by Isaac Sacolick

The one transformation goal CIO must prioritize in 2020

Dec 17, 2019
CIODigital TransformationInnovation

Defining goals without acknowledging the need to transform often leads organizations to make iterative improvements to existing businesses without challenging themselves to consider disruptive opportunities and threats.

Do you know the one thing that you have to change in your organization in 2020?

Will you focus on developing new products and services? Surely that’s a critical place to start, especially for the growing number of companies that want to sell and deliver digitally driven products and services directly to end-users. Or maybe your business is already experiencing digital disruption, losing market share, or recognizing competitive threats from new startups and must revitalize the customer experience.

If that’s not it, maybe your top priority should be to become a more data-driven organization. Are your leaders making strategic decisions off thirty-day old data processed through a myriad of spreadsheets and dumbed down charts presented on slides?  Are you sitting on a trove of historical data that can fuel new insights, innovations, or operational improvements?

IT priorities that are essential business imperatives  

Perhaps it’s the IT organization’s practices and culture that need a leap into the digital century? Are you waterfall planning and must shift to agile planning practices to improve collaboration, experimentation, and delivery? Are you migrating to the cloud where bimodal IT is less effective? Does IT need a heavy dose of devops automation, alignment, and culture change to get developers and operations working toward common objectives?

But it’s not just IT organizational practices that need to evolve. Is your workforce still operating with multi-step, cumbersome workflows using tools that keep them tethered to their desks? Is no one using the CRM because it’s too complicated? Are the dozens of ERPs a maintenance nightmare? Is there an even more significant employee problem because the number one issue raised during exit interviews are frustrations on the quality of the tools, technologies, and devices provided to employees? 

Ahhh, maybe next year will finally be the year to focus on addressing technical debt.

Or maybe you finally won a sizable innovation budget and you’ll be leading machine learning, IoT, or blockchain pilots.

Over 2019 I’ve asked this question to hundreds of technology and business leaders. What are your pain points? What are you working on these days? What are your top priorities?

Sometimes the conversation goes deep into a topic, and other times it goes broad spanning culture, people, practices, and technology.

But there are two fundamental answers I get to these questions.

When your answer to digital transformation is “Yes!”

The most common answer I hear from leaders on their 2020 priorities can be boiled down to a straightforward answer. Their response is, “Yes,” but that’s now how IT leaders verbalize this answer. What they actually say is a long list of goals, priorities, a strategic scorecard, and sometimes KPIs that they plan to focus on in 2020.

This leader is often trying to do a little bit of everything. They want to deliver fast or feel pressured to address many business drivers in parallel. Some leaders don’t know how to say “no” to some of their stakeholders’ priorities. 

Now I’m one of the first people that advise organizations to drive digital and that they need to operate smarter and faster. When I meet CIOs, I share stories about what it was like leading a SaaS company in the late 1990s servicing newspapers, an industry that went on a two-decade slide down because they failed to outpace digital disruption. Now in 2019, disruption hit the retail sector hard, and I know financial services, healthcare, manufacturing, and other industries have a limited window to transform.

Speed is critical for organizations to survive and thrive but trying to drive several racecars on different tracks with different obstacles is a game plan that’s bound for accidents, collisions, and missed opportunities.  

IT leaders can’t go to the employees in their organization with a transformational shopping list. Everyone walks away hearing a different message, and then managers spend significant effort reinterpreting priorities, debating scope, and rationalizing dependencies. Even with the best agile practices in place, collaboration tools, and cultural alignment, organizations that spread themselves too thin feel a “drag force” of trying to do too much.

It’s crucial to have a strategic priority list, but how you communicate it to employees can have a significant impact on their engagement and results.

When you don’t have an answer to digital transformation

Before we look at solving the communication issue for organizations with a lot on their transformation plate, let’s also consider the opposite scenario.

If you’re part of an organization that’s not driving transformation, then your effective answer is, “No.” Or maybe your organization is transforming, and you don’t have a seat at the table. Neither are terrific answers for CIOs and IT leaders.

There are still many organizations that are not leading transformation programs. 30 percent of respondents to a recent survey disagreed with the statement that their businesses are fixated on the promise of digital transformation.

What’s my answer to these companies and their leaders? Holding onto the status quo, avoiding confrontational decisions, and driving change management efforts too slowly are recipes for disruption.

These organizations often have goals, strategies, KPIs, and prioritized initiatives. Many are not stagnant or just running the business. But without acknowledging the importance of transforming the business, it often implies a set of guard rails of what can be questioned, challenged, or tested. Today’s culture, business model, operating mode, customer experiences, collaboration practices, technology capabilities, and data strategy must evolve significantly.

Defining goals without acknowledging the need to transform often leads organizations to make iterative improvements to existing businesses without challenging themselves to consider disruptive opportunities and threats.

The most important thing for CIOs and IT leaders to prioritize in 2020

So what’s the answer? What should CIOs focus on in 2020? Is it people, process, or technology? Growth or operational excellence? Security and risk consideration or innovation? Which line of business has the most upside? What technical debt is actually a burning operational fire that needs drastic attention?   

The answer to the most important thing to prioritize is to help the organization understand how to prioritize one goal. That’s right – one goal.

What’s the big win? What’s the one goal, strategy, initiative, or KPI that should be the primary mission for the organization in 2020? What gets leadership aligned, budgeted, and resourced above all other business needs? What one priority should be the organization’s 2020 calling?

I’m not naïve and saying organizations should manage a portfolio of priorities. Have goals, a list of initiatives, a scorecard, and KPI targets. But communications to employees are vital, focus is paramount, and making progress on a transformation goal critical.  

My parting advice in 2019 is, IT and business leaders must start by communicating one, and only one clear objective for 2020. When everyone understands that one goal and the plan to achieve it, then share the longer list.

So, what is your one and primary transformation goal for 2020? Happy Holidays and New Year.