As Jim Noble, co-founder and CEO of The Advisory Council, told the crowd of CIOs gathered at the recent Midsize Enterprise Summit East, there is a saying among golfers: Better a lucky golfer than a good one. And in golf as well as in IT, you want to make your own luck.

No matter how difficult an IT problem might be, Noble reminded the audience there are no truly unique technology challenges. Every CIO faces tough questions, he noted, adding that the key to handling them successfully is to surround yourself with good people. By having an expert staff that works together as an efficient team, you make your own (hopefully good) luck, he said.

"I've surrounded myself with clever people," Noble said, "and that's helped me appear smarter than I am."

Noble is a Scotsman, and is the first to tell you Scotland is renowned for (at least) two things: golf and scotch whisky. With golf covered during his presentation, he moved on to scotch.

"IT starts just like whisky, with an unpleasant mix— that's the data," he joked. But, he noted, after that mix is distilled, it's far more palatable. And, at least in the case of data, CIOs are left with wisdom and, if the distillation is very good, foresight. And those insights are like shots of a single malt whisky. Well, so much for the analogy! However, the MES audience enjoyed it based on the applause and laughter.

But getting that distillation just right requires focus, and often, IT is distracted by scarcity of people, suppliers and capabilities. What really matters is creating business imperatives that can then drive business benefits. The trouble is, IT is surrounded by paradoxes which Noble spelled out for the audience.:

  1. Lean vs. mean: Which should an IT department be? Both? Either?
  2. In control versus shadow IT: Should IT lock out all new, unapproved software? Or should it embrace everything from everywhere? What's a happy medium?
  3. IT ownership vs. business ownership: Who owns what project?
  4. Lights on versus game changer: No one just wants to be responsible for keeping the lights on. But what are the risks in being a game changer?
  5. Change the process to match the app versus change the app: Are we thinking about solving problems backwards?
  6. On-prem versus off-prem: Do we move everything to the cloud and outsource control of the data or do we keep it under our purview and become a slave to it?

Currently, he explained, 70 percent of IT dollars are spent running the business, and 30 percent on changing or innovating business processes. He challenged the audience to invert those figures and spend 70 percent of their budgets on innovation and change.

"You want to be able to say to the boss: 'My team delivered more business outcomes than any prior year, below budget and won the hearts and minds of key business execs," said Noble.

That may be easier said than done, but Noble offered five ways to achieve that flip:

  1. Focus on the right issues. As Yogi Berra said, if you don't know where you're going, any road will do. Define your goal and create a plan to achieve it.
  2. Leverage your clients' knowledge. Don't be afraid of shadow IT. Shadow IT can be wonderful if you leverage it. What is it that people are looking to do that they are not able to do with the software and systems that are "IT approved"? Be an orchestrator, not a controller. Determine what the desired business outcome is and figure out how we can implement it. Move the impossible to the possible.
  3. Do more with less. Don't perspire — instead, inspire! Computing is virtually free, virtually instantaneous. There are more than 5,000 cloud apps today and that number is growing. SOA is here to stay. Your job is to find a way to make that safe, secure and sustainable.
  4. Make business leaders feel good about IT. What does it mean to transform — they have no idea of how to do it but they know they must. Be their trusted advisor.  Reduce pain points so your business does not get "uberized." We are on cusp of next industrial revolution. Every company will be a digital business, mostly devoid of physical assets. Look at Uber, Airbnb, Aflac, Quicken Loans. Even General Motors and Chase bank are creating innovative solutions.
  5. Fast is really good. Gone are the days of seven-year projects. Three months is enough time to get an innovative project off the ground. Think of projects as Lego bricks that click together and can be quickly assembled and reconfigured.

Focus, skill and the right caddy will always help your golf game, and those are likely the same ingredients to better business. Just ask a Scot.

Noble is one of the most accomplished CIOs in the industry today having served as the IT leader for BP, Merrill Lynch, AOL Time Warner, Altria and General Motors. Earlier in his career, Noble lead the worldwide IT consulting practice at Cap Gemini and prior to that worked for GE on the design of aircraft systems.