Pre-COVID, agility became an aspiration and rallying cry for organizations seeking to embrace emerging technologies and pursue technology-enabled innovation, often to stave off digital disruption in their industries. Once the pandemic hit, that nice-to-have became an existential necessity.\n\n\u201cAs CIO, I\u2019m constantly looking at ways to become more agile and using IT as a strategic differentiator,\u201d says Scott duFour, global CIO at digital payment solutions company Fleetcor. \u201cThis goes beyond implementing agile methodology. It\u2019s the ongoing assessment of how we can run our current systems more efficiently to meet our digital transformation goals.\u201d\n\nWhen all business became digital, every organization became a technology organization. \u201cOrganizations\u2019 strategic goals are increasingly dependent on resilient, agile technology functions that not only support the day-to-day operations but are leading the way in new innovative solutions to streamline experiences and enable new product offerings,\u201d says Chris Nardecchia, senior vice president and chief information and digital Officer at Rockwell Automation.\n\n\u201cLeaders that recognize this, want to move fast, and it does create pressure,\u201d Nardecchia adds. \u201cBut it\u2019s also important to recognize that pressures like these are an immense opportunity to rethink IT organizations\u2019 strategic goals and execute a scalable architecture that expands with growing business needs.\u201d\n\nCIO.com talked with a range of IT leaders about their experiences optimizing IT for agility. Following are a dozen of their best tips for getting there.\n\nThink a step ahead\n\nThe top priority for IT at Marco\u2019s Pizza has been developing an in-house cloud-based technology platform at a time when digital ordering has grown threefold. Rick Stanbridge, executive vice president and CIO of Marco\u2019s Pizza, extols the importance of establishing a technology foundation capable of incorporating emerging features to keep ahead of the competition.\n\n\u201cBy housing our own data via the new order management system, we can also enable all sorts of applications both now and in the future,\u201d says Stanbridge. \u201cWe\u2019ll be able to pivot and plug in additional technology features for customers as they become available, such as ordering from virtual assistants, remote kiosk ordering, GPS pinpointed delivery, instant ordering via social media, and automotive app integration.\u201d\n\nBalance control with agility\n\nLines of business seeking agility in the face of rigid IT requirements have traditionally turned to \u201cshadow IT\u201d \u2014 technology investments not explicitly sanctioned by IT, paid for by business units to suit their needs. In an effort to support business goals, and reassert some control, IT leaders are seeking to rebalance the shadow IT equation.\n\nFor example, while the IT organization at Ricoh USA doesn\u2019t support shadow IT, it also doesn\u2019t demand that employees submit every request to IT if it\u2019s something they can manage on their own.\n\n\u201cYes, policy and controls must exist, but you have to also embrace a sense of flexibility to allow agility to happen,\u201d says Bob Lamendola, Ricoh USA\u2019s senior vice president of technology and lead of its digital services center. \u201cBy definition, you cannot be agile by forcing excessive structure. Particularly in a hybrid workforce, trying to control everything leads to lethargy and can create a perception that you\u2019re restricting the business. This is where we need to set our IT hats aside and appreciate there\u2019s an art to decision-making and leading an IT organization.\u201d\n\nReduce complexity with automation\n\nRockwell\u2019s Nardecchia and other IT leaders are staunch supporters of automation as a means for achieving agility.\n\n\u201cImplementing smart automation of processes, increases the quality of outcomes, makes the organization nimble and quick to reach to changing business dynamics,\u201d Nardecchia says.\n\nAt Voya Financial, the IT function is always evaluating business process looking for ways to implement straight-through processing using capabilities such as natural language processing, optical character recognition, AI, and low-code automation. A recent RPA project at Voya successfully reduced a tax calculation process time by 80%, reducing the risk of human error, to boot.