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Remember MacGyver from the 80s television show of the same name? For those of you that do not, MacGyver was a popular 80s television series about a really clever guy who could make useful gadgets out of anything. He could start a car with chewing gum, he could hack an elevator with rock salt and a business card. His ability to do amazing things with whatever was around was the key element in the drama of the series. His acts of agile inventiveness we called “MacGyverisms”.

It was a long running successful show.

What was not long running however was pretty much anything he ever made. You see, MacGyver’s talent was the ability to invent within a crisis situation, resolve the crisis and move on. His solutions lasted for just enough time to get through the crisis and then they were discarded, sometimes destroyed.

In 20 years in information technology, I’ve heard groan after groan of CIOs talking about how much it costs to “keep the lights on”. They lament over the inability to fund innovation because of how much the operations costs consume of what the CFO is willing to spend on IT. When they do get money to do innovation, it is largely of the sustaining incremental sort. This incremental innovation is where the trouble begins.

Many IT environments resemble some kind of MacGyver built Frankenstein. Sure they’re “alive”, they walk and talk but, they require immense resources to sustain. Why does this continue to happen in so many IT environments?

Here’s how.

Crisis drives change. Change drives growth. Growth creates new crisis.

Let’s look at a fictitious example.

A new CIO is hired within a large organization. Her predecessor moved on to a larger role in a different company. The arrival of the new CIO is exciting for the organization because she brings with her experience with newer technology.

Upon arrival, the new CIO finds the operational conditions chaotic. Service levels are not being met. Outages are impacting business performance. The senior management makes it very clear that getting operations stable is her top priority.

So, in order to make a good first impression the CIO gets right to work on the operational issues. She must learn the company, learn the organizational structure, learn the processes, build relationships, navigate the politics and learn enough about the technology to make decisions. These activities consume all of her time.

While heads down dealing with the operational issues, the senior business management meanwhile is planning the strategies for business growth. The CIO is invited but unable to participate because operations as her first priority is consuming all of her time and resources.

Fast forward a few months and the business growth plans are beginning to bear fruit. The IT operations have improved since the CIO has dedicated her attention to them. Now it’s time for some innovation.

In the next budget cycle, the CIO has prepared a request for three funding categories. The first is “keeping the lights on”. The second is supporting business growth. The third is innovation. The presentation to senior management is well received but criticized for being a bit too technical. The outcome of the budgeting decisions are somewhat disappointing to the CIO however, she’s only in her first year so there’s still time to drive the change she was hired to bring to the organization.

The outcome of the budget decisions was to fund keeping the lights on at 100%, business growth at 90% and innovation at 50% of the requested funds.

So, let’s consider the motivating effect of these decisions on our CIO.

First, the keeping the lights on budget funds operations. In order to continue her career at this organization, stable operations remains a top priority.

Second, the business growth is largely a scaling up of existing markets and products so this activity will involved growing existing platforms and infrastructure all while keeping operations stable.

Third, innovation is funded far less than desired. What the CIO wanted to do is now unaffordable however, innovation money must be spent else it will be lost next year.

As the year progresses, here’s how things play out.

The business growth is faster than the infrastructure scaling projects can keep up with. This creates stability problems. The CIO sees the stability problems as an opportunity to convince senior management to implement innovative approaches to resolve the crisis. Since the innovation money is scaled back, the appropriate innovations cannot be afforded so MacGyverisms are implemented to resolve the crisis. The MacGyverisms become part of the operational environment and their inherit design creates additional instability.

The CIO is now back to dealing with operational issues full time. This is not how she wants to spend her career. CIOs are supposed to be innovating right? On her resume she draws attention to the successful implementation of new technology and lands a job at another company to help them implement new technology. She leaves, is replaced and the cycle starts again.

This is a cyclic systemic problem that is rooted in a misalignment of priorities both personally and organizationally. Let’s examine.

– When CIOs are not part of strategic planning, their input is not taken into account.

– Without CIO input, the business and IT are unprepared to help each other when business growth occurs.

– Senior business management feels like IT is too expensive and they do not understand why the CIO is always asking for more money. Most budget increases are denied or fractionally incremental.

– The career path of the CIO is directly related to their experience with new technology. Nobody in the Internet/Web 2.0/Cloud world is going to hire a CIO who ran the mainframe for the last 20 years.

– The career of the CIO can be in jeopardy over stable operations.

So how can we do this better? Here’s some ideas.

Communicate better with senior management
CIOs absolutely must speak the language of senior business management. They must talk to senior management in business terms.

Leverage Enterprise Architecture
Use or develop models of the business built around the business process vocabulary so that the connections from business to technology are easier to understand.

Create and employ a crisis management strategy
Hasty reactions are a slippery slope. A strategic approach is needed to deal with operational crisis that does not ripple through the organization uncontrolled. Everything from triage, diagnosis, repair and root cause analysis to knowledge management and communication needs to be part of the strategy.

Find the MacGyvers and repurpose them
Hackers have no place in operations. They are talented yes but they need to leverage that talent in an innovation space and not in operations.

Stop socially elevating innovation work over operational work
Innovation is important work for sure. The problem is that the socio-cultural stratification of roles has placed innovation work above operational work. What this does is puts motivation on operations people who want to grow their careers to place more importance on innovation which creates problems for stable operations. This creates MacGyvers.

So in summary, the continued drama in IT and with CIO careers continues in many organizations. I believe the reason for this is that the systemic effects of the decisions of all involved are not understood and the cumulative effects are realized in both operational, business and career instability. A strategic review and adjustment of motivators could be a potential remedy to this long running concern. Then we can put MacGyver back where he belongs, in the 80s.