Gopal Kapur, president and founder, Center for Project Management Gopal Kapur, president and founder, Center for Project Management Photo courtesy of Gopal Kapur

CIOs know they live in a place best described as Crazy World. It's a world where expectations are off the charts, requirements are vague, commitments are tenuous, priorities shift and responsibility is given with marginal authority. What do most CIOs do? They jump into the chasm and hope the rope holds.

CIO clients of the Center for Project Management (CPM), a consultancy firm, often ask the question: Of the successful CIOs you know, what's their formula for success? Is it possible to write an equation for success? Can success be broken down into a set of components that when practiced together, will result in the success of any given endeavor? Our quest for the answer included interviews with a number of "out-of-the-box" professionals -- airline pilots, an air traffic controller, chief of surgery, fire chief, magician and renowned chef.

Our in-depth discussions resulted in six imperatives common to their success: process, skills, tools, techniques, accountability and discipline. A deeper analysis of the six imperatives revealed that the first four are related to tactics (method, approach and procedure) and the remaining two to individual behavior (attitude, conduct and performance).

Success: Synonyms for success are achievement, prestige, respect, fame and prosperity. In the case of CIOs, success is defined as ensuring that IT projects are aligned with agency needs, scuttling half-baked and harebrained ideas, formulating a well balanced and robust project portfolio, accomplishing cross-boundary collaboration, ensuring effective project sponsorship, and completing a project on time and within budget and to the client's satisfaction.

Unfortunately the CPM's research data from a series of surveys of 237 federal, state and local government CIOs and IT managers shows that only 40 percent of IT organizations fall into the success category, with the remaining hovering between the challenged and failure states.

Video: Gopal kapur speaks at the California Public Sector CIO Academy in February 2009.

1. Process: It's a particular method of doing something that generally involves a number of steps or operations that result in a predictable outcome. The implication is that the actions have been tried and tested and have consistently resulted in a desired, successful outcome. Examples are financial due diligence before acquiring a business, the doctor's pre-op patient examination, the pilot's preflight check and the chef's proven recipe. Having access to a well defined process significantly improves the odds that a project will be completed successfully. Therefore, it's important that your project managers have access to a well defined portfolio- and project-management process that is followed diligently.

Yet the CPM's research reveals:

  • Fifty percent of the surveyed organizations lack a well defined portfolio and project management process.
  • Of the organizations that have a process in place, the rating for their teams utilizing the process was 2.6 on a scale of 1 (not followed) to 5 (routinely followed).
  • Seventy-eight percent don't have a process to identify and kill troubled projects in a timely manner.

2. Skill: A succinct definition of skill is proficiency, facility or dexterity that's acquired or developed through training or experience. Obviously, to be successful in any endeavor, one must develop certain skills: public speaking, leadership, programming, negotiations and project management, to name a few. A project manager must be skilled in key areas such as:

  • effective communications (legislature and customers);
  • assessing and managing project portfolio risk;
  • cross boundary collaboration;
  • ensuring effective project sponsorship;
  • managing expectations (legislature and customers);
  • tracking project portfolio progress and status; and
  • coaching and mentoring.

Our data reveals that 42 percent of the surveyed CIOs and IT managers rated themselves at 3.0 on a scale of 1 (no skills) to 5 (highly skilled). However, 65 percent rated their coaching and mentoring skills at 2.3 -- most are not preparing the next generation of managers to step into their shoes.

3. Technique:

Technique can be defined in various ways:

  • mastery of a skill achieved through passion, dedication, practice and a desire for excellence;
  • a physician's ability to calm a patient through a good bedside manner;
  • a speaker's ability to put the audience at ease with well positioned humor and stories;
  • a manager's ability to develop quick rapport;
  • upselling ideas to higher management;
  • achieving cross-boundary collaboration; and
  • saying no to an agency head's half-baked idea and living to talk about it.

