How to Transform Your Technology Organization: Leadership

This series of posts can help CIOs achieve better results. In the third and final installment, Bob Ronan describes the rare technology organizations that become 'Leaders.'

This post discusses 'Leader' organizations. The differences between the first three boxes of evolution are quite profound. In contrast, the difference between 'Innovators' (read more about them here) and Leaders is more of a nuance as these two organizations are much closer in appearance than any other two boxes. Evolving to higher levels requires an organization to upgrade their capabilities and it also requires a desire to make the move. For the move from Scrambler to Producer or from Producer to Innovator, the dominant factor is the ability to upgrade capabilities. The move to the final box is different as the desire and drive to become a Leader is as important as obtaining the capabilities required for this level.

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One characteristic of Leader organizations is that they empower employees at all levels to make decisions and take risks. Just as it is difficult to innovate until an organization is solidly in the Producer box, it is also difficult to empower employees until the Innovator box has been achieved. As a Scrambler or Producer, the CIO is often the one setting the agenda but Leader organizations are not constrained by the ideas of a single person or even a senior management team. Leader organizations are characterized by having people lead at all levels of the organization and the CIO may be surprised to learn about all the great things being done across his or her organization. A couple of ways this is accomplished:

  • Employees need to be acutely aware of how their work fits into the bigger picture. It is like the old story of the two stone masons where one mason thinks he is laying stones and the other thinks he is building a cathedral. While employees in Scrambler organizations believe they are simply fixing a defect, employees in Leader organizations know how the fix will impact organizational performance and how each IT project helps the organization achieve its strategic objectives.
  • The senior management team must make it clear that it is okay to lead at all levels of the organization. This is easier said than done, so perhaps an example will help make the point. When an employee has a problem and comes to a one-on-one conversation with their manager, the employee may approach the discussion in a number of ways. After describing the issue, he might then ask: How do you want me to deal with this? I think I have an approach, what do you think? Can I describe the changes I have made (or will make) to address the issue?

Managers in Leader organizations are comfortable with the third option while less advanced organizations discourage employees from taking action without approval. Leader organizations spend time optimizing the behaviors that facilitated the move to the Innovator box. Examples include:

  • Recognizing that change can be uncomfortable but it is inevitable in a Leader organization and needs to be embraced.
  • Making decisions when needed even if there is incomplete information. Slow decision-making can paralyze an organization.
  • Having an emphasis on "failing fast." Not every path will lead to a successful outcome so it is important to quickly identify the paths that are suboptimal and move in a different direction.
  • Spending time reflecting on what is working and what is not working and then changing processes and approaches accordingly.
  • Trying many different processes and approaches with the understanding that some will fail miserably – and that's okay.

The senior IT executives of Leader organizations are comfortable with the above behaviors and will create a culture that promotes them.

Many organizations with Leader-level expertise do not become Leaders because of the commitment required of its most senior personnel. It takes time to show others how to move forward with technology, and it takes time to give presentations at conferences or at internal company technology meetings. Leaders willingly make this time available rather than looking at it as time spent on unproductive activities. Some of this is due to a desire to "give back" as others have given to them but Leader organizations also know how much benefit is obtained simply from the preparation work required to share experiences with others.

Organizations will know they are in the Leader box due to feedback from both the business and other technology organizations. They will be actively sought out by other executives for their perspectives on how technology can be used to drive the business forward. Other technology organizations will recognize Leaders as "Centers of Excellence" and seek them out for help. They will have Producers coming to them for help in moving into the Innovator box, they will be sought out by Innovators who are trying to improve and expand their capabilities and they will be contacted by other Leader organizations who will want to share best practices. They will have requests to speak at conferences and requests to contribute white papers describing how they are using certain technologies. Their employees, in general, will be more engaged than those in other IT organizations and their CIOs will be recognized as key players in the C-suite.

The Scrambler/Producer/Innovator/Leader model provides a useful framework for looking at the maturity of a technology organization. The best organizations aspire to be Innovators or Leaders. Once achieved, these organizations will occasionally be challenged by Scrambler-like problems. After all, this is technology and there will be issues. The long-term Innovators and Leaders will react aggressively to these issues and quickly correct them for they remember the pain associated with being a Scrambler. They know how difficult it is to transform their organizations to the higher level states and they will do anything to stay there. In contrast, most Scrambler organizations don't realize how much different life could be if they could fix the root cause of their problems and stop being so reactive. It isn't easy to get the basics right, to innovate and to become a leader but the organizations that commit to evolving will be amply rewarded.

The Series:

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