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Avoid the “All or Nothing” Strategy

by Tina Nunno  |  August 14, 2015  |  Submit a Comment

Do you want it all, some, or nothing? If we’re talking chocolate, I’m a want-it-all kind of person. Gummy Bears, then none, thank you very much. Please don’t ask me why. Gummies are cute and everything, but they don’t do a thing for me. With chocolate, I never yield. When it comes to these types of decisions, I’m perfectly fine with going with an all or nothing strategy.

But when it comes to many important IT decisions, the all or nothing strategy is often not the most productive approach. And IT executives take the all or nothing path more often than you may think. Consider the types of decisions you as a CIO may have to make:

  • Do I centralize (your relevant technology) systems, decentralize them, or do something in between?
  • Do I charge back for shared services, absorb everything into a central budget, or charge for some things?
  • Do I put all our potential IT investments through a governance process, just the large ones, or decentralize the entire budget and let everyone else decide?
  • Do I need my stakeholders to be “happy” with a specific IT investment, “tolerate” it, or do I not proceed at all if they are “unhappy”?

In situations like these, CIOs and other leaders may pursue an all or nothing strategy, either accidentally or intentionally. This binary approach has fairly obvious benefits and risks. If it works, you get it all. If it doesn’t you get nothing.

Let’s work through an example. Imagine you’re a CIO in a very decentralized organization, with 20 business units of varying sizes, each with their own  email system. The organization has a history of not playing well together, and preferring to do things locally. You feel there are lots of potential benefits to centralizing email such as cost, security and reliability. You may think to yourself, “if I can get all 20 business units to agree to a single solution, then the benefits for the enterprise will be huge so I’m going to go for it!”.

You could pursue a mandate from the CEO to get them all on board. This is the “big bang version” of the all or nothing strategy. If the CEO agrees, then you may be able to proceed. You’ll get compliance from the 20 business units. Hopefully. Probably not enthusiasm, and definitely some passive resistance, but the 20 business units hopefully will cooperate at some level or ensure it appears they are cooperating. If the CEO declines to give a mandate, now you have nothing. No forward progress. You not only cannot proceed, but you will have burned significant political capital and dug yourself a hole you will have to get out of with your colleagues.

You could try to socialize the change. You could convene a governance group of the 20 business units, or work with them individually to try to get them to all agree to come on board. You can involve them in choosing a vendor, creating the requirements and get them to all agree on what the solution would look like for all of them. In the best of cases this process takes time, and in the worst of cases some reluctant stakeholders will stonewall you. And you’ll burn more political capital. Many long years later, you may achieve your goal and will celebrate the success as you retire.

In the meantime, ask yourself if the enterprise would have gained benefit from having “fewer” email systems than 20, but more than 1. Is 15 email systems better than 20? Or is 10 email systems better than 20? Ask yourself if creating more incremental change would enable you to make forward progress with less political strife than the all or nothing, and even in some cases, less technical risk?

You may be saying to yourself, “but we could do so much more if we could get everyone!”.  And this may be true. If you get it all.

If you don’t get it all, do you want to risk getting nothing? Should you sacrifice potential forward progress for possible perfection?

And let’s please keep in mind that “getting it all” is often not as wonderful as it seems. Often this scenario is fraught with more political, technical and leadership risks than a more incremental approach. It is very often true that “getting that last 20%” is more difficult to achieve, than getting “the first 80%” and may not be worth it from a business perspective. Will you really save enough money, or make enough new revenue to justify the time, strife and sheer energy that achieving a 100% solution requires?

Consider the number of times you pursued an all or nothing strategy and whether an alternative option would have served almost as well, or perhaps better. Subsitute the strategy of “all or nothing” with a strategy of “forward progress”.

Have a goal in mind and focus on making forward progress towards that goal whenever and however possible. Avoid the all or nothing unless the urgency and criticality of the situation absolutely requires it.

And some situations really do require an all or nothing approach. Like any situation involving chocolate. It is urgent and critical, and I want it all.

Category: conflict-management  leadership  organizational-politics  

Tina Nunno
Vice President & Distinguished Analyst
16 years at Gartner
16 years IT Industry

Tina Nunno is a research vice president in Gartner's CIO Research group based in Stamford, Connecticut. Ms. Nunno is responsible for conducting research and developing publications aimed at helping CIOs and their organizations around the world improve their performance and contribution. Read Full Bio




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