Checklist for Success

A CIO friend of mine once confessed, somewhat sheepishly, that he simply can't resist a good checklist. Whenever and wherever he comes across a numbered list of any kind (a lineup of check boxes is a particular thrill), he has to stop and read it. Tips, tactics, random advice -- almost any top 10 list is grist for his mental mill. "Most of the time I know all the stuff on the list; often it's just common sense," he admits. "But every now and then I find a really great idea."

I was thinking of that list-hungry CIO as I looked over our "IT Survival Guide" (page 30, and online at QuickLink 48479). It's not a complicated or daunting list by any means, coming as it does from that cheerful guy holding the shovel, Ace Hardware CIO Paul Ingevaldson. What's his claim to fame? He not only lasted at Ace for 25 years ("a long time in this day and age of the portable CIO," he notes); he also logged four decades in IT. Imagine being able to boil down 40 years of IT experience to 10 core pieces of advice.

But no matter how fine a list it is, you won't remember 10 things. So I've boiled them down further into three enduring truths about IT and business. Almost any list you'll ever encounter about IT management could be parsed into the following mantras:

1. Whatever connects IT more closely to the business is worth doing. The first piece of advice Ingevaldson offers is to get out of the IT department and work in a business unit, a recommendation I've heard echoed by so many management consultants that I've lost count. But coming from a CIO (and one who's rooting for you to return to IT), it carries substantially more weight.

He also stresses the importance of grasping the corporate business strategy and then mobilizing IT to support it. Not just implementing a strategy, he warns, but getting IT involved as part of the process. And to all those companies trying to charge out IT as a business-unit expense, this veteran CIO says to cut it out. "Operate it as an expense center," he recommends, explaining that if top business execs are part of the prioritizing process, they'll know that IT is "working on the important applications." Operating IT as a utility means it will never be strategic.

2. Whatever improves communication about IT is worth repeating. (Read that again.) This is one of the toughest sells to introverted IT folks because it entails talking up (a.k.a., marketing) the value of IT to end users. And that means actually speaking to those people. "Don't keep IT in the closet," Ingevaldson says. "Spread the word, create excitement and convince people to get on the IT bandwagon." (There's got to be at least one extrovert in your IT department, right? Put her to work.)

3. Whatever encourages good IT management practices is worth trying. Using a hands-off management style with smart, motivated staffers ("Get out of their way") is another of Ingevaldson's tips, alongside classics like learning to delegate and setting high expectations for meeting project dates and budgets. "Missed deadlines and busted budgets are the things that give IT a bad name," he notes.

Of course, after 40 years of dealing with end users, this CIO knows there will be simply god-awful days when none of his management mantras will help. That's when he gets really sensible: "Tough days are why they invented single malts."

Maryfran Johnson is editor in chief of Computerworld. You can contact her at

Copyright © 2004 IDG Communications, Inc.

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