\n\nBlue Prism\u2019s internal Center of Excellence focuses on automating as much work as possible and moving toward self-service. \u201cMuch of IT work is repetitive. The work that is not repetitive is changing at a remarkable pace,\u201d says Jon Walden, Blue Prism\u2019s CTO for the Americas. \u201cFor my team, looking at the work that needs to be accomplished is critical. Often the next step is how can that work be reduced or automated. This capacity not only increases the agility, but generally the employee retention issues as well.\u201d\n\nMake the workplace attractive to IT pros\n\nTalent is another key to agility, IT leaders say, making the hiring and retention of IT pros vital to any organization-wide efficiency and transformation efforts.\n\n\u201cWithout enough of them, it will be tough to achieve agility,\u201d says Fleetcor\u2019s DuFour. \u201cOffer flexible working arrangements. Provide training so they can improve their skill sets, while meeting your changing needs as well.\u201d\n\nDuFour also recommends casting a wider net for IT talent. \u201cMany companies are wise in that they are looking beyond IT professionals with a four-year degree,\u201d he says. \u201cWhy not look at prospects who have IT-related certifications, an associate degree from a community college or other pertinent skills to fulfill certain IT jobs?\u201d\n\nConsider decentralizing\n\nLike many organizations, Voya Financial consolidated its technology operations as part of its transformation, creating common processes, shared knowledge, and a strong talent bench.\n\n\u201cHowever, this model created more functional silos, process handoffs, and operational complexity,\u201d Keshavan explains. So, in early 2021, Voya\u2019s IT groups began transitioning back to a decentralized model, aligning value streams and bringing technology shared services work closer together to reduce process delays and complexity.\n\nDeclutter the technology environment\n\n\u201cIf your tech stack is streamlined, easy to access, and easy to use, your workforce can quickly respond to business or customer needs seamlessly,\u201d says Fleetcor\u2019s duFour.\n\nKey to this is getting a handle on application sprawl by rationalizing the IT portfolio. Voya Financial\u2019s simplification journey began with such an effort, a process that reduced its application footprint by 17% and its slate of technology tools by one quarter. The work continues as part of its cloud migration work.\n\n\u201cThis practice is instilling standards and discipline that will only help to ensure our environment remains uncluttered and contemporary for the long term,\u201d Keshavan says. As a result, the IT group is faster and more flexible, recently deploying five new cloud services for data science and analytics developers to use within four hours \u2014something that would have taken a cross-functional IT team several weeks to deploy in the past.\n\nReining in application sprawl has also been valuable at Snow Software. \u201cOftentimes, companies and teams will invest in applications with similar purposes,\u201d says Snow Software CIO Alastair Pooley. \u201cBy limiting the set of applications used and reducing overlaps, we can help employees navigate their work more efficiently.\u201d That requires visibility across the technology estates. \u201cThis is the number one challenge of most organizations,\u201d Pooley says. \u201cYou can\u2019t improve what you don\u2019t know you have.\u201d\n\nConsider a high-low strategy\n\nThe IT organization at Databricks is expected to drive the company\u2019s scale while accelerating service delivery. \u201cWe live in a world of volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity and how well our teams can adapt to this ever-changing environment is the single biggest determinant of success,\u201d says Databricks CIO Naveen Zutshi.\n\nZutshi recently implementing a high-low IT strategy to achieve greater focus and increased agility. \u201cWe home in on a few transformational priorities that are high value at the company level and involve complex initiatives. These are the big rocks and run parallel to a large number of low-effort\/high-value IT priorities that are both functionally focused and prioritized,\u201d Zutshi says.\n\n\u201cThe strategy enables us to work on tackling hard things for the company that require multi-quarters before delivery while ensuring IT has the capacity to focus on delivering value by business function with higher levels of optionality for change,\u201d he says, adding that the shift has reduced bottlenecks and increased business engagement.\n\nBuild for self-service\n\nAlthough Boomi maintains a traditional service desk for exceptions, the IT organization is focused on building tools with self-service in mind.\n\nNeil Kole, CIO at Boomi, which rebuilt its IT organization after being spun off from Dell Technologies, emphasizes the importance of self-service for organizations seeking agility.