The days of one-off change management initiatives are over. Rather than tackle organizational change management with an end in mind, IT leaders and their organizations must now exist in an environment of persistent flux.
“In this era of continuous disruption, the goal should not be to build an organization that reacts quickly to change. Nor should it only be to build an organization that is almost impervious to disruption,” says Kevin Martin, chief research officer at the Institute for Corporate Productivity (i4cp). “Rather, the goal should be to build an organization that succeeds via a systemic approach to managing amid change.”
In fact, i4cp’s research reveals a correlation between change-ready organizations and performance. “Top performers are up to three times more likely to view change as normal, manageable, and a source of opportunity,” Martin says. “Low-performance organizations are up to 3.5 times more likely to view change as just the opposite: overwhelming, tiring, or threatening.”
Mastering change as an organization requires shifts in mindset, process, and systems. It also demands that IT leaders and their teams face up to some hard truths of leading and managing change in order to avoid mistakes that might be more easily swept under the rug in times of less frequent upheaval.
Change is about people: First, last, always
Yes, technology is advancing rapidly and can enable exponential changes in process. But it should never be in the front seat.
“You cannot overemphasize the importance of three core elements in executing on any strategic change: your firm’s culture, leadership, and talent,” says Martin. To that end it’s important to consider whether the culture will support or impede the change you seek and how to address those issues.
It’s not about your vision; it’s about their why
“Leaders tend to focus on the vision of the future state, and project teams tend to focus on sharing their new great idea,” says Matt Mead, CTO at SPR Consulting. But they forget to explain the reason for the change.
“We’ve found at SPR that the first communications about a change should focus on why the change is happening,” Mead says. “This could be expressed in the form of questions: ‘Why is this change happening?’ and ‘What is the risk of not changing?’”
While CIOs and business leaders have often had time to understand the rationale and wisdom of an initiative and what it will mean for them personally, others will also need some space to understand the impact.
“The rest of the organization needs time to process as well, including why the change is needed and what it means for each person,” Wallace says. “That sort of thinking needs to be part of the change plan.”
Change involves loss
“We do a terrible job of understanding and navigating the emotional journey of change,” says Wanda Wallace, leadership coach and managing partner of Leadership Forum. “This is where leaders need to get smart.”
While some people may welcome it, “change is also about loss — loss of my current capability while I learn new ones, loss of who I go to to solve a problem, loss of established ways of doing things,” says Wallace. “Even if someone loves the rationale for the change, they still have to grieve the loss of what was and the loss of the ease of knowing what to do even if it wasn’t efficient.”
It also involves fear. “This is usually labelled as ‘resistance,’ but I find many times it is fear of not being able to learn the new skills, not being as valued after the change, not feeling competent, not being at the center of activity the way they were before the change,” says Wallace. She advises IT leaders to name those fears, acknowledge them, and talk about the journey of learning — not just from the C-suite, but at the manager level.
It’s impossible to overcommunicate
“The first casualty of change is often information,” says Mead. “Keep in mind that in the absence of communication, employees will fill in the blanks by themselves — forcing you to dig out of a hole of misinformation in order to establish messaging.”
Communication is even more important in the remote work environment. “Try to align your team on the value of overcommunicating,” Mead says.
There is no try. Only do
It’s an oft repeated adage, introduced by management guru Peter Drucker famously, that culture eats strategy for breakfast. But there’s more to it than that, says Swamy Kocherlakota, executive vice president and CIO for S&P Global.
“Execution eats strategy for breakfast,” Kocherlakota says. To that end, his technology organization is hyper-focused on measuring and reporting on its performance. “Clarity in measuring promise-and-delivery gaps is key,” he says. “For every initiative, we have activities, leading indicators, and lagging indicators.” At the same time, he notes, it’s important not to confuse “activity” with outcomes in planning or communicating progress.
It’s not just the execution, but how fast an organization can move from insight to action, that can make the difference. Greater information transparency can help.
Research from ic4p found that high-performance organizations are nearly 50% more likely to share and discuss market and stakeholder insights beyond the executive level and down to the mid and frontline leader levels. “CIOs and IT leadership should meet frequently to sense and assess where change — either driven by external or internal forces — pose the greatest risk or present the greatest opportunity,” Martin says.
Monolithic changes (almost) never work
Two years ago, Wendy Pfeiffer, CIO of Nutanix, began the transformation to software-defined IT operations in order to support the company’s hypergrowth, integration of recent acquisitions, and transition to a SaaS business model.
“Early in our transformation journey, I read James Clear’s book, Atomic Habits, and was struck by the potential for us to adopt a much more iterative and gradual approach to implementing IT changes,” Pfeiffer says. Making smaller changes over time yielded more significant and sustained operational improvements. Only a handful of IT team members had ever written automation code. Today, they deliver the vast majority of our services autonomously, have reduced spending by two thirds, and have achieved an internal Net Promoter Score of 95. “IT’s model has been so transformational that our Sales Ops, Developer Productivity, Facilities, Legal and HR teams have also started to adopt these same methods for their functions,” Pfeiffer says.
Metrics are mandatory
“If you don’t measure it, it doesn’t matter,” says Mead of SPR Consulting. “Take time upfront to determine how progress [in the desired change] will be measured, monitored, and reported,” Marti says. “Define what the leading indicators are of a successful change should be and put in place mechanisms to monitor the transformation progress.”
But make sure not to overdo it. “An organization can only measure a relatively small number of metrics before it becomes overwhelming,” Mead says. “It’s important to think carefully about what we measure, and what we don’t measure. Being at peace that you have the right metrics accounted for will narrow the focus, keep employees on the same page, and allow teams to be more efficient in reaching business objectives.”
You can change more if you don’t care who gets the credit
In previous roles, Pfeiffer of Nutanix spent loads of money and time on change management consultants and programs to launch new services with great fanfare, big training programs, and a focus on user adoption. Turns out it’s more effective to give the business more ownership of systems and changes with support from IT.
For example, the employee communications team own all the metrics for the company’s intranet, using their expertise with content and engagement to configure and modify intranet functions, create, and connect to content, and integrate with collaboration workflows and technologies as needed.
“Today, we ensure that the company’s functional teams have a frictionless way to create, configure, and operate the services for which we provide technology,” Pfeiffer says. “They are champions of their process and drivers of change, supported silently by the flexible technologies that IT provides.”
Change (in IT) never ends
Organizations that are committed to improvement know that transformation truly never ends. It demands a mindset open to continuous change.
For Jeanine L. Charlton, senior vice president and chief technology and digital officer at Merchant’s Fleet, a 60-year-old fleet management firm, that means rejecting the way things have always been done and adopting what Buddhist’s might call the beginner’s mind. “We often say we’re going to think and act differently in a very useful way,” Charlton says. “We are determined to break our fixedness.”
Ashish Parmar, CIO at Tapestry, the parent company of luxury brands such as Coach, Kate Spade, and Stuart Weitzman, has a similar approach. “Transformation is a continuous journey,” Parmar says. “We must continue to be students of the past, listen to what is going on today in the industry, and be thought leaders of the future to anticipate what is coming.”
Maintaining the status quo is tantamount to going backward in IT.
“You have keep improving,” says Kocherlakota of S&P Global. “Our continuous transformation and value realization cycle uses a formula of ideation, prioritization, and delivery, followed by feedback, to achieve that goal.”