When Jonathan Feldman was hired as CIO for the city of Asheville, North Carolina, in 2005, he walked into an overworked team with little morale and less strategy. But after realigning priorities, Feldman turned a flagging department into a banner one. The result has been an impressive digital transformation story.
When I spoke with Feldman, he recommended that CIOs must begin their new jobs by helping leaders at every level understand what the IT department can and cannot do.
Here are some secrets to his success:
Identify Pain Points
The first thing Feldman noticed when he became CIO was that his team was “the working wounded." To understand why they were overwhelmed and frustrated, Feldman had to look beyond policies, practices, and surface metrics and get to the heart of the issue.
It soon became apparent that the IT department was essentially paralyzed by project overload. “There was no sense of project discipline. There was no forced ranking, no forward project schedule, no portfolio management, and little if no communication with other departments, other than things like, ‘I just delivered your printer.’”
When an IT department is that overwhelmed, things are bound to go wrong. One of Feldman’s first days on the job, the computer system crashed. He walked into the city manager’s office and said, “Well, the system is down on my watch. I guess you want my head.” The city manager responded, “I brought you here to fix this.” And with that, Feldman set out to not only repair the computer system but also to completely transform how the city handled IT in general.
Onboard Your Team
Rather than lambast his team for the department’s failures, Feldman took a very different approach. He asked his staff members, “What makes you want to get up in the morning?”
First, he gathered their responses, such as, “I want to be able to finish a project,” “I want people not to be upset with me,” and “I want not everything to be a number one priority.”
Then, more importantly, he took action. “As a leader, you have to have credibility. When you ask a question or do a survey, and then you do nothing with the responses, guess where your credibility goes? So it was very important to start delivering on these things.”
While Feldman had his own ideas about change, he genuinely wanted to turn his team of “working wounded” into satisfied employees. He adds, “It turns out prisoners aren’t very good at building the Sistine Chapel.”
Some of his staff members asked for simple changes, like having a flexible schedule. His stance is that there’s no good reason not to give your employees something they want, but you do have to help them understand there are tradeoffs. It turns out those tradeoffs can be great motivation for your team.
Feldman supported the idea of flexible schedules while communicating that this type of change required that they begin prioritizing and managing projects very differently. It was the sort of win-win proposition that brings energy needed to spur sustainable and collaborative change.
Pare Down Priorities to a Manageable Number
The cornerstone of Feldman’s approach is portfolio management based on forced ranking of projects, departments, and priorities. “In 25 years of experience, I’ve learned that if everything is a priority, nothing is a priority,” he says, adding, “What you focus on is what gets done.”
He says one of his most difficult tasks was helping other departments understand that IT has limitations. He laments that in large organizations, IT is usually only 1 to 4 percent of the budget. Yet IT is expected to be all things to all people.
“Departments had the bad habit of assuming that if they had 30 projects, IT should be working on all of them right now. That’s what they were used to. You change the conversation when you help them understand the need [for other departments] to force rank their projects and choose two or three or four priorities.” Feldman says his department aims to never have more than five primary priorities and five secondary priorities.
Feldman uses an approach he calls “Do, Drop, Delegate.” This means that if an item isn’t a top priority, it needs to be dropped or delegated. When a project falls into the delegate category, his team equips department heads with the tools necessary to take care of some of their own IT projects.
Learn how successful companies are delegating business application building to the line of business. Download An Introduction to Citizen Development: Bringing Shadow IT into the Light, which highlights considerations and best practices for enabling employees to help themselves with the right guardrails.
Use All Available Tools, Including SaaS
When Feldman first became CIO, the IT department was using a tangled mess of technologies. “We had this cockamamie, hodge-podge combination of VPN technology and remote desktop. It wasn’t homegrown, but it was home-configured, and it really wasn’t manageable. There was a lot of manual wrenching to keep it all going.
“Within a year or two of being here, we picked an application service provider for remote access. This was back when cloud platforms were viewed with extreme suspicion by CIOs and, frankly, I was probably one of those.” But Feldman says cloud-based platforms have improved dramatically, and there are now great options that are compliant with public safety needs and regulatory requirements.
Nowadays, Feldman encourages the use of SaaS as a way of having departments handle some of their own needs, including project management, emergency callout systems, and office productivity. This not only saves the IT department valuable staff time, but also it saves the organization money. “We can buy it cheaper than we can build it,” he says.
To those who still believe that SaaS isn’t safe for public sector information, he laughs and says, “1990 called and wants its ideas back.”
Feldman dislikes the use of the term “shadow IT” because it indicates that far too many IT leaders still think they’re the only providers of technology services. “You have to know it’s not about a tight span of control any more for IT. It’s about partnership, collaboration, and co-creation. It’s not about, ‘We are the priests of IT and we get to tell you how to work.’ It’s about IT being a trusted partner. It’s about IT adding value.”
He adds, “We don’t find people doing ‘shadow IT.’ They bring us something and say, ‘Hey I found this really excellent solution. What do you think? Is it safe? Is there enough governance? What about our data?’ It’s really telling that customers call us BEFORE they buy SaaS— they know we are not the ‘no police.’”
Use Metrics to Keep Everyone Honest
Feldman is a big believer in being open about his department’s performance. In his time at Asheville, his department produced 47 consecutive quarterly reports. Even when the department was struggling, he didn’t shy away from reporting on what his team had planned to do and whether they accomplished it—or not. While reporting poor performance can make people wince, he says it’s also a powerful call to action.
“Customers have been gossiping about you anyway. When you report your performance, they shake their heads and say, ‘At least they're honest about it.’ You start to build credibility with your customers, and they start to believe that you care about them. And when they see that things start getting better, it gives people hope. They’re able to see you go from 40 percent to 50 percent to 70 percent on performance.”
“Nowadays, we get a lot of praise from our customers. Our customer service surveys are consistently in the 85 to 95 percent ‘good or excellent’ categories, and I think most staff would tell you it is a great place to come to work. Most importantly, our outcomes for citizens are high. Our projects are effective, generally on time, below budget estimates, and most of all, helpful to those using the systems. I routinely hear from residents that our efforts are helpful, which is fantastic.”
The best thing about Feldman’s story of transforming IT within Asheville is that the story isn’t over. Because as Feldman and every good CIO knows, operational excellence is just a stepping stone to ongoing innovation.