\n\n\u201cReplicating Dell\u2019s IT structure, which is architected for 170,000 people, was not the right answer,\u201d Kole says. \u201cBoomi is a fast-paced, born-in-the-cloud company, and so Boomi IT should be, too.\u201d\n\nStill, Boomi says, while the pressure for IT agility comes from within, Boomi IT must also focus on security and operational excellence as well. \u201cBalancing these attributes is a tall order, but our ticket to success has been our laser focus on cloud,\u201d Kole says. \u201cNo more legacy solutions that require large teams and budgets. Agility is at the center of all solutions that we design and implement.\u201d \n\nReinforce and reward\n\nIT leaders must recognize that becoming agile and staying agile are different things, Voya Financial\u2019s Keshavan says.\n\n\u201cThe greatest challenge is to sustain a streamlined, simplified environment,\u201d he says. \u201cThis takes continual, proactive communication and reinforcement of behaviors across the company.\u201d Especially given the constant pull to introduce the next shiny technology. \u201cIf not governed appropriately, you can be reducing an application in one business and adding three more to another area,\u201d Keshavan warns.\n\nCommunicating the value of simplicity and agility early and often is key. \u201cIt\u2019s important to build a coalition of advocates across the company with a common understanding and shared goals to reinforce the many benefits to an agile environment,\u201d Keshavan says. \u201cThey will not only help to create a culture of simplicity; they will also become a highly valued network of individuals poised for early identification of potential complexity being added into the company\u2019s operational system.\n\nMaster data\n\nGlobal commercial real estate firm Avison Young has grown by acquisition \u2014 and amassed a large and dispersed tech stack along the way. The resulting data silos thwarted agility. Consolidating those systems was an important first step to enabling the business to analyze data and provide insights to clients more quickly.\n\n\u201cToday, the team can spend 80% of its time providing insight and analysis, and only 20% of its time on pulling the data,\u201d says Avison Young CIO Mike Hart. \u201cThrough a combination of our efforts to consolidate our tech and a critical master data management initiative, we\u2019ve been able to take advantage of passive data to increase visibility into our current activity \u2014 which we then leverage to deliver superior employee and customer experiences.\u201d\n\nMake IT\u2019s priorities clear\n\nEnsuring IT\u2019s key priorities are clear to everyone is essential for achieving agility in realizing business goals, Fleetcor\u2019s duFour says.\n\nFor Fleetcor IT, this meant pursuing four key areas in 2021: creating a unified customer experience using build-once, run-anywhere architecture; establishing more API integrations for quicker enablement of revenue opportunities; modernizing core systems through the use of cloud; and improving data services with standardized processes and machine learning capabilities. IT was able to implement a cloud-based API and data architecture that enables Fleetcor\u2019s lodging business to integrate multiple data sources.\n\n\u201cThe process to bring data in-house, integrate it, and cleanse it would typically take up to 18 months, but by leveraging the cloud and API architecture, we can do this in just a few weeks\u2019 time,\u201d duFour says.\n\nDefine the end state\n\nAll too often, daily demands on IT can cause IT groups to push off transformational work. But doing so means digging a hole that only becomes deeper and more difficult to climb out over time. Instead, transformation should be seen as an ongoing, iterative process that needs to be sustained. Here, having a vision \u2014 and continually steering IT toward it \u2014 is key.\n\n\u201cFirst, define your end state, then figure out how to get there,\u201d says Boomi\u2019s Kole. \u201cThen build a roadmap that delivers significant and meaningful transformation quarter after quarter.\u201d \n\nStanley Huang, co-founder and CTO at Moxo, agrees that it\u2019s important to plan agility improvements with an eye to how the business might evolve. \u201cDeeply analyze your business\u2019 current situation from multiple perspectives, including how streamlining IT efforts will impact the service model, team structure, execution capabilities and customer retention situation. From there, it\u2019s critical to analyze which strategy for streamlining IT is best suited for business needs,\u201d says Huang, who has overseen the automation of all workflows from onboarding to customer service.