Linear Thinking and the CIO

linear thinkingI’ve been sitting at my computer staring at the screen for a few minutes trying to come up with a topic for my weekly “New CIO” article.   While waiting for inspiration to strike (i.e., surfing the web) I took a look at my Google Analytics account and noticed that the most visited article on my blog “The Problem(s) with Linear Thinking“.

Now…this is an article I wrote in January 2007…way back when I was a novice blogger. I still like it and still think that linear thinking is a huge trap of organizations to fall into.  It’s also a huge trap for CIO’s to fall into.

So…I ran a quick search for “Linear Thinking” and  “Linear Thinking CIO” and what did I find?  Me. 🙂  The couple of posts I’ve done on the topic are at the top of the list.  When I did the Search for “Linear Thinking CIO” my “Beware the Linear Thinking Trap” post is ranked #1.

Now…while I’m excited to be ranked #1 on Google for something, the question has to be asked – how many people are searching for those terms?  Not many based on the traffic I get from them…but enough to make a difference.

So..why another post on Linear Thinking?

Because I still see the topic as one that’s causing  a lot of problems withing organizations. I also see a lot of CIO’s and IT groups stuck in the linear thinking trap and unaware of their predicament.

Quick example:

The CIO commissions the IT group to create and implement a governance model & document to manage all IT projects.   This governance document is developed as a closed system with little input from the rest of the organization.  The model is put into practice and is now ‘law’ within the organization.

Based on the governance model, all new projects over $25,000 must go through the governance process.   Why $25K?   Very few projects can be completed for less than that…and those that fall under $25K aren’t really that important right?

So…the HR team is ready to implement a new system.  They come to IT and ask for some assistance and are told that the project will undoubtedly be over $25K and must go into the governance process and be subject to ‘proper’ project and portfolio management practices.

The HR team are good corporate citizens and begin the governance process.  They fill out the paperwork.  Determine an estimated cost for the project (and it is over $25K) and wait for the governance process to kick in.  And they wait.

A month after submitting the paperwork, a meeting is held to prioritize the projects within the organization. The HR team doesn’t get to attend this meeting…they have to rely on the IT team and submitted paperwork to make their case.

The project is deemed a lower priority than others and not authorized.  The HR team is furious.  The implementation of this system is a part of all of their performance goals for the year and it has to get done.

So….what happens?

You know what happens! The HR Team moves forward anyway.  They reach out to vendors and solicit bids for a ‘phased approach’ to the project. Perhaps they look for a SaaS model for the system to save implementation and initial upfront investment.

Jump forward six months.

The HR Team has fully implement a SaaS platform to do what they need to do.  The system does not integrate with any other platform within the organization (perhaps it can, it just hasn’t been integrated).  The HR Team is happy as they’ve met the need of their team and reached their goals.

The IT team is not happy.  They’ve now got another system in the mix and have to decide whether they support it or not.  The CIO isn’t happy because the governance model has proven ineffective.  The CIO takes the issue to the CEO and is told to support the platform…the HR team is ‘getting things done’ and the IT team better get on the ball or ‘heads will roll’.

More than a governance issue

There are a ton of problems with the above scenario.  There are governance issues, portfolio management issues, client management issues and potential security and IT integration issues.

But…they all stem from the fact that the governance model implemented within the example organization has been built with with ‘old’ thinking.  IT projects  no longer have to be expensive projects.  Organizations can go the SaaS route to get any number of platforms implemented much cheaper than in the past.  Sure, there are still the ‘big’ projects, but not every IT platform is a ‘big’ project these days.

Organizations can no longer work with an inflexible governance model that provides no relief for those projects that aren’t considered a ‘priority’.  Governance and portfolio management must be performed but we’ve got to find ways to be agile at the same time.

There’s a ton of work for CIO’s to do to create more flexible governance models, better project and portfolio management processes and generally provide better service to the organization.  But in order to create these new models, CIO’s and IT groups need to move out of the lienar thinking rut that we’ve been operating in for so long.  We’ve got to find ways to be more agile and responsive to the organization.

The ability to be agile and think differently is key to the success (and survival?) of the CIO and IT group in the future.

Linear Thinking and the CIO

In my “Beware the Linear Thinking Trap” post, I ask:

Are you doing the same thing the same way you were last year?

Many organizations still answer ‘yes’ because that’s all they can do. That’s all they know how to do.  They’ve fallen into the linear thinking trap and don’t realize it.

The New CIO must find a way to stay out of the trap that linear thinking can create.  In the example above the CIO used a governance model to manage the project portfolio.  This, in itself, isn’t a bad thing.  Governance is needed.  Portfolios are needed.

What’s bad about this situation is that the approach to governance must change in the Enterprise 2.0 world.  No longer can you control all applications within the organization. Shadow IT is rampant.   Rather than fight Shadow IT, use it to your advantage.  Work with those departments that have created their own shadow infrastructure to ensure they are governed and managed correctly.

Linear thinking is taking many CIO’s and IT organizations further and further into irrelevancy.  It’s no longer enough to use the same governance models you used five years ago or even last year.  The New CIO has to step in with innovative approaches to IT governance and project/portfolio management (and in all other aspects of IT) to provide the organization with the best opportunity to be successful.

