb, from his book, The Black Swan: "You can't make an omelet with an unbroken egg." And that is the point: We have been making lots of omelets with unbroken eggs. We consistently deploy ERPs, CRMs, major investments, billions and billions of dollars in technology for a company. Meanwhile, the processes remain the same, the policies remain the same, the culture of [the] customer remains the same, and the transformation in the end doesn't really happen. You have some tweaking. You have some automation but ultimately you are still in the same place.

So, you have to break the way work is done, and you have to break it every few years and you have to go back to the basics and question, "What am I doing today, does it make sense, should I do it? And If I should do it, should I streamline it, should I privatize it, should I get out of that business? Is the customer base I have the customer base I want?" These are sacred cows. These are questions that you have to ask. But if you consistently apply technology where you are really not transforming the business, it is going back to making an omelet with unbroken eggs.

We have been talking with Atefeh Riazi, CIO at the New York City Housing Authority. Thank you so much for speaking with us today. It's been a pleasure.
Riazi: The pleasure was mine. Thank you so much, Linda.

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