How IT leaders can innovate in the ‘never normal’

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The pandemic is akin to a massive global seismic shock whose reverberations are expected to continue for many years to come. Not only is nothing the same as it was 15 months ago, it is likely there will never be such a thing as ‘normal’ ever again. So, what does it mean for IT leaders who find themselves at the forefront of continual change? Especially now that organisations no longer see digital as the icing on the cake — rather it is the whole cake.

Globally renowned speaker, author and serial entrepreneur Peter Hinssen, founder of nexxworks and author of ‘The Phoenix and the Unicorn’, spoke about the age of the ‘never normal’ at a recent IDG Peer to Peer Exchange in partnership with Amazon Web Services.

His fast-paced 20-minute presentation outlined the many issues facing IT leaders, including that the pace of change has cranked up considerably, so that now “everything is on speed”. Companies are also increasingly looking outside their sector to deliver new products and services —or as Hinssen put it, “nobody is staying in their lane”.

Amazon is a striking example of this with its division AWS being at the forefront of the global migration to public cloud. The company’s presence in New Zealand has grown as a result, with 100 people now working across Aotearoa, with half the local workforce being hired in the past year alone.

AWS head of professional services Gayle Webb says the new hires are across a range of disciplines, with a strong emphasis on data scientists, cloud engineers, and solutions architects to assist customers that range from large government departments through to independent software vendors. “It’s more than enabling innovation, it’s about working with our partners to negotiate the ever-changing landscape, and provide timely assistance when it’s required,” she says.

Hinssen says that while many CIOs may — understandably — crave a return to pre-pandemic conditions, it is not going to happen. When Fisher-Price puts out a toy called the ‘Work from home playset’ for pre-schoolers, you can believe that the hybrid working model isn’t going away anytime soon.

Volatility has toppled stability, complexity is to the fore rather than simplicity, and ambiguity has replaced clarity. The result is that we now exist in a state of discomfort. Hinssen referenced former US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s famous observation about the rise of the ‘unknown unknowns’ — those things that haven’t been accounted for, can’t be predicted, but which can cause major disruption.

But, as Stephen Hawking put it, intelligence is the ability to adapt to change and in the age of the ‘never normal’ that can take the form of networking, the idea that everything and everyone is interconnected and that there is no one source of truth that will prevail, says Hinssen.

AMP New Zealand chief operating officer Dhaya Sivakumar’s experience since joining the company is an example of how an organisation can adapt at speed.

Sivakumar began at the organisation in August 2018 as CIO, with the mandate to transform the over 160-year-old business from a suit-and-tie workplace weighed down by legacy IT systems. Among the changes he’s led are moving to AWS cloud and deploying Amazon Connect for the contact centre. The smartphone app and portal have been upgraded, resulting in a massive jump in usage combined with a high level of automation and simplification enabling greater self-service for clients and a better overall experience.

The technology changes have gone hand in hand with cultural transformation, Sivakumar explains. “Firstly, the company separated its Wealth Management and Life Insurance business, so that was a structural change which IT needed to enable. We are now more of a localised New Zealand organisation that has greater autonomy in decision making, especially when it comes to technology,” he says.

Aside from greater independence, Sivakumar says his team were able to move at speed because they put the client at the centre of every decision. Asking basic questions such as ‘how do our customers want to interact with us?’, ‘what are their pain points?’, and ‘how can we make interacting with us a seamless experience?’.

“It’s also about not waiting for permission, having awesome people on the team and then trusting in their experience and skills, and those of our partners too. Then just getting on with it,” Sivakumar says.

“To be honest I’ve never been a CIO who mainly cared about laptops and mobile devices. If you are taking care of the clients, then all that stuff takes care of itself.”

His move to role of COO has provided Sivakumar with an even greater client-centric view, which he says is very powerful as an IT leader spearheading digital transformation.

AMP’s structural change coincided with a technology refresh and a cultural change that was boosted by COVID-19 lockdowns. During the Peer-to-Peer exchange attendees shared their own experiences. Some were grappling with the aftermath of multiple mergers and acquisitions, while others were facilitating new revenue models where companies saw an opportunity to move into an adjacent line of business.

AWS head of territory Haren Sam says that complexity is presenting itself in many forms for end-users in the enterprise and as a result there may be more reliance on partnerships and wider ecosystems than previously. He endorsed Sivakumar’s approach to being customer-centric and noted that for CIOs that includes internal, as well as external, customers.

Relevance, resilience and robustness can all lead to reinvention, says Hinseen, whose latest book ‘The Phoenix and the Unicorn’ is about companies that have risen from the ashes to be mighty again. Arguably a harder act to pull off than starting from scratch and pushing for an upward growth trajectory.

He says companies are urged to think beyond today, and even beyond tomorrow, and look instead to the day after tomorrow if they want to create long-term value. In reality however, 93% of the effort goes into the here and now, with almost no consideration for the future, a situation compounded by legacy issues that continue to plague new innovation.

“The same thinking will produce the same results, so to thrive in the never normal your strategy needs to be bold on vision and flexible on details. Remember too that you need the creative thinkers as well as the doers, you won’t achieve without both,” Hinssen says.

Hinssen closed his presentation quote from Maya Angelou ‘If you’re always trying to be normal you will ever know how amazing you can be,’ but perhaps his reference to race-car driver Mario Andretti has a greater resonance for IT leaders dealing with continual change: ‘If everything seems under control, you’re not going fast enough.’

Copyright © 2021 IDG Communications, Inc.