Stop doing what you did last year. Stop doing what you did yesterday.  It won’t work tomorrow…heck…it didn’t work yesterday.

Climb out of that depression caused by the linear thinking trap and do something better.   Thinking creatively. If you want to be the CIO, you’ve got to think differently.

27 responses to “Linear Thinking and the CIO”

  1. Owen Greaves Avatar

    Hi Eric,

    The problem with organizations isn't necassarily the governance model, but the lack of parameters when coming to make sound technology decisions. The governance model operates under the guise that the entire model is adopted by all departments and is willing to live with what the answer(s) maybe.

    If departments have the freedom to implement software or systems then the IT Manager & or CIO should be held responsible. A department should never trump the organization as a whole.

    I wrote an article called, ” IT Decisions – who makes them in your organization” ( back in June 2009, I never even touched on the governance thing because I didn't really need to. Governance was suppossed to be a quality control / priority mechanism ensuring everything was looked at fairly and with due dilligence.

    What happens, lets just say the system isn't perfect.

    Anyway, I had to share : )

  2. ericbrown Avatar

    Thanks Owen!

    You are correct…governance makes an assumption that everyone agrees with the idea of governance. The issue (as you point out) is that the parameters of that governance model are often not well thought out or agreed upon by the entire business. Linear thinking has kept the blinders on many IT and CIO's when it comes to developing these parameters.

  3. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Owen Greaves, Bas de Baar, Eric D. Brown, Eric D. Brown, Eric D. Brown and others. Eric D. Brown said: Just published: Linear Thinking and the #CIO – […]

  4. Peter Kretzman Avatar

    I appreciate your post and the thinking behind it, but I'd gently point out that I think you've set up a straw man. This isn't a case of simply linear thinking = bad vs. lateral thinking = good. There are a couple of important things awry with the scenario you describe. Governance isn't something that IT can or should dream up and implement unilaterally: it involves the senior management team, as a group, sitting around a table originally and everyone nodding their heads that they all can and will adhere to this process, in order to achieve the benefits. That step usually happens when the organization has seen significant pain points resulting from groups going “off the reservation” in the very manner you describe. If you don't have that high-level buy-in, don't even bother talking about instituting governance, because it will lead to the kinds of fiasco that you describe. And yes, the governance processes should incorporate a healthy degree of flexibility. That does NOT, however, equate to “everyone hears yes as an answer.” And until the answer IS yes for a project, it makes no sense for that project to be baked into anyone's performance goals, as you describe. That sets up conflicting agendas about as neatly as one can imagine.

    Still another part of the “straw man” nature of the scenario is that you explicitly say, ” The HR team doesn’t get to attend this meeting…they have to rely on the IT team and submitted paperwork to make their case.” This doesn't describe any form of successful IT governance process that I've seen. The involvement of key business stakeholders in the governance body is critical. Someone not directly in IT should be fighting for that HR system, in other words, in the meeting. That doesn't mean, of course, that the answer will be yes, because the organization as a whole may indeed have higher priorities and there are limited resources as always. It should mean, though, that if the answer is no, the answer is no, and it's not a ticket to go out and build things on HR's own.

    As Peter Weill puts it in his “IT Governance” book (which I highly recommend), “IT governance simultaneously empowers and controls.” And just because one can point to the failures of what has been labeled “governance” doesn't mean that governance itself is a bad idea, as you acknowledge.

  5. ericbrown Avatar

    Hi Peter –

    I think you might have misread what I said. I never said 'lateral thinking=good'….I said 'think different'.

    RE: The HR Team 'not attending the meeting' – I HAVE seen this exact issue. In MULTIPLE places. Perhaps I've been unlucky in the places I've worked and consulted but this scenario is an exact replica of a situation that I've been in.

    While I agree with your argument that 'no means no', shadow IT does exist and it exists because no doesn't really mean no in many organizations.

  6. Peter Kretzman Avatar

    No, I don't think I misread. But I certainly agree with you that “this exact issue” can be seen in plenty of companies. I'd just argue that it may have been CALLED governance, but it doesn't fit what governance needs to be to be successful. Which is, of course, very congruent with your point.

    What happens, in even the best-implemented governance situation, is there will always be a vocal minority of people who are unhappy that their needs didn't rise to the top, and will grouse. Proactively managing that is one of the key roles of the people involved in governance. Most especially, leadership from the top (CEO level) — which is yet another aspect of the straw man I was pointing out. If the CEO, per your scenario, simply tells the CIO that the HR self-implemented app must now be supported, then the necessary cross-disciplinary philosophical foundation for having originally instituted governance simply wasn't there to begin with.

    As for shadow IT: there needs to be careful outlining of the limits of what departments can and should be able to do on their own from an IT perspective. Everything else should be seen as out of line, and will NOT be tolerated by the CEO or anyone else. This approach is really no different, and no less important, than making sure that each department isn't cutting contracts on their own either, without benefit of the legal part of the organization. Doing otherwise puts the organization as a whole at serious risk. Sure, that kind of requirement is a constraint, and annoying as hell sometimes: but that's simply life as a grown-up. I've written before, on my “CTO/CIO Perspectives” blog, about “Speed vs. bureaucracy: management issues confronted by companies in transition”. That post is at

    In essence, I think we're saying the same thing about shadow IT: as you wrote, “Rather than fight Shadow IT, use it to your advantage. Work with those departments that have created their own shadow infrastructure to ensure they are governed and managed correctly.” Governance, defining limits, etc.

