IT leaders must give CEOs bad news the way doctors deliver colonoscopy results

University MIS professor advocates palliative-care approach for speaking 'difficult truths'

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One of the banes of any CIO's existence is breaking bad IT news to the chief executive. It's never an easy task, especially when the bottom line is that money is required to address a problem. CEOs never want to hear that.

Robert Plant, an associate professor of computer information systems at the University of Miami School of Business Administration, has an interesting blog post in the Harvard Business Review outlining a method CIOs can use to deliver unwelcome news to chief executives.

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Plant talks about his father's days in a hospice last year and how impressed he was by "the staff's approach to delivering bad news. There's a lot of bad news in a hospice setting, and it's delivered in a straightforward yet thoughtful manner that defuses the anxiety and even eases some of the pain." He writes:

"I was curious about the doctors' and nurses' skill at speaking about difficult matters, and in response to my questions the staff introduced me to the small but growing literature on palliative care. I came to understand the reason for a phenomenon I had been aware of for years: Medical-center CIOs who are MDs tend to be much better at stating unpleasant truths about IT systems than nonmedical CIOs. It's because, as doctors, they've been trained to speak truthfully in fraught situations, and some of them have had a lot of experience delivering bad news to patients."

How would Plant be aware of something like that? Simple: He's been teaching a course on IT in health care for 15 years, during which he's noticed that "for CIOs who are MDs, the skill of delivering difficult messages becomes part of their tool set for communicating effectively with senior management."

Skill in delivering difficult messages is the most crucial part of the tool set, when you think about it, since difficult messages usually require difficult decisions. And those decisions are best made when heads are cool and the facts soberly reviewed.

Medical students are taught how to deliver bad news through a system called SPIKES, which is an acronym for a process designed to assess and help a patient's reaction to unwanted medical news, after which an effective treatment strategy can be agreed upon. Plant adapted the six-part SPIKES system for CIOs, adding a seventh step (no, it does not involve alcohol). I'll give you the first three:

1. Understand the CEO's perceptions. Part of this one is easy: He or she doesn't want to spend money on IT if they can avoid it. But most CIOs already know that about their chief executives. Plant here is getting at the CEO's level of knowledge regarding the enterprise (he uses legacy applications in his example), particularly whether the chief executive has been presented with a risk analysis of the problem being discussed.

2. Hold the calls. Plant says he learned from palliative-care literature that "it's preferable for bad news to be delivered in one uninterrupted, focused session." So make sure you a) schedule enough time to drop the bomb and b) leave your smartphone in your office when you meet with the CEO. And if the boss interrupts your message by taking calls on his smartphone, grab it from his hands, smash it on the floor and say, "Do you get the point, or do I have to make myself clearer?" (Disclosure: That last suggestion about the CIO and his smartphone is mine, not Plant's.)

3. Enlist a business ally. This one's really important because a lot of CEOs will dismiss what an IT person says because, hey, what do geeks know about running a business? So Plant says you should "enlist the advocacy of a senior member of the business unit that would be most threatened by any outage, down time, or lack of opportunity caused by the system." In other words, you prove that what you're discussing is about the business, not part of some geek wish list.

You can read the rest of Plant's advice here. He provides a very useful framework for delivering bad news to CEOs and moving them toward appropriate action.

And if you end up helping save the company money and make him look good, there's a chance the CEO might be willing to overlook that thing with his smartphone.

Chris Nerney writes about the business side of technology market strategies and trends, legal issues, leadership changes, mergers, venture capital, IPOs and technology stocks. Follow him on Twitter @ChrisNerney.

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