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How CIOs Can Lead Change

January 08, 2021 Leadership
myles suer
By Myles Suer

In his 1970 book "Future Shock," futurist Alvin Toffler argued that society was undergoing an enormous structural change, an evolution from an industrial society to a super industrial society. That change — which economist Klaus Schwab later dubbed the Fourth Industrial Revolution — was and continues to be overwhelming for the people that CIOs lead and the digital workers that CIOs and their teams serve. Toffler claimed that the accelerated rate of technological and social change would leave people disconnected and suffering from shattering stress and disorientation.

Clearly, COVID-19 has only accelerated digital worker stress and disorientation, countering the negative impacts of change requires personal resiliency and the desire and ability to continuously learn. The responsibility weighs heavily on those leaders who deliver business change — CIOs.

How Would You Describe the Pace of Business Change?

Several months ago, Mike Kail, former CIO at Yahoo, posted a cartoon showing a company discussing the timing of their digital transformation and a COVID-19 wrecking ball about to hit the building. Clearly, COVID-19 has acted as an accelerant for business change and digital transformation. While some organizations cut  back and stopped planned changes due to the pandemic, that was likely a mistake. Most CIOs in the CIOChat believe the pace of business change is speeding up exponentially. The acceleration today is driven by the need for businesses to deal with their remote worker experience and changing customer needs.

Analyst Dan Kirsch believes that “business change is being forced by increasing customer expectations. Successfully companies that understand the market, look at technologies as an enabler for change, not the reason to create change.” Unfortunately, many CIOs find themselves at this very moment fatigued by all the change. Others say they are worried about their businesses' ability to absorb coming changes. They suggest that change needs to be serialized — one change at a time. This requires CIOs to stop talking about initiatives and do only one thing now. In other words, they should get changes out of what Geoffrey Moore calls the transformation zone faster. To do so requires extreme agility in responding to ever-changing business requirements.

To be fair, COVID-19 has pushed many CIOs out of their comfort zones. But CIOs need to keep their internal momentum going to respond to the pace of change that is coming. Clearly, CIOs see the need for speed. But a balance must be found between agility and being thoughtful. At the same time, CIO Sharon Pitt said, “At some point, we are simply going to have to slow down in order to re-energize for what I'm sure will be sprints in new directions.” Even with the regroup that Pitt suggests, it is critical that the business be ready to respond to the pace of business change which is coming.

Related Article: CIO Priorities: IT Operations, Cybersecurity, Leading With Empathy

What Is the CIO’s Role in Initiating and Delivering Change?

Skillful CIOs are able to adjust to whatever role is needed by their leadership peers. Sometimes, they need to lead the entire show and other times, they need to be arranging and facilitating. Regardless, they need to be in on the development of business strategy and the business planning to actualize it. For CIO Carrie Shumaker, it's all about leadership and partnership: “Leadership to observe what is needed strategically and how technology can support it. But partnership, because in most cases business leaders must co-sponsor and lead non-technology efforts together. CIOs have to share the spotlight.”

CIOs can help facilitate change by providing business teams with the essentials:

  • Creating access to needed tools and technologies.
  • Keeping the business safe and secure.
  • Making sure technology teams are focused on business challenges.
  • Ensuring continuous improvement is put in place.

This means that CIOs and their team need to facilitate, lead, encourage, prod and champion change. But ultimately, people have to change themselves too — what Whitney Johnson calls personal disruption. CIOs have an important role in fostering a digital culture and workforce. Clearly, CIOs can’t only put technology in the hands of people. If they don't know how to use it, it doesn't matter. CIO Martin Davis is correct when he suggests that "CIOs have a better view of things than many other executives and as such, tend to help initiate change more often. But to be successful, the CIO needs to ensure that the rest of the business is driving change, with the CIO as the catalyst."

Clearly CIOs should be driving the delivery of change. However, the strategic plan needs to accommodate the people and process aspects of change. When a CIO takes on the role of change driver, they should seek out areas of the business where technology, process change, innovation, analytics and experience improvements can have a real impact. CIOs need to actively recruit change agents and change teams and seek to guide their vision. For this reason, Pitt suggests that CIOs, “educate, partner, lead, intervene, forward, check ... whatever is required in any particular situation to ensure success. Also, the stated goals of the institution need to frame priorities for delivering.”

Related Article: CIOs Reimagine the Workplace of the Not-So-Far-Off Future

What Skills Do Employees Need to Better Weather the Coming Change?

I asked CIOs about the skills that employees need. They came back with a list of 26 skills, but because humans can only consider seven things at a time, here are the top seven:

  1. Communication
  2. Adaptability
  3. Agility
  4. Small team leadership
  5. Openness to learning
  6. Teachability
  7. Flexibility

May all of us show more of these qualities in 2021.

Related Article: 5 Digital Transformation Lessons to Take Into 2021

How Important Is Change Management to Delivering Change That Works?

CIOs believe that having a structured approach to change management is critical. Part of this is having the right change management leaders with the right personal skills. Change leaders have a key role in delivering business change. Clearly, an effective process includes organizational temperature checks and guardrails. Another critical point is involving the entire organization in change, not just IT, because without effective change management the business ends up with spaghetti architectures, broken processes and shadow IT.

For former CIO Raechelle Clemmons, “There's no question that change is most effective when intentionally led. But I think we need to get to a place where organizations are living, breathing, changing environments vs. places that must be managed through each change.” This requires thinking about change management and continuous improvement at the same time. It also involves baking change management into agile planning and delivery processes with active stakeholder participation. For Kirsch, “change management is about incremental change and quick wins, and continuous improvement is about business process improvement.”

Related Article: Change Management: The Key to Successful Digital Transformation

How Should We Measure the Effectiveness of Change?

For former CIO Isaac Sacolick, “Successful change is strategic, but it does require classic KPIs plus employee satisfaction measurement. Tactically, I look for releases on time with quality, without patch releases (or hotfixes, or emergency brake fixes), and minimal production defects. If customers, employees, or end-users are satisfied, it means agile teams drove successful change and can go on to the next priorities.”

Yet change takes time and work to deliver on expected business outcomes. For this reason, technology investments should tie back to a strategic business objective and these objectives should have measurements attached them. For smaller, more IT-focused projects you can look at usage rates, defects, tickets and surveys. But for CIO Paige Francis, “If everything is done as an intentional piece of the whole business puzzle, effectiveness is measured by increased customer retention, revenue, and user satisfaction.”

Parting Words

The pace of business change is only accelerating, which makes IT a strategic business function. Now is the time for strategic CIOs. It is also important to counter the negative impacts of change. Creating more integrated experiences for remote workers and for customers can help, however, I believe that Kirsch is right in saying, “In our world of continuous everything, I don't think businesses can think that change is ever done. That being said, setting short-term goals tied to business metrics is critical to get buy-in and align teams for long-term goals.”

About the Author

Myles Suer, according to LeadTail, is the No. 1 leading influencer of CIOs. Myles is data principal product marketing manager at Boomi, he's also the facilitator for the #CIOChat.

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