    Good discussion of these key issues!

  7. ericbrown Avatar

    Very true. After re-reading your comment and this one, I think we are saying the same thing. Of course you are right about what governance should be but I've found it isn't always the case.

    The problem is that, as I said, this exact scenario is one that I've seen. What it basically points out (in addition to the issues of the CIO & IT group) is that the organization as a whole is broken. Poor leadership all around.

  8. Gene De Libero Avatar

    You're right, Eric – If you want to be the CIO, you’ve got to think differently.

    Progressive CIOs can be the agents of change in organizations that have become crippled by linear thinking. Creative, lateral thinking (and doing), and a culture of enterprise-wide innovation from all levels are the tools of change.

    Before the CIO can ever hope to begin developing a model for IT governance, he needs a deep understanding of the business and the people within it. Add to that a commitment to the fact that the implementation and use of technology is driven by the needs of the business and the people it serves and you've got a better than average chance to do some great things.

    Start with the people – what they do, how they work, and what they want. They'll give you something of real value to base a governance model on. Results guaranteed.

  9. Elliot Ross Avatar

    You all have fooled me 🙂

    Great information – but I personally question the premise that is equating 'linear thinking' with the content discussed here of Business / IT Governance.

    From the title, I was expecting; (From Merriam-Webster)

    ” involving a single dimension”
    ” of, relating to, or based or depending on sequential development”

    If proper (as Mr. Kretzman states) governance is applied at the business level, and assuming a portfolio of strategic 'Wants' (vs. regulatory 'needs' etc)

    Can we argue that there may be more than one way to reach those strategic 'Wants'?

    Can we argue that similar to Agile or scrum software develeopment vs traditional waterfall, that the < 25 k number presnented above be multiple prongs of attempting to hit those strategic goals (ie fail fast – fail cheap) With the superior idea being the one taken further?

    I know that as humans – we can too often think only of what worked for us in the past & try to force fit it into today (as you state Eric – what worked yesterday – is not the same today)

    And by definition, decisions are made based on available information, and at certain points of **time. So a similar decision can never be identical because the time variable will never be the same.

    Thanks to all & best regards….

  10. ericbrown Avatar

    Elliot –

    to respond to how 'linear thinking' applies to the content:

    It's an easy fit – the scenario described (a real one by the way) is one that happened because the organization believed that all they needed to do was put a governance model in place and they were done…because that's what they did in the past.

    The CIO equated a governance model with control because he always had been able to control things using processes and procedures. Linear thinking kept that CIO in the mindset that he had been in forever…managing by control.

  11. The problems with linear thinking – While written for CIOs it applies to us all.

  12. How linear thinking can sidetrack tech executives

  13. […] Eric Brown -Linear Thinking and the CIO […]

  14. itgevangelist Avatar

    I'm arriving late to this fantastic discussion you fostered with your thoughtful post. I love that you used such a common example of “governance-gone-bad.” I like the scenario because it shows how an organization can have the right intentions, and the right approach (governance) but that it can go terribly wrong.

    I completely agree with everything Peter Kretzman said in each of his comments. I believe he covered every point I would have raised. The one comment left for me is this:

    The discipline of IT Governance is inappropriately blamed again and again because few organizations understand it, and even fewer have any idea how to design and establish a governance strategy, approach and framework that FITS their specific enterprise. Instead, they do something along the lines of what you describe in your post and it inevitably fails.

    In spite of this incredibly predictable pattern, I will continue to evangelize the power and promise of IT Governance (see any of Peter Kretzman's comments). And I will always refuse to temper it or call it something else simply because so few organizations have mastered this critical, strategic, game-changing discipline.

    Steve Romero, IT Governance Evangelist

  15. RT @PeterKretzman: Steve, you might b interested in weighing in on this gov discussion itgE: See Peter's great comments

  16. RT @itgEvangelist RT @PeterKretzman: gov discussion itgE: See Peter's great comments. Baz: Well said Peter

  17. ericbrown Avatar

    Hi Steve -Thanks for stopping by!

    Great insight and information (along with Peter's commentary previously). Also, thanks for the link…I've got another blog to add to my reader!

  18. Very good blog post about overall Corporate IT cohesion/integration: Linear Thinking and the CIO

  19. Very good blog post about overall Corporate IT cohesion/integration: Linear Thinking and the CIO

  20. RT @ericdbrown Linear Thinking and the CIO

  21. Linear Thinking and the CIO – #Leadership, #CIO

  22. […] thinking about how or why you’re doing it?  BTW – this is another one of my ‘linear thinking‘ […]

  23. Published: Linear Thinking and the CIO

  24. #IT is founded on logic. 1s and 0s. #leadership can't be….RT @ericdbrown Linear Thinking and the #CIO