Balancing Strategy With Tactics Isn't Easy for CIOs

CIOs juggle tactical operations and strategy.

by / November 9, 2008
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Much has been discussed and written recently about what it means to be a public-sector IT leader, particularly the CIO's strategic role. While some public-sector CIOs focus solely on IT strategy without direct responsibility for their organization's IT operations, most are responsible for both. For these CIOs, the discussion focuses around what skills, knowledge and abilities (SKAs) are most important for the dual responsibility of tactical operations and strategy and how a public IT leader obtains them.

Recently my work has resulted in developing a long list of SKAs and an even longer list of books, articles, courses and certification programs that can help public-sector IT leaders obtain or improve them. Since an IT leader could spend all her time learning how to do the job better instead of actually doing it, I offer a few suggestions to provide a framework for focusing your efforts.

One of the best pieces of advice I received when both IT strategy and operations became my responsibility was to have one foot in today and one in tomorrow. Developing this split personality is easier said than done. Determining the right direction and then communicating where you want to take the organization is a fundamental first step.

With this strategy as context, making today's decisions while considering tomorrow's impacts and keeping the end goal in mind becomes easier for everyone. Adapting this approach requires flexibility while still heading toward the end goal. It reminds me of one of my son's favorite sayings, "Three left turns make a right." Sometimes you have to go around the block to keep moving toward your goal.

The split between today and tomorrow is seldom fifty-fifty though. How much of your time and attention focus on strategy versus tactical operations often depends upon the maturity level of the IT function in the organization. Similarly the SKAs used at any particular time depend upon the situation.

Although there are many ways to gauge where your IT organization falls along the maturity scale, my favorite is based on psychologist Abraham Maslow's pyramidal hierarchy of human needs, with the most primitive and most powerful - breathing, eating, sleeping, etc. - at the base. That's where I place operations and infrastructure stability.

Moving up the pyramid takes you through supporting business applications needs, effective IT management, business and IT alignment, and finally setting the business agenda. (At the top of Maslow's pyramid is self-actualization: morality, creativity.) Of course, you can find yourself in more than one level at any given time, but the basic premise of moving upward holds true.

Consider the case of two colleagues of mine, both public-sector IT leaders who accepted a new position where the IT infrastructure was in serious trouble. Since focusing on strategy is difficult when the IT infrastructure is failing the organization, they both spent much of the first year successfully improving stability and availability - not particularly strategic, but very necessary.

At that point, their approaches diverge. One began to focus more on a long-term IT strategy, including developing a better understanding of the organization's business needs and aligning IT services with them. The other continued to focus internally with a top priority of making the IT infrastructure the very best it could be even after more than two years on the job.

The outcome? Increased support, stronger relationships and success for the CIO who understood good enough is good enough and began to take the long view; end-user disappointment and a lack of support for the one who remained in the tactical comfort zone working toward perfection.

Onward and upward!

Liza Lowery Massey
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