How to become a better CIO in 2024

There are no IT projects, only business projects


CIOs must focus on communication, linking IT and business goals and having the power to say ‘no’, says former CIO and HotTopics contributing editor Paul Coby.


There are no IT projects, only business projects – This is one of my key maxims which I published in ‘50 things I wish I knew before I became CIO’, and it is one I have stuck to in every IT team I have led. On the face of it, however, such a statement is obvious: of course, we say, everything we do is driven by the business and its vision, purpose, strategy and business plan. But is it really?


IT teams are not focusing on “things that matter”


IT functions – and for that matter, other corporate central functions – can get caught up in their own worlds, with their own priorities. Sometimes, although these priorities are important to IT, and to IT experts, they may not be as important or strategic as other business goals.


Let me illustrate: it is likely that most organisations with any longevity will have some form of legacy IT. There will, I can confidently predict, be systems that need upgrading and replacing to improve useability, functionality or cost management – probably all three.


However, if they do their job adequately, do you really want to use scarce investment and skills on improving them?  They may even be fully depreciated. Maybe the IT cost will go down and there will be fewer complaints from employees – but is it going to move the strategic dials in the business? Probably not. Start focusing on these inward-looking priorities and your colleagues will see an IT function obsessing about its internal challenges and not solving the “things that really matter”. 


Like everything else, this boils down to you, the CIO, balancing priorities and making judgment calls. So, if you find insecurities or serious control weaknesses, you should get stuck in and explain to your colleagues why action is essential. 


At its heart, the purpose of your IT department is to move your business forward. You are not the innovation function of a scientific university, nor are you there to run perfect systems. You are the IT function of a business, charity or public body that is there to build houses, manage roads, cure diseases, sell groceries and so forth. Investment must deliver solid financial, or other quantifiable progress, to the wider business objectives. If it doesn’t, try saying ‘no’. Your technical perfectionists may not be happy, but your CEO, CFO and Board should notice that you are working to their agenda.


My principle is to check that every IT project, or even small change, should deliver real benefits for the business. To preempt a frequent challenge, making a technical IT change - even for critical IT objectives, such as security or moving to the cloud – needs to benefit the business. In other words, is it going to benefit how the company and its units work, not simply provide better IT?


Linking IT to business objectives


The acid test here is whether you can convince your colleagues, who will also be making the case for their own important projects, that these IT projects are something the company needs to do? An added advantage here – although it may not feel like it to your team – is that you (and they) are therefore required to express even the most technical concepts in language and metaphors that can be readily understood by the rest of the business.


So why do I feel so strongly about my maxim that “there are no IT projects, only business projects”? Forgetting it is more common than you would think, and dangerous both for you as a CIO and your business. Without this, you are just an IT supplier, not an IT partner to your organisation. Everything I have learned and seen over two decades as a CIO reinforces this. It is important to challenge any actions by your team that cannot be linked back to the business’s primary objectives.


This is self-evident for projects sponsored by the business, such as a new online sales portal or procurement platform. If it’s not genuinely owned by the Chief Customer Officer or Chief Procurement Officer, then no executive or board is likely to support the project. Things get a little harder when you are replacing important hardware or upgrading existing applications. Then you must explain in non-technical terms the consequences and risks to the business risks of not doing essential renewals.


It’s even harder when you are investing in cybersecurity tooling or protection: this time, it is your duty to explain the very real dangers and painful consequences of a cybersecurity breach, not just in theoretical terms but using real-life examples of what, for example, a ransomware attack has done to a comparable business.

In all of these cases, it comes down to building relationships based on trust with your business peers who recognise that you are not simply investing in pieces of IT kit, but that you really understand what the business priorities are and what it can afford.

Remember why you and your IT function are really there.


Join the HotTopics Contributing Editors Network


HotTopics Contributing Editor Paul Coby is an experienced FTSE100 Group CIO who has served at Persimmon Homes, Johnson Matthey, John Lewis, and British Airways, where he was the first CIO for each of these companies.

He has also been a Non-Executive Director with 23 years of experience on aviation, retail and financial services Boards, including Virgin Money and SITA. He specialises in supporting Boards to deliver effective digital innovation, demystifying technology for Board colleagues, working with start-ups and guiding executives using digital technology to transform their business.

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