CIOs need to be open and honest about IT projects. Otherwise, their customers will not be able to make informed decisions and eventually won't trust the IT organization.
Instead, most IT leaders have defaulted to a posture of "pitch and play" that looks a lot like what Sam did. I have sat in more meetings than I can count where IT management teams are going through the "financials" of a project with the express purpose of figuring out how the numbers can be massaged to garner the desired approval. Rarely is there any desire to provide a true set of options with their corresponding pros, cons and costs. Instead, a recommended action is presented and the entire process revolves around ensuring that the proposed recommendation is accepted.
The great irony, of course, is that when an IT management team has an external sales team perform this same process, they hate it and feel like they’re "being sold." When a vendor consistently takes this approach, trust is eroded and the vendor is eventually transitioned out. Yet, IT leaders follow the same process again and again with their own customers. This is because whether you are a sales executive or an IT executive, being transparent with your customers requires a vast amount of courage.
Why Transparency Equals Choice
Courage is required, because true transparency is all about one thing: choice.
As a leader, the moment that you are being truly transparent is the moment in which you are openly and unabashedly sharing with your customers everything that they need to know about your current financial and operational performance, the potential positive and negative impacts of any decision that must be made, and then waiting for them to make the best choice.
When there isn't an honest choice, a trusting relationship cannot be built. When, as a leader, you are focused on persuasion, then you cannot be focused on helping the customer make the right choice for them. Even when you think that you know what the right choice is, the only party that can truly make that decision is your customers. And they will never ask for your help unless trust exists between you and them.
I don't know what would have happened if Sam had presented the truth to his board. He might have been right that they wouldn’t fund a five-year, $150 million project. And if that was the case, it would have been an explicit statement that whatever value this project provided wasn't worth$150 million and five years. Or the board might have agreed with Sam's assessment and he could have done the project correctly from the start—with his trusted relationship intact. Or perhaps the board would have asked for additional options with varying value propositions, costs, risks and time frames.
We will never know. However, I do know that if the board had been given options and choices, whatever decisions they made would have been authentic and would have enabled the relationship between Sam and the board to grow and deepen. Because they were not given that option, that trust was destroyed.
Being a transparent leader and leading a transparent organization is not easy. It requires faith. It demands trust. But it is also the key to creating a next-generation IT organization that will stand the test of time.
About the Author
Charles Araujo is a recovering consultant and accidental author of the book, The Quantum Age of IT: Why Everything You Know About IT is About to Change. He is an internationally recognized authority on IT Leadership and liberally shares his message of hope about the future of IT and what it means for all of us. He is the founder and CEO of the IT Transformation Institute and serves on the boards of itSMF USA and the Executive Next Practices Institute. You can follow him at @charlesaraujo.
Editor's note: This is the sixth installment of an eight-part article series titled "Seven Steps to a Next-Generation IT Organization." To read the fifth installment, "The Three Attitudes of a Disciplined IT Department," click here.