by Isaac Sacolick

The CIO’s role in driving agile transformation

Jan 22, 20196 mins
CIODigital TransformationIT Leadership

CIO’s have a unique opportunity in evolving their agile processes to truly transform how business and technologists collaborate and drive results.

Agile is not just about scrum, Kanban, backlogs, standups, sprints, velocity, retrospectives and other team practices. Organizations require leadership so that the agile practice has a mission, goals, governance, and collaboration that delivers new capabilities, enables new products and services, drives workflow efficiencies and quality, addresses technical debt, and experiments with new technologies.

The question is, what should the CIO be doing as a leader and often the sponsor of agile practices in the organization? How does the CIO enable agile process to do more than get work done, but achieve a new culture and mindset across business leaders, technologists, marketers, data scientists, and partners?

Let’s look at some of the leadership roles the CIO should take on to drive agile transformation.  

Asking questions that drive collaboration on business, technology, and data

Waterfall processes and mindsets were a major source of IT project failures before agile practices became more widely adopted. That being said, I often hear CIOs describe their agile practice as fragile, acknowledging that while many of the execution processes are following scrum, Kanban, or other agile methodology, their business processes and mindsets are stuck in waterfall mode. Many business leaders still ask for everything, rarely prioritize, poorly define requirements, and ultimately drive IT to build something that is a better version of some legacy application or process. These are all symptoms of practicing agile without being agile and will all inhibit true transformation.

There are four behaviors that CIOs can promote and lead by example to help challenge these mindsets.

The first starts by asking questions and getting the who, why, how, and whether questions answered around new strategies, requirements and priorities. If for example you’re asked to develop a new mobile application for a field services team, you might start by asking who the primary end users are, how the application will benefit them, and why the sponsor believes the application will impact overall operations. You might ask why the application will make it easier for the field service team and whether new data collected from the field can drive competitive advantages.

Many business leaders jump right into what questions, as in, here’s what they want, but without the who, why, how, and whether questions it makes it difficult for technologists to consider new innovations and optimal solutions.

Taking one for the team and challenging the status quo

Second, the CIO has to take on the sometimes punishing role of challenging the status quo. Businesses that invest in new technologies to do what was done before only better, faster, easier, and cheaper might deliver business value but will likely fall short of truly transforming the business.

Transformation requires challenging subject matter experts, leaders with earned belief systems, and everyday practitioners that there may be an entirely new way of achieving an even better result than status quo.

This is hard to do in cultures that resist change and when organizational incentives, especially among long tenured leaders, may be disincentivized to take risks.  This is why CIO have to lead by example by reminding leaders and people across the organization that innovation, transformation, and results stem from people finding entirely new opportunities that are likely to disrupt how things are done today. Better to disrupt from inside out rather than being the one disrupted.

Driving iterative thinking and minimally viable products

The third behavior is to develop a product management function and the next generation of product owners in the organization that leverage feedback from customers and work iteratively to drive incremental results.

CIO can’t drive change by being the butler or the grinder in the organization and wait for business leaders to come forward with their requirements and priorities. They can’t just manage project management offices that define and evaluate a project’s ROI and execution readiness. Lastly, they can’t fall into a digital transformation anti-pattern where the organization is entirely too customer driven to the point where customer needs worked on without thought on whether the implementation is strategic enough to warrant investment.

To turn this around, CIO should consider adding product management and ownerships skills and functions to their organizations. Product managers apply strategic thinking to what markets, user personas, and customer values the organization should target with new or incremental products and services. They define strategy and visions, and communicate the who, why, how, and whether, a product and investment can deliver results. They understand and drive their questions to better define minimally viable products, bring new capabilities to end users faster, and design feedback mechanisms to capture data and insights to drive improvement priorities.

CIOs should lead exploring and reviewing partnerships

The fourth behavior is to expand organizational capabilities through partnerships.

Some CIOs channel solutions to what their internal teams are skilled and have the technologies to implement on their own. Others look to outsource more and seek partners or system integrators to oversee implementation. And some CIOs gripe when business leaders have already selected partners or when the CIO is asked to assist or bail out shadow IT.

None of these are optimal, and innovative solutions delivered faster and with higher quality more often requires a blend of internal resources, partners, reuse of existing platforms, and experimentation with new technologies.   

CIOs should partner with their business leaders on developing an ecosystem of partners and technologies that drive current and future needs. This is not a procurement process nor is it a vendor due-diligence process as both of these assume requirements are known and one ore more vendors already in consideration. This is an exploration, and innovative, digitally minded CIOs are best equipped to define and manage this journey.

In reviewing these four recommendations, you’ll see these are practices, responsibilities, and mindset changes that all happen before and outside the teams practicing agile execution. It’s this partnership with the business that can change agile as a tactical way of getting things done to one that’s strategically aligned to customer opportunities and business transformation.