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What happens when a new leader walks into an organization in disarray? One piece of advice comes from Andrew Blum in Harvard Business Review: "When replacing a poor or controversial leader, you may have to take accountability for your predecessor’s mistakes, while simultaneously creating a new vision for the organization. Poor leadership can damage an institution and often a new leader must take aggressive action to save the organization — while avoiding throwing the baby out with the bathwater.”

For a new CIO taking over a failed IT organization, understanding the root causes of the failure is a key part of turning the ship around. 

Why Do IT Organizations Fail?

Several issues can cause an IT organization to fail, including:

  • Failed leadership.
  • Failed strategy.
  • Failed investments.
  • Leadership misalignment.
  • Poor recruiting, management and engagement.
  • Lack of executive support.
  • Lack of an executable strategy.
  • Executive neglect.
  • Anarchic demand management.
  • Rampant shadow IT.
  • Poor IT governance.
  • Organizational detractors.
  • Culture.
  • Underfunding of key initiatives.

Regardless of cause, CIO Dennis Klemenz said it is critical to "find out why previous leadership team failed in order to out work how to fix key problems." One place to start this exercise is to “find out why other leaders think IT is a failed organization,” said CIO David Seidl.

What it often comes down to, said former CIO Joanna Young is leadership issues: “Failure can be often in the eye of the beholder. There are many root causes of perceived and actual failure. Most frequent root causes stem from a lack of empowerment and insufficient resources. These are all, in the end, leadership issues.” Young wasn't alone in pointing to leadership failures. CIO Carrie Shumaker said, "poor leadership likely means IT probably didn’t get the resources it needed to succeed. All of this becomes a vicious circle. What is the saddest is how staff can be demoralized and poorly treated in the process ... Poor leadership usually means that IT wasn’t a good partner, and its relationships are poor with other departments. All this can be repaired, but it takes time and wins.”

CIOs are often be specialists at fixing broken IT organizations. CTO Stephen diFilipo said, “It’s what I do, although I have yet to experience a truly failed IT organization. Broken, sure. Rudderless, mostly. Misguided, you bet. Entrenched, lots.” Former CIO Waye Sadin agreed, saying: "I've been fixing broken IT departments for 25 years. And typically, I have found governance is a key factor in failure." 

Related Article: Why CIO Success Starts With Building Effective Partnerships

Listen, Question and Learn: CIOs Respond to Broken IT Organizations

CIOs always need strong communications skills, but they will particularly be put to the test in times like this. CIO David Chou recommended CIOs tasked with fixing a broken organization stress it's “not a failed organization, but more of a turnaround situation. Also, they need to make the necessary tweaks during the journey because there are very few quick fixes in these situations.” To bring about meaningful change, CIO Page Francis said, “Be the leader, listen, assess and start where you are. And one more thing, remember to go in with fresh eyes and ears.” Young agreed, stating, “CIOs should go in without preconceived notions, observe, listen, and then identify and prioritize what needs to be rebuilt.”

The long-term effects of poor leadership take care and effort to turn around. Shumaker spoke to that need, “Everything starts with leadership. If leadership has been poor for a long time, then there are negative habits and patterns that need to be overcome. Staff, in these cases, need to be retrained to not behave and react unproductively. For example, they may have been trained to be fearful, hide bad news, not communicate, or even cast blame.” Tim Mc Breen said, “Several times I was brought in as an interim CIO, and failure was actually due to C-Suite. They only budgeted and staffed for a service IT. Then realized IT couldn’t meet needs years later. Other times, it was in fact the wrong CIO that was the problem. Given this, the new CIO should start with gap analysis and quick hits. Listen, question and learn.”

Creating a Strong Team to Move Forward

Building the right go-forward team is essential. Francis said, "Start out by quickly finding your most valuable team members and partners. Spoiler alert: They’re likely not who you’ve been told they are." With the go-forward team in hand, Klemenz said, “Start by building trust with the (go-forward) team. Trust is where leadership starts. With this in hand, get more budget and get things going.” In this process, Klemenz says, “give your team time off to recharge. Quickly identify bad team members and remove them. At the same time, try to balance the workload.” To do all of this, Martin Davis said, “Having rebuilt a few times … sort leadership, vision, governance, culture, purpose and remove bad habits. Oh yes, build strong relationships across the executive team and with key stakeholders at multiple levels.”

Related Article: 6 Ways to Improve a Failing Company Culture

Build Bridges to Start an IT Turnaround

Smart CIOs are clearly in demand these days. And many situations will require an IT turnaround. Everything starts with management basics and good communications. Obviously, it is essential to assess what went gone wrong and what initial actions to take. By being decisive and building bridges early in the process (as my friend Joanna Young likes to say, that are 460 degrees), everyone within the organization can see the benefit of working together to get IT moving in the right direction.