The Most Important Job of the CIO

I was having a discussion today with a colleague about the role of a business unit CIO and told him quite definitively:

The Most Important Job of the CIO is to Negotiate with the Business

and to be successful, the CIO should aim to spend 50-75% of his or her time working directly with the Business at all levels of the organization.

My rationale is quite simple. I've never been in a business that has the resources to do everything that it wants to do. On top of what the Business wants to do, there are a good number of things that a Business needs to do whether that's patching a system, addressing a costly operational issue, or complying with a legal requirement. Now the CIO is usually not be the person directly responsible for setting strategy or for prioritizing investments, but a CIO can make sure these steps are followed and can provide critical data around these processes. They can pose complex questions that span the activities and responsibilities of multiple teams. They can propose simple solutions to challenge leaders when the ideal solution has complexity. They can make sure leaders develop and utilize metrics to justify their approaches.

Most important, they need to insure that the business' desire to take on too much doesn't trickle down to the teams taking on these projects. Overloading teams with too many projects or projects with ill defined goals or requirements is a good recipe for poor execution. That's why this is a negotiation - a negotiation for what makes strategic sense but also what can be realistically accomplished.

Of course, once the CIO can effectively negotiate with Business Leaders, the dialogue will often transform from one of negotiation to one of collaboration. But that is the subject of another post.

Don't Negotiate without Credibility

But here's the gotcha. Only a credible CIO that has a good track record of execution and delivery can truly negotiate. Business leaders simply won't waste their time negotiating when a CIO can't deliver. Why bother? Worse, a business leader is likely to work around the CIO if delivery is a recurring issue.

Next post: On building credibility


  1. "Pose complex questions and offer simple but not simplistic solutions." Right idea... good trick if you can do it, though; few CIOs have succeeded.

    Good post.

  2. Anonymous10:02 AM


    I've found the best way to go about negotiation is to get the stakeholders to commit to specific criteria for success of their projects BEFORE agreeing to take them on. This will give them better information for prioritization, and will add [at minimum a shared] accountability, and a basis for future negotiations.

  3. Steven/Hal - Thanks for the comments.

    Hal - Some business folks have trouble expressing success criteria and fear being pinned down to specfic performance indicators. I like agile's approach of defining a vision statement first, then getting into the specifics of success criteria may be an easier dialogue.

    Also, I think the bigger issue is negotiating the portfolio rather than the specifics of projects. I'll cover that in another post!

  4. Anonymous2:44 PM

    I definitely agree re: the vision statement, but regardless of methodology, defining very clear goals is a critical piece of the feedback loop. Negotiating the portfolio is definitely a larger issue :)

  5. Anonymous3:19 PM

    This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  6. Hi Isaac,
    Great post. I totally agree.

    I just added you to my blog roll on a "A CIO's Voice" and started following you on twitter. Great blog! I look forward to reading more.



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