Reconciling System Maintenance and Innovation as a CIO

Vanessa James  on InnovationAuthor Introduction: Vanessa James is a business technology consultant and blogger. She enjoys reading about new technologies, especially while listening to The Rat Pack. She currently writes for database performance monitoring solutions provider

As I’ve read through some of the CIO-related articles out on the Internet, I’ve noticed two pieces of conflicting advice. And this isn’t just a piece of simple advice where you can ignore it. This advice is at the core of what the IT team is and does.

They are:

  1. Spend less time on maintenance and more time on innovation. Most teams focus 80% of their time on maintenance, leaving only 20% of time for improvement and innovation.
  2. Focus first on maintaining the system. If you’re not already providing great service to those in your organization (delivering within a stated timeline, keeping existing structures operational), nobody will want to grow your budget.

So which is it?

To be honest, it’s both. While these two pieces of advice conflict on a superficial level, when you inspect them closely and approach them correctly, you’ll find that they actually support each other.


Your mindset and your team’s mindset is the first and hardest thing you have to change. If you’re having trouble evaluating your current mindset, think about what you and your team focus on and talk about most of the time. If you’re like most IT teams, most the time you’re focusing on “issues” or “tickets.”

If there’s something rising up inside you right now that wants to say, “But we have to!” please resist the urge. You feel this way because it’s part of your current mindset; that’s why you need to change it. So if the current mindset is “maintaining the system,” what should you change it to?

“Supporting the System”

The most important part of those three words is not the words themselves but how you and your team understand the words, and how that affects what you talk about. So let’s talk about that for a second.


Support is about being there every step of the way and not just reacting to a problem. For example, think of how you support your child, spouse or friend. You don’t wait for something to go wrong before you show up in their life. In fact, you might even see that your child is going to encounter a problem (bullying, maybe) and so you prepare them for that encounter. This is the same idea. Instead of reacting to problems, you want to prepare the system so it doesn’t encounter a problem (or the problem is lessened).

BizTech Magazine provides a great example of this type of thinking. Ricky Ribeiro suggests empowering BYOD users to upgrade on their own time. He argues that, in order to do this, IT must prep the system. He’s suggesting that the team looks ahead to see what’s coming and then adjusts to support it.

The System

The system has two aspects. The first is obvious: the software and hardware. When you’ve properly supported this part of the system it provides a jumping board for innovation and growth. You could always look into various intelligent automation methods if your current system seems to be preventing workers from being more innovative. Automation might help your workforce by reducing the maintenance of parts of your software, which could increase your productivity. However, if your software is running well, you can go on to do bigger and better things.

The BizTech article above touches on the second system: the people in the company. I quote, “The best thing that an IT worker can do for his users and his organization is educate, inform and raise awareness about the benefits and the risks of upgrading their OS.” It’s about preparing your users.

There’s only one way to implement this system of thinking: You have to talk about it. Talk about what you’re doing to support the system. Talk about how you do that. Develop best practices around it. Lead your team in shifting the focus.


When you’ve spent time changing your mindset, an odd thing will happen: your funding ratios will follow. This happens for two reasons:

  1. Because your focus is “support,” you’ll start to look for ways that you can innovate, build the system and make it better. This naturally shifts your budget from a focus on maintenance to a focus on improvement and stability. Maintenance is important, but only to such a degree that it supports something bigger.
  2. People want to support you. When it’s clear that the team cares about offering a great service (and follows through on it), people are more likely to allocate money to your budget because they believe you’ll provide a better service.

This takes time, so don’t be surprised when it’s not all roses and daisies. Just keep having the discussion. Talk about what you want to focus on. Given enough time, what you talk about becomes what you focus on. If you lead in this way, your team will follow.

The Higher Ed CIO: My thanks to Vanessa for an interesting reminder on how to free up capacity to do more valuable things. If you have a perspective on innovation or other topic you’d like to share with CIO’s in a guest post, please let me know.

This entry was posted in IT Performance Management, IT Strategy and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Reconciling System Maintenance and Innovation as a CIO

  1. M Carroll says:

    Great write-up.

  2. The Higher Ed CIO says:

    I thought so too, and was glad Vanessa shared it with us.

  3. John Bostock says:

    Simple, but great points.
    Thank You

Comments are closed.