by Francois Estellon

Embracing change as IT leaders

Mar 11, 2016
CIOIT Leadership

You'd think that in the always evolving technology space, IT organizations and their leaders would be comfortable with change. And that's true ... as long as it's tech related. If we have to change people – ourselves or others? Well, that's a different story...

Technology is often at the nexus of any major change happening in an organization. In most cases, IT is not neutral; it is either considered a catalyst to drive transformation, like a new ERP implementation, or an inhibitor that must be conquered like, an infrastructure revamp to support a merger.

CIOs cannot stay on the sidelines when it comes to change; they are expected to lead or get out of the way. But what does it mean to lead during transformation? It boils down to two components: a leader being personally comfortable with change and being able to consistently set their team on the right path.

I would consider the way we, as individuals, comprehend change to be the main evolution from being a individual contributor to being leader of people. Embracing is a lot different than adapting. It takes a conscious effort to go through many stages of maturity:

  • Being truly comfortable with uncertainty is critical. One must develop their coping mechanism to react to discomfort and manage outside of their safe zone.
  • Building the skill to ignore our reptilian programming, our “inner lizard.” As humans, we are wired to react with primitive emotions instead of rational thought to challenges. Leaders must control their “fight or flight” reaction to change.
  • Training a keen eye for clarity: clarity of understanding, cutting through the noise and focusing on the keys to success. Clarity of vision, laying out the goals and outcomes for oneself.
  • Developing the ability to quickly recognize the two basic type of changes: Forced or Chosen. Leaders ideally are proactive enough to choose to change before it is forced but sometimes events can surprise us… In that case, taking a step back to refocus and not getting into an immediate whirlwind of response activities, helps moving from a forced to a chosen path.
  • Finally, once these skills are mastered, making sure to convey them and coach the next click down in the organization.(More on this below)

One of  the tools for coaching an organization is to build  “muscle memory.” Over time, a leader can commit the right behaviors to the collective memory and culture of their groups. Through this motor learning method, the group will become better at being proactive for planned change or not panicking in the face of unpredictability. They key is to ingrain a long term “muscle” process to handle change, creating natural, effortless behaviors performed without conscious effort. Following this path past the topic of change management will eventually lead to developing a culture of innovation. (Maybe the topic of another blog post…)

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2 paths to Change

From the current status quo, or what I would call,  “our comfortable and predictable reality”, the path to change can take two different and dramatically opposed directions.

Transitions driven by top-down communication typically lack vision and people are being told what to do through very formal communication like intranet articles or mass email blasts. When natural questions are asked (why? how? when?) the answers are typically biased toward self-sustainment. Leaders say “you will be trained”, contributors hear “you are on your own”. This type of transition leads to the scary unknown where people experience a loss of control in an unpredictable future leading to anxiety and discomfort across the team.

On the other hand, transitions that are based on strong engagement of the team usually provide a clear vision with defined incremental steps to success. Leaders offer involvement opportunities, solicit feedback and offer genuine, strong support. The future state then looks challenging but achievable which energizes teams, reduces anxiety and fosters open learning… all achieved through emotional persuasion.

Getting the transition right time over time will create a culture where not only the leaders are comfortable with change but the teams and individual contributors have confidence and will demonstrate the right behaviors.

As technology leaders facing permanent change, it is imperative we develop the personal skills to drive and also make sure we put our teams consistently on the right path to the future state. The role of a leader is to make sure their organization ends up somewhere else than it was headed.