We all know of colleagues who are highly successful in selling their ideas and can build consensus quickly, even when faced with a disparate group of people. Successful techniques are a result of practicing skills with a desire for excellence. Eventually these techniques set people apart from their less proficient and less capable colleagues. When saying no to a half-baked idea, we use the technique of "intelligent disobedience." In the use of this technique, one does not say an outright "no" to a half-baked idea. One engages the individual in a Socratic conversation driven by a series of open-ended questions.

Regarding the techniques related to upselling ideas, achieving cross-boundary collaboration and the ability to say no to half-baked ideas, our research reveals that the surveyed CIOs and IT managers rated their organization at 2.8 on a scale of 1 (none) to 5 (high).

4. Tool: Tools come in many forms. They can be a device used to perform or facilitate manual or mechanical work; a labor-saving device. Notice that in the equation for success, tools are assigned the fourth position -- the last item in the additive list. The placement indicates that tools are only helpful after there's a robust process in place; teams must already have the requisite skills and have developed high performance techniques for completing their work. Tools act as catalysts to a process -- they can make the process go faster, make it easier to complete, and help attain greater speed and precision. Conversely providing tools to people lacking fundamental skills not only wastes the investment in the tools, but also equips the people with technology that actually results in bigger losses.

Our experience shows that providing high-performance tools, such as enterprise portfolio management, to organizations where managers lack the processes, skills and techniques for filtering half-baked ideas; assessing and managing project portfolio risk; achieving cross-boundary collaboration; managing expectations; and effectively tracking project portfolio progress and status is a sheer waste of scarce resources. To the survey question of how skilled are your project managers in using the deployed project- and portfolio-management tools, the response was a rating of 3.0 on the scale of 1 (poorly skilled) to 5 (highly skilled).

There's the business adage, "a fool with a tool is a more dangerous fool." But we see it a little differently. Deploying tools in an IT organization with poor ratings for process, skills and tools is akin to "mounting afterburners onto mules." It's a waste of expensive fuel and irritates the mules.

5. Accountability: This is the first of two multipliers -- it amplifies the computed value of the equation. Accountability for the CIO means you can trust and depend on your staff to complete work to the highest quality, and it can perform work without constant oversight and micromanagement.

On a larger view, the recent news of gross mismanagement and utter absence of accountability by the country's major financial institutions, automobile industry, food manufacturers (e.g., the January 2009 salmonella scare) and government officials, has brought the nation's economy to a slow crawl.

In California, the perennial circuslike behavior of the executive and legislative branches of the government in dealing with the state budget has put government employees and citizens in great peril, and the state's financial health in great jeopardy with practically no accountability in high places. It's imperative to create an atmosphere where people rapidly admit mistakes, take responsibility and then allocate the resources necessary to fix the problem. Regarding the survey question on degree of accountability, respondents rated their organizations at a value of 2.3 on a scale of 1 (poor accountability) to 5 (fully accountable).

6. Discipline: This is the most important component of the success equation; people often mistake it for inflexibility. Discipline is behavior that leads to self-control, organization, efficiency and the absence of chaos. Some synonyms for discipline are train, educate or instruct. In the context of the success equation, the term "discipline" does not mean regimentation. Discipline means that your staff will attend to responsibilities proactively and support one another for the timely completion of assignments.

The fire chief, airline pilot and chief of anesthesia discussed the importance of discipline at length. They noted that poor discipline invariably leads to out-of-control fires, unsafe flights and death. On the degree of discipline, the government respondents rated their organizations at a value of 2.5 on a scale of 1 (poor discipline) to 5 (highly disciplined).

As a CIO, the prudent approach is to meet with your managers and key stakeholders and discuss the different components of the success equation. This session should provide you with a sense of the opportunities and challenges you and your staff will face while working to achieve your agency's mission.

The highly prevalent seat-of-the-pants approach to management success is over. Judging from the billions of dollars lost repeatedly because of sidestepping the key imperatives to success, it should be clear even to the die-hards that continuing on such a path is sheer folly.

Gopal K. Kapur  |  Contributing Writer
Gopal K. Kapur is president of the Center for Project Management.