Bruce Lee is arguably the greatest martial arts star of all time, a man so skilled at his craft that more than 30 years after his death, his movies still rank among the genre’s elite. Known in the industry for introducing the philosophies and techniques of kung fu to Americans starting in 1959, today his lessons may be some of the most poignant for the modern CIO.

Few would argue that being able to deliver a devastating roundhouse kick to an annoying vendor’s head or the infamous two-inch punch to an underperforming server might come in handy. However, it’s Lee’s martial arts philosophy that can help us better cope with the demands on today’s IT leader — not to mention keep us from serving time for assault or replacing expensive hardware.

In a famous quote, Lee once encouraged his students to “be formless … shapeless, like water. If you put water in a cup, it becomes the cup. You put water in a bottle, it becomes the bottle. If you put water in a teapot, it becomes the teapot. … Do not be assertive, but adjust to the object, and you shall find a way around or through it.”

Fast-forward 35 years or so, and I was on a conference call with nearly a dozen IT professionals from around the country. Harvard Kennedy School Lecturer Jerry Mechling gathered us virtually to discuss what we felt were the most important traits and attributes of a good public-sector CIO. The goal was to develop a course of study at the Kennedy School of Government. The list we came up with was endless, composed of everything from technical expertise to process improvement skills and all points in between. Soft skills — mainly in leadership areas — were the most prevalent. Navigating politics, planning, budgeting, negotiating … the list was exhaustive.

The experience led me to pose a question on the professional social network LinkedIn: What are the attributes of a good CIO?

Based on the responses, I created a job description.

A glutton for punishment needed to deliver on the impossible. Experience in project management, vendor negotiations, systems auditing, organizational behavior, business intelligence, process improvement, portfolio management, budgeting and strategic planning a must. Fortuneteller and psychic a plus.

Is that where we are today? Has the CIO moved from a technical position capable of managing networks and building infrastructure to a “CXO” at the decision-makers’ table, expected to know the ins and outs of everyday business and play a critical role in developing business strategies, while also juggling the technical aspects? Answers depend on your organization and culture, but if you look at what the National Association of State Chief Information Officers and the U.S. General Services Administration’s Center for Intergovernmental Solutions are saying, that’s the trend.

From my desk as a deputy CIO of Missouri, I think our stakeholders and customers drive the overwhelming requirements of a CIO. Since all of today’s work force interacts with technology in some way, the list of people looking to the CIO has grown tremendously. Governors are looking for increased efficiencies and delivery on initiatives. Legislators are looking for budget-cutting innovation and technology-spending oversight.

Some customers want the CIO intimately involved in setting direction; others want the CIO to rubber stamp their plans and get out of the way. Some customers aren’t completely sure what they want. Some days they ask for the CIO to attend high-level meetings and the next day forget to mention the RFP that hit the street last week that’s replacing their mainframe legacy system. Purchasing expects the CIO to be the lead negotiator for IT contracts, and personnel looks to the CIO to provide salary and classification advice for jobs in technical fields.

It’s no wonder there’s an endless list of what CIOs must have because there seems to be an endless list of what they’re asked to do.

This brings us back to Bruce Lee and the idea that CIOs need to be like water — able to take the form of the circumstances where they find themselves. It sounds easy. When you’re at a Cabinet meeting discussing high-level issues within your organization, be a high-powered executive. When discussing budget, be a captain of finance. For those technical decisions, just become a security/network/server/application expert. This makes sense, right?

Not easy being a Kung Fu Master

Being like water isn’t as easy as turning on a faucet. Lee had a balanced approach to martial arts that included strength training, nutrition, speed and mental preparedness. The CIO requires a regimen just as balanced. The four main areas being stressed seem to be:

  • understanding soft skills, such as organizational politics (the good kind) and emotional intelligence;
  • project and portfolio management;
  • setting strategic direction, visioning and planning; and
  • business practices, including process improvement and performance measurement.

“Be the teapot”

“Water in a teapot” perfectly describes the new CIO’s temperament. As external sources — political, employee or technology issues — impact the organization, like flames to the pot, the water inside begins to stir. The molecules are so excited the water furiously bubbles, yet the only sign of stress and anxiety is a whistle.

