Leading change from the front or behind

Are effective CIOs active change agents or change enablers? Or do they need to be both?

illustration of flock of geese leading
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Organizations that can change “at will” have the opportunity to survive what Geoffrey Moore describes in his book “Zone to Win” as waves of digital disruption. But what is the CIOs role in realizing change. Are CIOs active change agents or simply change enablers or change followers. To understand this, I took the pulse of the #CIOChat last week.

CIO perceptions of change management

I started by asking whether CIOs see change management as being about driving business change or just as a process for successfully introducing new applications into the existing production environment. This is an important question because it indicates whether IT is an implementer or part of their organization’s go forward business strategy.

Honestly, I was surprised when the answers diverged. One group of CIOs saw change as being more about new IT stuff and less often about driving real business change. This group tended to view change in terms of risk. Every change in their view needed to be evaluated for its potential to create organizational risk. Change management, for these CIOs, is about understanding potential impacts and taking control to mitigate them from happening. They see the CIOs role in technology change management, therefore, as being more about protecting operational health, security, and performance.

The other group of CIOs felt IT is more about introducing new apps with value to the business. These CIOs believe that IT organizations should not be introducing apps for IT anymore. Strategically, this group of CIOs gets the linkage between technology and strategy. They understood, as Vijay Gurbaxani of the University of California’s Center for Digital Transformation suggests, as moving organizations from technology facilitating products to technology being the product. Alan Murray of Fortune Magazine as proof for this position suggests that CEOs believe this—at least those attending the World Economic Forum.

From the strategic CIOs perspective, change is about making the necessary adjustments to people, process, and technology to accomplish business strategic goals and move corporate KPI needles. Given this, these IT leaders feel it is seen as essential for CIOs to know that culture change is often required to make real progress. As well, this may require the CIO to successfully navigate the tribes comprising the business. This is because for some, the CIOs vision may be threatening. For this reason, strategic CIOs need the C Suites backing. Change today is clearly more about more about the business than IT.

What causes a change roll back?

For obvious reasons, the above CIO groups gave different answers to this question. Risk oriented CIOs felt that the change process itself was the issue. They were concerned about the lack of ITSM processes taking hold in their organizations. They see successful change as requiring planning, implementation, and post implementation. These CIOs feel that failure at change almost always involves people or process related problems. They are squarely focused on people making mistakes. These CIOs want to prevent failure with better impact assessments. They feel that mature change management needs to balance standard changes versus non-standard change and ensure risks are made more visible. This means looking into how change requests are developed in the first place. They suggest that lean techniques on top of ITSM processes can really help. Part of improving here was seen as doing post mortems on change. This means looking at the potential impact for incident or outages.

These CIOs did value putting in place DevOps and change advisory boards. They suggested, however, that a single change advisory board is not enough—there need to be multiple boards. They said one board cannot be knowledgeable and be able to review all issues and contingencies. What is important is to have local organizations prioritize what is important to their organizations. Doing this well will over time eliminate waste.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       

Change master CIOs have a different take

Strategic CIOs worry about creating organization agility and the need to create one team that brings together the producers and consumers of business processes. They want to do things that reduce the resistance to change. They tend to be believe that failure at change involved process and culture versus technology or people. They feel that people can be managed, and technology can be tamed.

These CIOs see change at a strategy level and for this reason see people, process, tech, and governance as the 4 legs of the table for a successful change process. They believe that creating one change team with producers and consumers of change that uses agile approaches will mitigate change resistance. With this, they do worry about process breakdowns in communication, lack of stakeholder inclusion, or lack of testing. They want to ensure process requirements are well understood.

They claim that like a tumor, a bad idea rapidly metastasizes. Unwinding one is often difficult given the spent political capital and spent good will. One of the big problems for them is seen as culture. Problems can be systematic when few people are willing to disagree to terrible ideas especially ones generated from the CXO level. These CIOs, therefore, want to focus on changes with the most impact and they worry about risk aversion versus establishing quality change processes.

While I felt that I was talking to two different audiences last week, I believe each perspectives has merit. Each effectively, could be two different sides of the CIOs brain. In Derek Abell’s Managing with Dual Strategies, he suggests that effective leaders need to be focused equal on today (risk reduction) and the future (strategy realization). I believe that effective CIOs need to be good at both at the same time.

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