Board of Directors

How CIOs No Longer Shoulder Blame For Technology Failure

CIOs typically shoulder responsibility for technology failure. But CEOs and Boards don’t get a pass. Lack of courage and loss of vision are at the heart of the failure, and CIOs can step up beforehand to change and focus the conversation around business and customer experience, not just bottom lines.

Joe Woodruff

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February 16, 2023

I dashed off the plane. I was in desperate need of the men’s restroom. I ran in, and I laughed to myself at a woman standing in front of the mirror applying lipstick. 

As I looked for a urinal, I realized the restroom only had stalls. And I realized it as the last stall opened up and a woman walked out of it. In a split second, I did an abrupt pivot, and started walking out of the restroom, but not before the woman who emerged from the stall laughed, pointed at me and shouted for all to hear, “You walked into the wrong restroom.”

I know I did. I didn’t fight her on it. Sometimes, you just need to admit wrong. 

So far, the CEO of Southwest airlines has failed to do so. He and others are holding to the company line that an unprecedented storm and not having “enough winter operations resiliency” is the root cause of the holiday travel debacle that made them headline news.

The message is that their outdated technology was a secondary issue. Never mind that the pilots and attendants have been revealing 15 years of warnings that had gone unheeded. Committing 1.3 billion dollars now to upgrade technology is a lot of money for a secondary issue.

We don’t have all the facts. It is easy to point fingers. But, in the least, Southwest serves as a great springboard for critical questions:

Why do CEOs often get a pass on technology failures?

Why haven’t Boards seen disasters in the making?

What does the CIO need to do to avert a major crisis?

And we need to ask this. Because while the U.S. is busy shooting down UFOs, CEOs and Boards are shooting down critical technology initiatives.

What Is Really Behind Tech Failure

I have loved Southwest Airlines and their story. They exist by their own words to democratize the skies. They are all about LUV. They insisted that bags fly free despite the revenue projections made if they were to charge as other airlines do. 

In the glorious past, their pre-flight announcements were humorous and they were quick to foster a party mentality. Then leadership changed. 

The tech failure is indicative of a larger loss of courage and vision. At one point, Southwest was a cutting edge airline who became the darling of the industry. But a major dynamic frequently happens in the life-cycle of a company, especially after the departure of an astute and charismatic founder.

They started to manage back instead of lead forward. Business lost its courage.

As well, Southwest had been driven by a vision for a different customer experience. They were the fun airline with low fares and open seating who made it possible to be free to move about the country.

Business. Customer experience. Remember those two words.

And remember these two phrases: Lack of courage. Loss of vision.

See No Evil. Hear No Evil. Speak No Evil. Also known as the three monkeys.

I’m not writing to jump into a blame game. However, three main parties illustrate responsibility that lies behind technical failure.

For the Board, it is an issue of Losing Identity. For years we have been saying that every business is a technology business. We have even begun to refer to Information Technology as Business Technology. 

As technology leaders, we have been pushing ourselves to understand the business. Yet, the business still fails to push as hard to understand technology (or to sit at their table technology specialists).

Boards are responsible for answering the question of how to deliver value to customers; and if they are unable to see beyond the bottom line and to see into the future of technology as a value proposition, they have lost identity as a board and as a business that they lead.

For the CEO, it is an issue of Lacking Integrity. I’m not referring to the fact that decisions are made to increase shareholder value at the risk of technology disaster (though that seems to be a major factor in Southwest decisions). 

I am referring to integrity as keeping things intact and whole. It takes courage to make hard decisions for the sake of overall corporate health. It takes vision to keep a vision going. In the end, the long-term vitality of the business and the life-long virtue of customer satisfaction were sacrificed for more immediate gains and metrics.

For the CIO, it is an issue of Leading Insecurity. And that is technology sin. CIOs and their teams secure the business and secure the customer experience. Sh*t doesn’t happen on your shift. 

We lead insecurity if we sit in insecurity. Technology leaders have been in the shadows of business so long that we easily retreat back. 

How CIOs No Longer Shoulder Blame

We are done retreating. 

Every business is a technology business. Every customer experience is a technology experience. You must see yourself as the heart of Every. Single. Thing. And the heart must beat.

You don’t have technology needs. You have business needs. You have customer needs (external and internal). You are the voice of those who cannot speak for themselves. 

You no longer shoulder blame because you are giving your CEO and the Board a different context in which to view you by: You facilitate the business. You foster the customer experience.

And you no longer shoulder blame because you are committed to speaking up and to mastering standing out.

We learn this stuff. How to persuade. How to talk tech to non-technical people. How to translate technology into business.

But I fear we have tried it but not trained for it. I fear that pushback and being ignored has edged us into the shadows. And, after a time, shadows begin to feel like shade, an oasis from the heat.

But you were born for heat. 

The issue merits more than an article. But let’s focus on a couple of takeaways:

Translate what you do not only in terms of the business but also in terms of the customer experience. 

Don’t wait for an invitation. Serve your way into the minds of other business leaders. Over time, their need for technology solutions become a chorus, not your solo, a mindset, and not just your mind on the matter.

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