For most of us, prior to Y2K, the only time we heard from the CIO was to ask for more money or tell us something bad was going to happen — usually those accompanied each other. I recall meetings with my last employer when technical jargon was used like ammunition to fire at managers who questioned IT expenditures or didn’t surrender budget to fund infrastructure improvements. It seemed the boiling water was always spilling out and scalding the audience the CIO was trying to influence.

The “kung fu CIO” can better deal with the issues, in part, because many of the technical environments he manages are more mature, stable and reliable. More importantly, he’s learned to navigate the organizational politics and has become more comfortable at the leadership table.
You don’t get training in this area from a book. Find someone who already knows how to win in the boardroom and have him or her mentor you through the process.

“Sweep the leg”

OK, I couldn’t resist a Karate Kid reference. Remember when the Cobra Kai teacher told his student to “sweep the leg,” a cheap shot targeting a weak spot on Daniel-san? It was a bone-chilling scene that led to the magic Mr. Miyagi’s hand-clap-and-cure method. Having worked in project management for decades, I’ve seen plenty of cheap shots that threaten an initiative’s stability. They can come from anywhere: an unhappy employee unsure about changes that are occurring, a direction change from leadership, technical failures and application glitches, budget cuts or vendor issues. Each time, these factors can land a devastating blow that makes us hobble or leave the tournament altogether.

Knowing these shots are coming, the kung fu CIO’s best defense is to understand the concepts of good project management and have tools in place to mitigate risks. Hopefully those mitigation tools are more reliable than rubbing your hands together and magically healing projects.

Was that choreographed? It looked choreographed…

Stories of Bruce Lee, Chuck Norris and Jackie Chan defending their skills on and off the set are legendary. Bruce Lee is said to have been provoked into several street fights, and Chuck Norris is rumored to have fought on camera with an actor who abandoned the scripted fight scene in favor of real combat. Most of the movie martial arts we see are carefully choreographed for maximum screen playability and minimal bruising — a lesson today’s kung fu CIO should take to heart.

Strategic planning and organizational vision are areas where the public-sector CIO has started to turn a corner and over time, it should minimize bruising — if not dramatically improve performance. When planning includes the measurement of key systems, links to service-level agreements and a continuous model of “plan, measure, improve, review,” you unleash the power of true strategic planning. The true kung fu CIO uses these tools to craft messages to stakeholders and has managers using these tools for growth.

A different kind of art

I remember checking out a library book on karate when I was 12. I’m not sure I read the preface. I know I never read the entire book, but I tried to duplicate the moves depicted in the pictures. Moves in pictures — it even seems silly to type it, but attempting to duplicate motion when all you can see are before-and-after pictures proved inadequate in my effort to be a self-taught master. It may be the only library book I returned early.

I used to find the same frustration reading the “lean, zero defects, sigma, black belt” books that made perfect sense for manufacturing plants, but failed to resonate with my public-sector experiences. Trying to find how it worked in real life was just too different, so most books went back on the shelf. About 10 years ago, I had an epiphany and started to see government as a collection of thousands of small factories generating thousands of products for customers. Suddenly all the process improvement, balanced scorecard and management-by-measurement books made perfect sense.

Still, it’s not easy to find the 80 to 90 percent of waste that statistician, professor and consultant W. Edwards Deming claimed is in most processes. Of all the efforts I’ve been a part of to drive pure process improvement (before automation), the most successful ones haven’t come from IT. In fact, most times when IT is involved, one of two things happen: Customers put all their eggs in the “new application will fix it” basket; or at the first sign of trouble, it becomes a pure IT project and the blame falls on them. In reality, most lasting change must come from the people who do the actual work, and automation generally addresses 15 percent of the 80 percent of waste you should be targeting.

