Turning around in a greenfield (part 1)

Like most folks, I’ve had the chance to live through a number of organizational transitions, some successful, some not, but all of them have been instructive and helped me prepare to some day “get the call” and take over the reigns of a large organization.

I’m running a client engagement now with the IT department of a Fortune 200 company in the middle of large-scale transition: new ERP system, new ECM system, and outsourcing large parts of IT and Finance all at the same time. Their CIO is in the thick of it, and it’s too soon to tell whether he (and the organization as a whole) will be successful. But it reminds me of a similar transition I lived through and whose outcome I did get to witness first hand…

At the time, we were an organization that had been mom and pop, experienced rapid growth organically and through acquisition, and then been acquired ourselves by a Fortune 500 company. Despite this, even seven or eight years after the acquisition we were still essentially a mom and pop shop with some corporate veneer brushed onto us…and IT was no exception: we were a rag tag bunch of DIYers who, with no real processes in place for demand management or SDLC, had ended up supporting north of $200M in revenue. So we felt pretty good about ourselves.

However, it was becoming more and more apparent that things couldn’t go on this way for much longer. Corporate was under increased pressure to shore up processes and controls at its acquisitions, and our ad hoc approach to IT service delivery was failing our customers with greater frequency. After a multi-million-dollar implementation for a large customer went bust, our CTO stepped down and, after about a year with an interim CTO to keep the lights on, we got a turnaround CTO in place.

He came to us from a much larger organization and had done wonders there building the IT group for a new product line. The going apparently hadn’t been easy, and so he seemed like someone who could turn our struggling IT shop around, both in terms of our LOB and external customers. However, just about a year and a half later, he would step down, and the IT department would be dismantled, broken up into units that were rolled into the LOBs they served or outsourced (or some combination of both).

So what happened?

I’ve thought a lot about this particular leader’s situation, because he’s someone whom I admire and learned a tremendous amount from during and after my time working for him. And I think the outcome is easier to make sense of in light of a two key points.

  1. Turnaround requires a different approach than Greenfield
  2. The larger corporate context is an (almost) insurmountable constraint

We’ll turn to these in the next post and look at each in detail.


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