by Jennifer O'Brien

CIO50 2019: #26-50, Russell Morris, TransGrid

Nov 14, 2019
Technology Industry

TransGrid CIO Russell Morris has learned – after many years’ experience – that “success is more about psychology than technology.”

He learned this after working at the UK head office for a pan European manufacturing company with offices in eight different countries. A particularly poignant encounter with a French colleague left an indelible mark, he told CIO Australia.

“On one particular occasion, the head of IT in the Paris office had recently retired and a new person had taken his place. I went out to meet him, as we needed to connect multiple offices throughout France into a new global MPLS network to support the business driver of ‘make anywhere, sell anywhere’.

During the encounter, although the Frenchman’s English was excellent, he was a “proud Parisian” and insisted the conversation be spoken in French.

“From that moment onward, I spoke in English, as this was my only option, but he replied in French and refused to utter another word of English. I had some very basic French, combined with reading his body language I began to communicate why I needed his help.

“I quickly dismissed the idea of reporting him to HR for being obstructive; instead trying to put myself in his position, considering how I would feel in his situation. It was that evening I began brushing up my French language skills, and acquainting myself with an online translation app. I wrote him an email the next day (in broken French) confirming what we needed to achieve. He replied and agreed we should meet up again in the weeks ahead.”

On his return journey to Paris, he said he carefully planned what he was going to say, and practised a few key French phrases to build up his confidence.

“It turns out the new head of IT was feeling threatened that the new network connection would be the beginning of a takeover of his department from the UK. As such, he had everything to lose and nothing to gain from agreeing to it.

“He wanted me to feel empathy from his perspective in a new job, trying to make an impact, and what he felt was the beginning of a dilution of his influence. He really appreciated the fact I had tried to speak French, and walk a mile in his shoes. The network connections were ultimately installed and tripled the bandwidth he previously had, while costing less than his legacy WAN connections.”

Reflecting on this time, Morris said the morale of the story is “listen, empathise, and understand the value drivers of your audience before acting.”

“Implementing the latest technology always means change. It doesn’t follow that the change is always welcome. In my experience, the most proven system in the world, forced upon reluctant people, will probably fail to realise the business benefits.

“By contrast, a less capable system on paper, that has the hearts and minds of the workforce, will often win out. The trinity of people, process and technology is still a good mantra to this day. Two thirds of success as a CIO, has nothing to do with technology.”

Today, Morris is still taking these lessons to heart and used this belief system as he launched the organisation’s first Centres of Excellence (CoE) program in the last quarter of 2019.

“This drew inspiration from Lockheed’s World War II Skunk Works, an early pioneering way for small and empowered teams to create powerful solutions, unencumbered by their traditional business responsibilities.

“Utilising the internal IT business partnering team, we set out to improve how we strategically collaborate across our internal teams and external partnerships. Many internal teams share similar common technology challenges: large volumes of data, technical integration, and methodology for reporting and analysis.”

Morris said expressions of interest were invited from across the business, to spend two days per month solving problems, some of which were previously put in the “too hard” pile.

“The response was tremendous, with more people applying from within the business than the eight places per CoE that we had offered. To empower the teams as much as possible, we chose to collaborate with different industry partners in quarterly cycles.

“Initially, we engaged in partnership with Cognizant and Wipro, industry-leading organisations, able to augment our ideas and help us uncover new and innovative ways to accelerate our teams. The external perspective will help us to look into the future, at the next wave of disruption, and proactively prepare with an agile mindset.”

Meanwhile, another first for TransGrid he said was embracing the concept of Design Thinking.

“An external coach helped to anchor the concept and provide a non-traditional way of thinking about problem solving. For many of the teams, this was a brand new perspective that encouraged divergent thinking and creative working.”

Some of the four newly established CoE’s included: data (to establish the concept of data management and business data custodians); integration (to define a flexible and reusable integration model, and remove ‘point to point’ interfaces in favour of an API, microservices architecture led approach); reporting and analytics (to bring together all disparate reporting techniques into a single area); and ERP (to establish knowledge into a single place).

Indeed, Morris said the process of change was not without some challenges, given the enormity of the situation.

“Historically, TransGrid was a government owned business, privatised in December 2015. In the preceding 30 months, under a consortium of five independent shareholders, we began forming a new corporate identity. This inevitably came with growing pains.

“I joined TransGrid in late January 2018 with a fresh perspective, ambitious to be a catalyst for change. After a period of, what I refer to as, ‘professional listening’, it became apparent that the CoE’s would be a perfect way to support business disruption and begin working beyond traditional boundaries, challenging each other in new ways.”

He said there were four main objectives: deliver improved speed to value; improve horizontal collaboration; unlock critical insight from its data and enrich the skills of the teams participating.

“Without a doubt, the single biggest benefit was in fostering a new culture of collaboration, building relationships outside of historic processes, or hierarchy.We knew it wouldn’t be perfect from day one, our target was one of continuous improvement and refinement over time.

“Embracing new concepts, like ‘Design Thinking’, also set us up for future success. In the early days, we established activities that would deliver business value in 30, 60 and 90 days. These new relationships extended back into the day-to-day work, helping to change the culture of the business from within.”

At the same time, there were operational and cultural impacts of the project. In the early stages, he said it was important to promote the initiative as IT enabled, but business led.

“Historically, IT had a limited reputation as a business value enabler, and it was important to change the brand of our IT team, as well as bringing others along with us on the journey. Deploying some internal marketing and attracting the natural disrupters was a key objective from the outset.

“We now have around 36 people participating with 47 per cent of them being female, which is rare for a traditional engineering organisation. This diversity, combined with new ways of problem solving – inspired by the Design Thinking concept – has helped us to look at historic problems with fresh eyes and perspectives.

Finally, he said it was important to embed a growth mindset within the organisation, changing the dialogue and culture around mistakes and failure.

“This cultural shift has been central to empowering a considered cycle of risk taking, assessment, adaptation, evaluation and communication. This enables the business to move away from protectionist avoidance of risk, but also encourages a ‘fail fast, fail cheap’ mentality, in place of the slow and expensive failures that undermine progress.”

As CIO, Morris said when he meets with the executive leadership team he tries not to talk about IT issues, but rather uses his time to share stories and “try to walk a mile in the shoes of my colleagues.”

“This approach provides invaluable insight that keep me better informed with emerging business issues from multiple perspectives.”