Management Strategies

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Deflecting 'Inflection Points' in Favor of the Now

IT leaders don't need help with inflection points, as important as they are in the long run. They need help getting things done in the short run.

At a few conferences I've attended recently, there was discussion about the insurance industry being in the middle of some "inflection points" -- those points in the river of history when old or perhaps less useful strategic paradigms give way to new ones.

Part of the point was the fact that most business executives, including CIOs, don't spend enough time considering whether the kinds of strategic issues they're dealing with might in fact be inflection points. One discussion suggested that more organizations needed to commit themselves to leading through inflection points, though it's unclear to me what that means exactly.

One way to begin to accomplish this is by asking such questions as:

  1. When was the last time you used the phrase "inflection point" in a sentence?
  2. When was the last time you heard the phrase "inflection point" in a sentence?
  3. When you hear the phrase "inflection point," what is the first thing that comes to mind?

As a former CIO in the insurance industry, I'll take a crack at answering these questions. Here we go.

  1. Never
  2. When I heard it discussed at insurance technology conferences
  3. Something else that will prevent me from getting work done

There's a point to all of this. IT leaders don't need help with inflection points, as important as they undoubtedly are in the long run. What they need help with is getting things done in the short run, so they can create the kind of process and customer value that allows them and their organizations to think about the long run -- more specifically, the kinds of things their organizations are counting on them to do, like system modernizations, business intelligence, operational effectiveness and efficiency, and increased marketplace competitiveness.

[Previously from Petersmark: Why a CIO's Last 100 Days Are Most Important]

Proactively considering inflection points is nevertheless a fine thing, as are many other notions out there that have come and gone -- IT and business alignment, human capital, enterprise resource planning -- the list goes on and on. All of these macro trends and many more are also fine things, particularly in the abstract, but none of them address the kinds of things that IT leaders really need help with in their day-to-day roles. In fact, they are often distractions for many IT leaders trying to get things done in their organizations.

To be clear, that does not mean that these well-hyped macro trends, including inflection points, are not important things at some level. It's just that, in the IT leaders' world of finite time and energy, they are often not the most important things. That's because, unless you're the IT leader at a large multinational like GE or a huge government agency like NASA, most likely you are focused on just getting through the day with everything intact.

Of course, an argument can be made that, if you're not thinking about such abstract but potentially strategically important things from time to time, you're not really doing the complete job. That may well be true, but my bet is that, for most CIOs out there, the bulk of their annual performance reviews -- and the compensation linked to them -- have a lot more to do with planning, executing, and delivering than almost anything else.

That's the difference between the finite set of realities for most CIOs and what might fall into the category of "When I have the time and energy to think about this other stuff, I will do so." In the abstract, all good CIO leaders know that change is constant, and that not being open to change as a matter of process, technology, and market reality is akin to not planning on being in an IT leadership position for very long.

So what might be more helpful to time-constrained CIOs? For better or worse, the answer to that lies within the realm of the CIOs themselves. They are in the best position to control the kinds of things that put demands on their time -- staffing, governance, expectations management, business relationships, etc. All are part of that equation, and all have their own particular challenges on the road to CIO mastery.

Most CIOs and IT leaders will be able to turn their attention to inflection points and other such interesting notions only after that's accomplished. Until then, they'll just keep deflecting.

Frank Petersmark is the CIO Advocate at X by 2, a technology consulting company in Farmington Hills, Mich., specializing in software and data architecture and transformation projects for the insurance industry. As CIO Advocate, he travels the country meeting CIOs and other ... View Full Bio

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Kelly22
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Kelly22,
User Rank: Author
12/4/2014 | 2:27:03 PM
Re: How to avoid being in reaction mode?
Kathy, I think you're right that balance is key in prioritizing daily responsibilities along with new trends. As you say, it's a challenge to gain competitive advantage with so many other duties. It may take some extra hours to address today's buzzwords/trends and determine whether they'll fit into a company's future strategy, but insurers that take the time to do that today will be better prepared.
KBurger
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KBurger,
User Rank: Author
12/3/2014 | 4:09:27 PM
How to avoid being in reaction mode?
Frank, I think you have hit the nail on the head regarding how jargon, buzzwords and management consulting hot topics often can distract managers from urgent deliverables and customer service priorities. But I think many insurance companies still face some serious challenges around, how to gain competitive advantage versus being in reaction mode. For example, I'm sure there are many companies that are scrambling to try to figure out where they fit into a digital business environment, where some thoughtful R&D and planning a few years ago might have put them in a more competitive position today. I guess it requires balance, objectivity & honesty and an ability to know when the buzzword emperor isn't wearing any clothes.
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