Make it stop!

Several decades ago, some wise pundit wrote that CIOs should be business people, not technology people. The resulting article has been republished, with slight changes in paragraph order and phrasing details, over and over again ever since.

None of these repetitions has fixed the fundamental flaw in the original. As I pointed out a year and a half ago on, replace the “I” with any other capitalized executive middle letter and see where the logic takes you: CFOs should, according to this logic, be business people, not financial people; COOs should be business people, not operations people; CMOs should be business people whose knowledge of marketing is optional.

And yet, as if the endless repetitions never happened, here comes McKinsey to make it official: For years, we’re now told, executives have stressed the need for CIOs to move beyond simply managing IT to leveraging technology to create value for the business. This priority is now a requirement. (“The CIO challenge: Modern business needs a new kind of tech leader,” Anusha Dhasarathy, Isha Gill, and Naufal Khan, McKinsey Digital, January, 2020).

I suppose I should be gratified. This iteration endorses positions we (“we” being my co-author, Dave Kaiser, and I) took in There’s No Such Thing as an IT Project, (Berrett-Koehler Publishers, September, 2019), not that McKinsey’s authors acknowledged our precedence.

Oh, well.

In addition to the unneeded repetition, The CIO Challenge also makes the Monolithicity Mistake, namely, providing just a single “new” job description all CIOs must abide by. Just as no one strategy fits all businesses, neither will just a single approach to IT leadership.

That being the case, here are a few of the alternatives available to you as an IT leader. Choose one, or create your own hybrid:

Chief IT Officer: While KJR doesn’t generally endorse the old IT-as-a-business-with-internal-customers IT organizational model (see, for example, “Customers vs Consumers,” InfoWorld, October 25, 1999), sometimes it’s the best you can do.

This model does have an advantage: If you’re running IT as a business you can hardly be accused of not being a businessperson. So long as, that is, you really do run IT as a business, complete with its own, independently derived strategy, operating model, and other accoutrements of a standalone corporation.

Chief Integration Officer: Buy when you can. Build when you have to.

As the IT applications marketplace has matured, more and more of the functionality a business manager needs to operate effectively already exists and is ready to license.

That’s in contrast to developing an application in-house, where you haven’t even articulated the user stories that define what it’s supposed to do.

But … license applications from multiple vendors and you’ll find their data models don’t easily mesh.

That’s what makes integration an intrinsically hard problem to solve.

Beyond this, from the perspective of each application’s business owner, integration is someone else’s problem.

Therein lies an opportunity. Embrace so-called “shadow IT.” Let business owners choose their own applications. Limit IT’s role to their integration so that, metaphorically, even though the business owns several watches it still knows the time.

Chief Transformation Officer: All so-called IT projects are really business change projects or what’s the point?

Add to this another level of difficulty when it comes to making business change happen: Most business managers know how to keep things the same — to make sure their areas of responsibility run the same way tomorrow as they did yesterday, with incremental improvements, perhaps, but not dramatically different.

Making transformational change happen just isn’t what they know how to do.

It can be what IT knows how to do, out of self-defense if nothing else. After all, when so-called IT projects don’t deliver business benefit, it’s IT that’s left holding the bag.

Chief IT Infrastructure Officer: IT runs the data center and all of the IT infrastructure needed for business-unit-based application teams to do their work.

This was a thankless model even before cloud computing became popular. Now? If the CEO asks you to assume the role of CITIO, just say yes … to make you’re gainfully employed while launching the job search you start tomorrow.

Chief Strategy Officer: Welcome to the world of Digital-as-a-noun, where businesses shift their emphasis from cost-reduction to revenue enhancement and information technology is assumed, not cost-justified on a case-by-case basis.

Take it a step further: information technology isn’t merely assumed. Each new, emerging technology translates to a potential new business capability. New capabilities potentially translate to new and better products and customer experiences.

In the Digital world, then, IT drives business strategy — it doesn’t merely support it.

One drawback: driving business strategy isn’t something you’d do instead of your current job.

It’s in addition.

Compare these two sentences: “The experience will be very painful,” vs “The experience will be excruciating.”

First question: Which gets the point across more effectively?

Second question: Which would you be more likely to read in a typical piece of business correspondence?

In business writing as in any other writing, the writer’s goal is to control the reader’s thinking. As a consequence, “Excruciating,” I’d advise, is far more evocative than “very painful.”

Third question: Did you happen to spot the unfortunate use of passive voice?

“We’ll find the experience excruciating,” improves the message further. Why?

If you think active vs passive voice is a mere academic nicety, take another look. The active voice version … “We’ll find the experience excruciating” … makes the message personal.

“The experience will be excruciating” assigns the agony, not to the reader, but to some unspecified third person the reader doesn’t necessarily care about, and therefore fails to establish the urgency the writer would like her to feel.

In business writing as in any other writing, word choice matters. And no, I’m not suggesting you always choose the most vivid and extreme alternative listed in Word’s list of synonyms. I’m suggesting you always choose the most precise alternative. In the case at hand, your choices range from “unpleasant,” “twinge,” and “discomfort” at the mildest end, “ache,” “pain,” and “hurt” somewhere in the middle, and “agonizing” or “torture,” along with the aforementioned “excruciating” when extreme verbiage is called for.

Think of the English language as a collection of drill bits. Lots and lots of drill bits, in a wide variety of diameters and lengths, and composed of an astonishing variety of alloys.

When the time comes to drill a hole in a cinder block wall, you would, I trust, choose a masonry bit that’s the right diameter for the job, not the first bit that comes to hand.

Make the same effort when choosing words for every email you send, not to mention every report you write and PowerPoint slide you design.

But back to “excruciating” vs “very painful.” I’m going to temporarily remove “excruciating” from the dictionary. You now have only two choices: “We’ll find the experience very painful” and “We’ll find the experience hurts a lot.”

“Very painful” wins — not because it evokes the desired reader reaction better, but because it better evokes the desired reader reaction regarding who you are. “Very painful” is more businesslike than “hurts a lot.”

The Oxford English Dictionary lists 171,476 words in current use. Divide these into three categories: Words you use, words you understand but don’t use yourself, and words you have to look up if you care enough to invest the time.

For example: We all use “bad,” routinely. It’s a category 1 word. Compare it to “wretched,” a word few of us include in our day-to-day conversations with friends and colleagues, even though it’s precise, evocative, and we all know what it means.

It’s in category 2. Sadly, it should probably remain there, at least during office hours — it fails the Is-It-Businesslike test. Use it and it calls attention to itself instead of to the situation you’re describing.

But it’s better than “elegiac” and “odious,” — category 3 words. Use them and you’re just showing off. Just as you’d be showing off if, on the opposite end of the spectrum, you chose “licit,” an entirely legitimate synonym of “legitimate,” but not a licit choice when writing your next business case.

The point, in case all of these synonyms obscure it, is that every time you communicate with anyone, you have two goals. You want them to understand whatever it is you’re communicating about the way you understand the situation. And, you want them to understand who you are and how you think. If you think in terms of personal brands, you want your audience to think of you as you’ve defined yours.

Without a doubt, careful word choice requires more effort than inserting the first words that come to mind. And so, a suggestion, borrowed without permission from Agile philosophers the world over: Start by defining a Minimum Viable Product for your writing improvement.

With that in mind, here’s my suggestion for your writing MVP: Starting with your your next email, choose superior alternatives every time you’re about to type “good” or the grossly overused “great.”

Choosing better alternatives to “good” might not make your writing fantastic.

But it’s a good start.