Nobody believes that "CIO" stands for "chief influence officer."
CIOs themselves know better, though they'd like to contribute to decision-making. I recently facilitated a conversation among a group of CIOs who collectively seemed both mystified and hurt by their own lack of influence within their organizations. "I give them what they want, but when it comes to the big decisions, I don't get a seat at the table" was a typical sentiment.
The consensus was that, if organizations would seek out the CIO's perspective when deliberating on decisions, they could reduce costs, become more competitive and avoid costly mistakes.
So we discussed how to become more influential. The general view was that CIOs have to better publicize the IT department's successes and work harder to build relationships with business executives. There's nothing wrong with these measures, except that they aren't nearly enough. We in IT have a limited understanding of what influence is.
In its purest form, influence is about one's ability to affect the opinions, emotions or behavior of others. But it isn't enough to influence the decisions that are made. To affect the agenda and direction of the organization, you need to influence which questions are considered.
To a large degree, IT isn't influential because we conflate influence with input. We believe that decision-makers should consult us because of the inherent value of our knowledge. We are confused when this doesn't happen, not realizing that executives rarely seek to be influenced; they expect to be lobbied. While we wait passively to share information, others are driving the agenda.
And even when we are consulted, our input can fail to persuade because we misapprehend how decisions are made. We believe that decisions should be based on a purely analytical process. We pile facts in the middle of the table. Weigh the facts and decisions should be obvious, based on an objectively verifiable good. But decisions don't happen in the middle of the table. Human decision-making is a fundamentally interior process blending emotions, intuition and information.
As geeks, we don't like to trespass on other people's interior experiences and subjective reality. That's the realm of emotions, and we don't do emotions. We don't like to talk about them, think about them or attempt to make others feel them. And strategizing about how to make someone feel a certain way seems wrong.
But we can't influence our business partners without understanding their interior experience. Geeks have become reasonably good at understanding business processes, but we rarely consider the human experience of inhabiting those processes. Without stepping into other people's worldview, we have no hope of gaining influence.
To begin to make IT influential, we must take these two steps:
1. Overcome our resistance to the emotional nature of decision-making and agenda-setting. We must become fluent in the language of feelings, and learn to both empathize with and elicit them.
2. Make influential relationships part of everyone's job. Influence takes place at every level of the organization, from boardroom to help desk. Everyone in IT has an influence on how our business partners experience us and our technology.
To give our organizations the full value of our contributions, our knowledge and our products, we must seek to become influential, not wait for influence to be bestowed upon us. Our organizations need us to step up. Even if it isn't our ambition to be influential, it is our obligation.
Paul Glen, CEO of Leading Geeks, is devoted to clarifying the murky world of human emotion for people who gravitate toward concrete thinking. His newest book is 8 Steps to Restoring Client Trust: A Professional's Guide to Managing Client Conflict. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.