Why CIOs Often Incorrectly Define Success

And how to do it correctly


Success seems like it should be a straightforward thing to understand and work towards, but in practice, at least within the sphere of IT, it’s much easier said than done. Ask any CIO what constitutes success, and you’ll likely get different definitions from each person. While the answers may vary, they do seem to revolve around several common principles. Much of the focus tends to center on keeping things within the appointed budget or making sure the project is delivered at the stated deadline. And of course there’s the customer to always think about, making sure they are satisfied with the results. While these considerations are important to achieving IT success, focusing on them individually may actually result in failure more often than not. That doesn’t even take into account the other factors that are too often overlooked.

First, let’s discuss the three most common factors mentioned above that are used for defining success: on-budget delivery, on-time delivery, and customer satisfaction. All play an important role in making sure that a project is going smoothly. They are factors that CIOs need to always have on their mind during every operation and every step of a complicated process. A project that goes over budget, for example, doesn’t do so in a single moment; it means a lack of attention was paid to individual tasks, resulting in things getting out of control rather quickly. Even so, if a CIO spends all his or her time worried about the budget, other factors like making sure deadlines are met and that the customer is satisfied with the results could fall by the wayside. An on-budget project may not go into the red, but other areas may suffer. That’s a failure in pretty much anyone’s book.

In other words, many CIOs incorrectly define success by only focusing on one aspect of this equation. Success should be measured by achieving all three of those goals for budgets, deadlines, and customer satisfaction. But that’s not the end of the story. One other factor largely goes ignored by many CIOs in their work to achieve project success. This factor is referred to as value. Who does it benefit, how do they benefit, and why? These are the questions that must be asked before the start of a project, and they are the questions that need to be asked throughout the duration. A project that comes in under budget and on time but doesn’t provide any real value to the company is one that likely shouldn’t be considered a success. This goes beyond the hard numbers and calculations. Many times, true value must be measured in less tangible ways. Perhaps a project that moves certain operations to the cloud ends up benefiting the organization by making it more agile and flexible. Maybe the adoption of converged IT infrastructure brings a certain value to other departments that wasn’t anticipated. Or perhaps using big data tools like big data as a service requires big expenditures but offsets costs in other ways. Success considerations go far beyond a few important but limited criteria.

Other performance measures should also be taken into account when trying to define success. Resources for the project should be allocated efficiently and optimally. The projects chosen need to be ones that work in tandem with the organization’s overall business strategy. CIOs also need to consider what corporate executives and shareholders think and intend since their thoughts likely are geared towards their own ideas of success. The basic takeaway in all these examples and factors is that success isn’t always easy to define, but it mostly comes down to outcomes and the return on investment for each organization. Most companies and IT departments should take a more adaptive approach to ensure that the outcomes they’re getting from their projects are exactly what they want. If results meet their expectations, then perhaps the project and strategy can be considered a success.

The definition of success can usually be seen as something that’s tough to nail down. Changing circumstances can affect how many CIOs perceive success. Having some guiding principles to follow can help in the pursuit of success, but ultimately it’s up to each CIO to determine what’s best for their organizations. They simply need to make sure they take in the whole picture and not just separate elements by themselves.


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