by CIO staff

Ron Moskowitz: Leading IT innovation takes vision, energy

Dec 10, 2021
InnovationIT Leadership

The South Coast Air Quality Management District CIO, and 2021 inductee into CIO's Hall of Fame, discusses fostering a culture of innovation with CIO contributing editor Julia King.

Design thinking should be at the center of DX: Prashanth MJ, Sutherland Globalinnovation
Credit: Nayanba Jadeja / Getty Images

At a time when innovation, speed, and agility are all critical to virtually every enterprise, what does it take to lead a technology organization?

That’s the central question CIO contributing editor Julia King posed to Ron Moskowitz, CIO at South Coast Air Quality Management District in their conversation at the CIO 100 Symposium and Awards, where Moskowitz was inducted into CIO’s Hall of Fame.

Over his career, Moskowitz served in a variety of IT executive roles in city and county governments in California.  Now he is CIO at South Coast Air Quality Management District [AQMD], where the organization’s role is to control pollution in an area covering most of Los Angeles, Orange County, Riverside and San Bernardino.

Following are edited excerpts of Moskowitz’s conversation with King on fostering a culture of innovation. To hear directly from Moskowitz and get additional insights, watch the full video embedded below.

On leading an innovative technology organization:

I believe innovative projects require leadership with vision, charisma, high energy.  Be able to clearly communicate what the team needs to do their job, to achieve that vision, and get excited about the possibilities and ideas and the benefits everyone can appreciate.

…It’s important to make sure that you know what is expected of you and what you’re able to provide, and to listen to not just what your business requirements are, but the team that has to deliver, what they need to do their jobs.

Empower your team and show them that they’re appreciated.  Invest in their professional development.  Challenge them to be better and try new things.  Have fun. 

On balancing innovation and keeping the lights on:

With every new product or service comes a support model for it.  So, our plates are often overloaded pretty quickly…. 

At South Coast AQMD … we created an IT steering committee.  We lined up every project for every division, how much it costs, what the resources are needed.  And before that, people really didn’t know what was going on with each division, let alone within IT.  But once we sat down, everyone took a look at it, looked at the budgeting, we all came to agreement and prioritized our projects, and there’s a better understanding, a better willingness to work with IT, and really just make sure that our plates are manageable.

The other thing I would say is … formalizing project management is very important.  It provides a structure for people to understand when a project should be delivered, how much money it will take.

On streamlining innovation:

The first thing is that you always have to be in discovery mode.  And that means that you do need to know your product, your service, why it’s important, how it’s being received, determine where the bottlenecks and pain points are, start scoping out what you want to do, how you want to address them.  Prioritizing becomes a critical skill, since most people don’t have unlimited resources or time to fix anything you want.  Getting support and trust from every level is important.  Not everybody wants change.  So, creating the right narrative and soliciting input from almost every direction can bring people along. 

Again, structured project management is very important.  [In] project management, there’s kind of a rule where [spending] time in the beginning [on planning], you’re almost guaranteed that things are going to go well. 

Also cultivate a culture of no blame.  Things are going to happen when you try to innovate and you just address them….  Don’t let people feel bad about it, just move on, fix it, and try not to make the same mistake twice. 

On the importance of being present and visible:

I believe in being a servant leader. Listen and provide solutions, promote recognition and celebration.  People see me, and I talk to people.  I have an open-door policy and I listen to what their needs are.  Creating that environment is crucial. 

I also believe in providing training to staff for what they need.  I walk into so many organizations where I have staff and they are told to support something, and they don’t know 100% of what it is that they’re trying to support, and they’re trying to Google things quickly to come up with answers.  Creating a formalized training program is important and identifying things like process standardization through ITIL or through some other source and get people certified…. Giving them the tools and technologies they need to do their jobs [is] so important.