A Vicious Cycle

min read

This past week has seen considerable discussion on the EDUCAUSE CIO listserv regarding a recent CIO piece by Bryson Payne, who is soon stepping down as CIO at North Georgia College and State University and returning to its faculty. In this piece, Bryson asks a powerful question we don’t often think about – what will your institution’s next CIO focus on first and why aren’t you working on those issues yourself? He suggests three general areas:

Pain points – these are the technical issues that are causing immense pain for end users, and pose “low-hanging” fruit because they can be easily solved. Your next CIO will start their tenure by having conversations with students, faculty, and staff to look for quick wins. Bryson asks, when is the last time you had one of these conversations with your community?

Jackhammer issues – many times, we become blind to longstanding pain points because they have been around forever. Like a jackhammer constantly working outside the window, we learn to ignore it and work around it. Your next CIO will come in and hear the jackhammer and pronounce, “How can you work like this? Let’s fix it!” Bryson asks, when’s the last time you stopped long enough to actually hear the jackhammers?

Relationship rescue – your next CIO will be clued in during their interviews as to the frayed or damaged relationships that are in need of repair in order for the IT organization to work across campus more effectively. Bryson asks, what’s stopping you from trying to repair them today?

For some of my colleagues, this article has brought up jokes about whether being CIO stands for ‘career is over.’ But the stereotypes about revolving door CIOs constantly job hopping or being shown the door are seldom true (see research by Wayne Brown). Sometimes institutional leaders, including the CIO, find themselves mired in long-standing problems caused by lack of ownership, accountability, or the inability to make difficult decisions, and think that yes, it will take new leadership with a fresh perspective, a long honeymoon, and more authority to make IT services more effective. In such situations, greener pastures often look much greener. But, I’m not convinced that wholesale changes are always required to address these types of situations.

In 2004, Broadbent and Kitzis set forth in The New CIO Leader two simple principles that govern CIO and IT organization effectiveness over the long-term: the credibility cycle and the cycle of over commitment and underperformance.



New leadership brings with it an infusion of trustworthiness, appreciation, and goodwill – otherwise known as credibility. During the early months of their tenure, this credibility allows new leaders to do things that were more difficult for their predecessors, putting them in a better position to negotiate for additional resources or to tamp down out of control expectations. A honeymoon is a very nice thing, indeed.

Past that initial period, however, both outcomes and results lead to either increased credibility (when things go well) or a loss of credibility (when things underperform). Unfortunately, loss of credibility erodes trustworthiness, appreciation, and goodwill – which reduces one’s negotiating position when vying for resources or managing future expectations. If you have ever found yourself in a position where negotiations over resources or commitments are extremely difficult, step back and ask yourself what are the past results in the eyes of those with whom you are negotiating. Doing so may key you into the pain points or jackhammer issues Bryson talks about.

Diminished credibility often puts IT leaders into a position where they are constantly incentivized to overcommit their organizations above their current capacity, which can lead to continued underperformance.

Spiraling downward, the cycle of over commitment and underperformance is a vicious cycle where – in order to maintain or replenish depleted stores of appreciation, trustworthiness, and respect – excessive and unwise commitments continue to be made. Or, to put it simply, IT leaders give in to the pressure to say yes when saying no is much more prudent. I’m mindful of a story one of my staff recently told me: they had pulled one of their staff off of critical infrastructure work – work necessary to minimize unplanned downtime – to do smaller, less important tasks for a remote unit for fear that they would complain about a lack of responsiveness on the part of their team. While I am a firm believer that it is critical that IT organizations “do what they say they will do (DWYSYWD)” in order to maintain credibility, I also know that the most important predictor of success when it comes to DWYSYWD is to not engage in overcommitment in the first place. 

How can an IT organizations break the downward spiral of overcommitment and underperformance? Is new leadership with a fresh infusion of credibility and a new honeymoon required? Not necessarily, particularly if the conditions that led to this cycle are structural and not clearly reflective of prior leadership. In those cases, new IT leaders will find themselves in the same positions as their predecessors once their honeymoon ends. 

In my own work experience, when seeking to break past cycles of overcommitment and underperformance and instilling an organizational culture to keep this cycle in check, I have found a couple of simple principles critical:

Understanding the end user point of view – many times, IT organizations perform poorly in the credibility department because their definition of positive outcomes is entirely different from that used by the end user community. This is what leads to pain points and jackhammer issues in the first place. Getting the IT organization to view their work in the same way as its end users is a critical shift for IT organizations if you want to remove these issues permanently. Doing so is one of the prime ways an IT organization can develop or sustain their credibility, whether they are reinforcing past success or breaking out of past cycles of overcommitment and underperformance.

Focus on effectiveness – it is effectiveness, defined from the viewpoint of end users, which leads to improved performance and increased credibility. Many times, particularly when dealing with tougher relationships and the need to manage expectations, the burden of history and what was fair or unfair in the past remains lurking in the background. Stop thinking about it! In each and every conversation you have about IT services, simply focus on what it takes to become more effective, regardless of what has transpired in the past.

Most importantly – never be afraid to apologize when performance has fallen short of expectations, but at the same time don’t put yourself in a more difficult position moving forward in order to make up for it. Instead, as Bryson says, zero in on those pain points – those jackhammer issues –with a laser like focus on becoming more effective. More than anything else, these steps will help IT organizations become more credible, regardless of whether their leadership is new or well established.