How CIOs Can Lead Human-Centered Change in Any Organization

The traditional approaches to change management are no longer effective. Today’s CIOs must kick-start change not with the technology or processes, but with people.

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An IT department within a global hospitality organization wanted to improve the customer experience through a major technology transformation. They put together a change management program, complete with a structured methodology, rollout plan, timelines, metrics, and goals. The result? The company’s sales and customer support agents were confused, adoption of the new system was low, and a lack of integration with critical systems caused many headaches.

Those of us who have worked in technology long enough have heard this story before, so what happened? While the IT organization did its due diligence around its processes and technologies and tried to understand the business requirements, they forgot one very important aspect: people.

This cautionary tale is why taking a human-centered approach to change is critical to any successful transformation. Even if you have leading technology and use best-in-class process harmonization, if the humans impacted are not incorporated into the process at each step in the journey, it will be difficult to truly transform.

In today’s all digital world, as markets and customers continue to evolve at a faster rate, executing change quickly and effectively is more important than ever. This is especially true for CIOs and IT leaders, as technology often drives business results. But the age-old approaches to change management are no longer valid; to do this effectively, change needs to start not with the technology or processes, but with people.

What is human-centered change?

As CIOs know, just adding new technology or coming up with new processes doesn't necessarily make people change or lead to better business outcomes. Historically, change management has meant pushing content and training to an organization’s workforce when a new platform or workflow was launched.

The concept of human-centered change is just what it sounds like: putting the person at the center of everything that you do. Human-centered design concepts have been around for a while, so what does it really mean for change management? It means starting with your front line employees or those impacted by the change and observing and interviewing to better understand current processes, pain points, and where change might have the most impact.

You should also help your employees understand how the change is aligned to your overall values. For example, at Salesforce, we try to take a human-centered approach in all of our work. By communicating how changes connect closely to our values – driving our customers’ success and building trust in our solutions – we can secure alignment from the inside out. And, if you drive your change initiatives from the inside-out, rather than top down, you end up with better results, as the people in your organization understand how they can best reinforce the company's values and achieve its objectives.

Much has been written about the “what is” of human-centered change; however, I want to be sure to also explain the “how.”

What are the barriers to human-centered change?

While this past year taught us the importance of resilience and quickly changing to meet market demands, transformation programs by their very nature are hard. To succeed, CIOs must proactively identify and solution for three key barriers to human-centered change: 

  • Lack of a clearly articulated vision

In his book, Start with Why, Simon Sinek states, “All organizations start with why, but only the great ones keep their why clear year after year.” Many leaders fail to articulate and consistently communicate a clear vision for change with their people. Just as bad: leaders create a vision but fail to champion it with their organization. As a result, every project or initiative, even if it has benefits, feels disconnected from their employees’ reality, and turns those people off to change.

  • Siloed working and thinking

Despite the fact that many senior leaders understand the importance of collaboration, when left to their own devices executives are not always aligned, and many operate in silos when they make decisions or develop strategies. Even today, too often we see a business unit make a decision about a change that doesn’t get back to the IT team until it’s too late, or the IT organization rolls out new technology without considering the impact on its users.

  • Change fatigue

As change becomes more constant and continues at a faster pace, CIOs must manage through change fatigue. Transformations by their very nature are not a “one and done” type project, but rather a continuous journey of evolution. Change is difficult, which means that CIOs must find ways to make incremental progress toward their end vision and inspire their people at each step of the way.

How CIOs can lead with human-centered change

While the challenges the hospitality company encountered led to an unsuccessful result, in my role at Salesforce Professional Services, I have seen leaders take a human-centered approach to change that leads to successful business results. Here are the common behaviors these CIOs model to do just that:

Break down silos: drive accountability with the executive team

As we wrote in a previous article in order to drive transformation and human-centered change, the CIO must drive accountability, investment, and ownership of change across the executive team. The CIO can bring everyone together, and ensure that there is a clear vision that is communicated effectively throughout the organization.

The CIO has a unique vantage point: they can see the customer value chain from an end-to-end perspective because they have experience servicing across domains. By bringing their peers together, CIOs can ensure teams are talking, proactively identifying challenges, and working together toward their end goals. By bringing their colleagues together, fostering a vision and strategy, and driving clear communication toward front line employees, CIOs are a lynchpin for human-centered change.

Lead with business value

Leading CIOs know that they are not in the business of technology, but that technology is business. With any type of transformation that involves technology, CIOs must ensure that changes align with actual business value metrics. This means the funding of new projects, investments in training or upskilling, or upcoming initiatives must align with key metrics and outcomes that will improve business performance and orient the team around the business value metrics they want to hit.

Be the change agent and culture champion

Digital transformation has catapulted CIOs into the epicenter of organizational change; as such, they should be a key change agent for promoting cultural change to successfully evolve the organization. Since culture can be an accelerator of change, CIOs sit in a unique position to become what Gartner calls the “culture change leader.” In this role, the CIO helps shape the mindsets, behaviors, and ultimately, end goals for where the organization needs to go to be successful. By taking on this role as cultural champion, CIOs can help define the necessary behaviors and change processes, procedures, policies, incentives, and management practices needed to deliver on the desired vision.

Be an authentic change agent

A CIO must be an advocate for change, not only by what they say but also by what they do. CIOs must lead and inspire employees to enact change by modeling the behaviors that are needed to achieve the change. Modeling the new behaviors helps drive cultural and organizational change, and gives people permission and guidance to do the same.

Melissa Lember from Salesforce

Melissa Lemberg is Vice President, Global Experience Design, Salesforce Professional Services. She leads a team of user experience design experts who leverage design thinking to help customers envision design-led solutions to achieve their objectives on the Salesforce platform. Prior to joining Salesforce she held roles as Global Partner at IBM Interactive Experiences and SVP of Client Engagement at Razorfish.

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