Why is this a trait of the kung fu CIO? Peter Weill, author of Leveraging the New Infrastructure, said it best in a webinar last year: “Of course this isn’t an IT function, but no one else is doing it.” To really be a master, we may all have to find the key to pushing true process improvement through traditional IT. If anyone has the answer, please e-mail me immediately. More often than not, I think we end up faking it, which transitions us to …

“Judo Chop”

Austin Powers, the hapless ’70s-era spy created by comedian Mike Myers, effortlessly knocks out Dr. Evil’s cronies while announcing a mighty “Judo Chop!” If you haven’t seen the movies, it’s hard to describe the childlike chopping motion that accompanies his “Kiai!” battle cry — but trust me, it wouldn’t be very effective if confronted by a mugger. You might want to check out “judo chop” on YouTube to get the full effect before reading onward.

Now prepare yourself. This may be the most controversial statement in this article. Just because you say it, doesn’t mean you are doing it. Worse yet, saying it and only making a childlike attempt at it is great for comedic value, but not productive for your organization’s long-term improvements.

The landscape is littered with failed projects that were once touted as models of efficiency or innovations. Three years ago, trade publications and keynotes at popular conferences singled out a few IT organizations as industry examples. We celebrated their efforts as if they were completely done. Now if we revisit some of those organizations, we find failed projects, millions of dollars in waste, and in some cases, new CIOs. It’s a lesson played out on a national stage, but the real damage is done locally because our customers and stakeholders lose confidence and the consequences impact everyone’s efforts for years.

I’m not advocating that we stop talking about upcoming projects or sharing our efforts with one another. The information I have gleaned from so many of you has benefited our organization beyond what I can express. But when we raise the victory flag because we think we are going to be victorious, it does more damage than good.

Instead, let’s spend our efforts on acquiring the skills and putting tools in place to help improve our chances of delivering successful projects and building productive relationships.

“I know Kung Fu”

In The Matrix, Keanu Reeves is literally plugged into a computer program and instantly learns kung fu. He uses his newfound fighting prowess to lead the war against machines that have taken control of the world.

It would be great if we could instantly download all the skills we need for today’s challenges. The truth is, the talents we seek are only taught in master’s degree programs and are only truly mastered after years of experience, trial and error. Courses like the one mentioned through Harvard’s Leadership in a Networked World are a great start, but there’s no quick fix, silver bullet or cookie cutter for becoming a kung fu CIO.

There’s a reason Bruce Lee is almost as popular today as he was when he was alive. It’s rare that someone has the combination of natural talent, skill, dedication and training to rise to his level. Few CIOs will master all the political, organizational, budgetary, project management and strategic-planning skills that will make them the equivalent of a kung fu master. Luckily you don’t have to fight alone.

The most useful tool currently in a CIO’s box is probably his ability to build his own organization. Many CIOs have control of their own centralized shop — whether it’s a smaller one that oversees IT for the organization, or more and more, larger shops that provide IT services through a consolidated configuration. Regardless of the scale, ensuring that these critical skills are represented in your staff can be the difference between a flying side kick and a groin pull.

In Missouri, former CIO Dan Ross had three deputies: one for operations, one for infrastructure and one for budget and administration. Each deputy brought their own arsenal of moves to the table. Alone, not one is the complete package, but combined with Ross’ political savvy, the four led a successful consolidation effort in Missouri.

Colorado Deputy CIO John Conley is as comfortable in legislative hearings as most CIO staff is in a data center. Conley’s master’s in public administration came in handy when his state successfully lobbied for two laws that are radically changing its IT environment. Colorado CIO Mike Locatis recognizes the need to balance his senior staff with people who can be the cup or the teapot.

Today’s CIO is pulled, pushed and shoved in a hundred different directions. They are expected to know the ins and outs of business, while maintaining command over current infrastructure keeping an eye on the next technology. The trend for IT consolidation makes it even harder to keep up with the business needs of our complex organizations. The job requires many facets of leadership and management, and the demands on the position are growing.

I invite you to embrace the dragon within. Become like water. Develop the skills and flexibility needed to effortlessly fit in, whether you’re sitting at the executive table or the help desk. Describing his water analogy, Lee once said water can flow effortlessly by taking the path of least resistance or it can crash against an obstacle and wear it down. The ability to change forms and find a way around or through opposition is the key to success for today’s kung fu CIO. Kiai!

*Originally published as Public CIOs Need a Lesson From Bruce Lee (PCIO @ Government Technology, February 20, 2009)

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