December 17, 2010 By Liza Lowery Massey
Editor’s note: This is Liza Lowery Massey’s last Straight Talk column for Public CIO. Lowery Massey has been a columnist for three years and has given a candid voice to various IT topics in the public sector.
I admit I woke up in a bad mood one recent morning. No apparent reason — life is good. But my state of mind led me down this path. I also was helped along by a discussion with a colleague about how IT projects and operations go badly despite having scores of best practices, proven methodologies, education and certifications. My colleague observed that technology is seldom the issue when projects and operations go south. He went on to remark that the real problem is in the execution and most often stems from people, processes or politics.
That’s how I ended up contemplating the many ways execution is a fitting description of what IT leaders experience. So how are public-sector IT leaders whose crime is wanting to make the organization run better dealt with?
Sometimes the execution is dramatic with big bangs. I’ve observed and unfortunately experienced the results of championing change within public-sector organizations staffed by people with inordinate amounts of power and influence who want to protect their turf at all costs. In this setting, IT leaders who are successful in moving the organization forward quickly become lightning rods for jealousy, undeserved criticism, and even inappropriate staffing and budget cuts. This “electrocution” — very painful and often done in public — causes IT leaders to think twice about upsetting the power structure in the future.
On the other hand, sometimes the execution is slow, with toxicity building up over time. The underlying cause can be the same — people who don’t want change — but the approach is a slow poisoning of the organization against IT. Snide comments, innuendos and other falsities, even when proven wrong, undermine trust and support of IT and its leaders, and waste vast amounts of time and energy. These lethal injections may be far less dramatic, but they are equally as detrimental to the IT leader and organization.
Sometimes, simply being the messenger leads to execution. Having to report to elected and appointed officials that maintenance costs are rising significantly in lean budget times, or the vendor’s software and hardware caused a major outage, or additional resources are needed to support the ever-increasing amounts and complexity of technology all lead to a kill-the-messenger mentality. Facing the firing squad can occur even when the messenger is a recently hired IT leader brought in to fix what’s wrong.
Elections, retirements and recruitment by the private sector can result in a loss of institutional knowledge, especially when this knowledge is kept in people’s heads based on the belief that knowledge is power and must be hoarded, not shared. These beheadings leave IT leaders struggling to retain or find the business and technical knowledge necessary for success.
Finally IT leaders can be left hanging, wondering what to do when the bottom falls out from beneath them. Support from organization leaders and business units, funding and resources all have a way of disappearing, leaving IT leaders scrambling to clean up the mess.
Despite these grim analogies, public-sector IT leaders still can be successful in their mission by donning their armor, surrounding themselves with the best soldiers available, and actively pursuing allies and establishing alliances. Brandishing the sword now and then doesn’t hurt either!
While it has been a true pleasure to share my opinions with you for the last several years, it’s now time to put down the pen. I am grateful for the opportunity and thank you for your support.
Liza Lowery Massey served as a public-sector IT executive for nearly 20 years, including as CIO of Los Angeles. She then established The CIO Collaborative to provide public-sector research, benchmarking and consulting services. She also teaches at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
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