The Art of Managing the Unexpected

When a CIO starts the week, we generally have a plan for the week very much like every other member of the Senior Management Team. And yet, unlike every other member of the SMT, a CIO’s week invariably goes severely off the rails on a regular basis. We accept that and we see it as one of those things.

The attitude of “plan, but expect to be derailed” has been an aspect of most senior IT Leaders working lives for as long as we can remember. However, I recently encountered almost the polar opposite and it led me to think about whether we’re right to accept the status quo or whether we should be striving for something different. For a while now, I’ve been managing a Finance team and it’s been a real eye-opener. One thing that really took me by surprise was how my Finance team thrives on the regular rhythm of the financial month and how much the unexpected will throw them off their stride.

The regularity of their activities creates a monthly cadence which means there’s little, if any room for a disruption and I’ve learnt that Finance people quickly become unhappy if their rhythm is disturbed. So does everyone else though if they don’t get paid; there’s a reason for the rhythm!

IT teams tend to be at the other end of the spectrum; well used to having well laid plans for the week or month being thrown in to disarray from the start. Support teams in particular come to work with very little idea of what their day is going to consist of and they thrive on the challenge of resolving problems. Give them a regular monthly rhythm like the Finance team enjoy and they’d be tearing their hair out.

This randomness impacts the IT from top to bottom, including the CIO/CTO. An IT Leader needs to be able to react to anything that comes along whether that’s a cyber-attack, system failure, the CEO’s emergency or implementing a system update earlier than expected. Whatever it is, the CIO is expected to have the flexibility in the team to take the blows and still deliver their strategic plans.

And yet despite resources (time, people, money) being finite we accept the challenge and usually deliver. We deal with the Operations vs Project conundrum daily and we make the right decisions constantly often with half the required information. And this may be one reason why IT Leaders change roles every 18-24 months; a similar challenge with new people in a different environment can be as good as a rest.

In addition, there’s the phenomenon of IT being the metaphorical dog that ate the homework. I’ve sat in meetings and heard a peer of mine explain that something couldn’t be done because the IT let them down, despite chatting with them before the meeting. In this situation it’s new news and you’re between a rock and a hard place because either you scramble to explain the issue away or you just let it to go with a shrug because you don’t want to show up a colleague for lying.

This ability to deal with this constant randomness to our week, month and year is a skill that every CIO has. However, having to deal with the unpredictable is a well understood way to become mega stressed. So how do we prevent it from taking over, stressing us out and pushing the strategic stuff to the back of the queue?

In my experience, it’s almost impossible to completely stop. There’s always some random boulder that will appear that you’ve got to get around, through or over. So, what to do? Well, having talked to quite a few CIOs and CTOs, the following techniques and tools have been found to alleviate things to some extent:

Risk and Issue Log: Make sure there’s a companywide Risk and Issue log but be aware that you may well be the only one willing to own and maintain it! If it doesn’t exist, start one, it can be a lifesaver.

Proper engagement with Peers and the CEO: Avoid nasty surprises by having such good relationships with the rest of the board/exec to the extent that they wouldn’t dare drop you or your technology in it at the meeting because they like, trust and value what you do for them.

Favours: Always do people favours even if you have to put yourself out. Favours are a powerful psychological tool that can provide you with loyalty and reduce sniping from the side-lines. If you want to know more about the power of favours, buy Robert B Cialdini’s books “Influence – The Psychology of Persuasion” and “Pre-Suasion – A revolutionary way to influence and persuade” at your favourite bookshop.

Strong middle management: Having a team you can trust that deals with things effectively and efficiently without excessive escalation or fuss is a good thing and that’s down to the leadership team beneath you.

SLAs and KPIs: Be judged on the actual performance of technology rather than rumour, supposition and bad actors. Make sure that the performance of systems is known far and wide and not just through reports, it should be readily available to everyone, preferably on the walls, in the canteen, in the board room; everywhere. Conversely, I know that no other business unit feels obliged to demonstrate their capability through SLAs and KPIs, but look we’ve got the data so why not use it.

Change Manager: Appointing a change manager was one of the best things I ever did. Someone with a backbone made of pure iron whose single over-riding remit is to have no Priority 1 incidents post any technology change going live. Bringing that one person into the team and having that clear and simple remit made a world of difference to my relationships with the rest of the business.

Frameworks (like ITIL): Boring, boring ITIL, TOGAF, whatever. Process and systems. Keep it simple, keep it repeatable, keep it public.

These won’t remove this pain, but at least by implementing the above ideas there’ll be a significant analgesic in place and hopefully make the every-day less chaotic and disruptive for you, it did for me.

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