Leaders are expected to navigate change, uncertainty and disruption. But the pandemic made this necessity abundantly clear. So wrote Rebecca Zucker and Darin Rowells in Harvard Business Review. The article continues, “And while we all hope to avoid future pandemics, one thing is certain — we cannot avoid ever-increasing complexity.”

What can business leaders and CIOs do at this time of "ever-increasing complexity"? The danger is leaders might react to the challenge “feeling stuck, ill-equipped, or overwhelmed as they face the growing challenges of their roles," as Zucker and Roswell described.  

Leaders Must Learn to Sense Inflection Points Earlier

How can leaders sense an inflection point in what Rita McGrath calls “the period of optimum warning.” As former CIO Tim Crawford said, “we all face the unpredictable.” Below are a few suggestions to help leaders build the capacity to sense inflection points. 

  • Establish a broad group of peers — both inside and outside your organization — to get early signals.
  • Gain broad experiences to hone your instincts and responses from them.
  • Refine the processes required to facilitate a response to unexpected changes.
  • Develop the personal and organizational confidence and competency to move quickly.
  • Remove as many variables from consideration as possible.
  • Relentlessly and consistently focus on the basics. This will make it easier to respond when more complex or unpredictable situations come your way.
  • Encourage your broader management team to be involved as early as possible in putting together a response to change.
  • Empower individual contributors to deal with the unexpected in a customer-centric manner.
  • Ask questions, read and research to ascertain actions that may be needed.
  • Conduct risk assessments on a regular basis. Escalate issues that trigger concern.

According to CIO Carrie Shumaker, “Business leaders should empower their CIOs to connect the dots early. This often involves relating trends, culture and technology to changing business needs. On the CIO side, CIOs should look for the light and determine what business leaders need. A big hint — the problem is not anything couched in IT jargon.” Leaders should cozy up to ambiguity said CTO Stephen diFilipo. He said while this is easier said than done, "Managing ambiguity will get you through anything and everything so long as your nervous system doesn’t kidnap you. Step outside your comfort zone professionally and personally. Connect with other industry verticals and pay attention to the rumblings from them. Know what changes means when the metaphorical waters recede. And finally, avoid the temptation to chase shiny objects.”

Related Article: Technology Leaders Lead Innovation by Seeing Around Corners

The CIO Role in Helping Manage the Unexpected

CIOs should have a lot of practice in managing the unexpected. As CIO Sharon Pitt put it, “managing the unexpected is pretty much a daily activity for CIOs.” But how do CIOs help their organizations manage through the unexpected? For CIO Jonathan Feldman, it comes down to resiliency. He suggests CIOs build:

  • Fiscal resiliency.
  • Personal resiliency.
  • Relationship resiliency.
  • Political resiliency.

With resiliency, Feldman said, “CIOs can handle the unexpected.”

Without question, personal qualities can also help manage through the unexpected. CIO Deb Gildersleeve noted, “CIOs are generally great problem solvers.” For Shumaker, “CIOs are used to managing unexpected and crisis situations. It’s not our first rodeo and we’ve learned what works. Also, almost every crisis involves a need for data or systems even if not technology in nature. COVID is a great example.” DiFilipo pointed to a common experience of CIOs: “shepherding innovation and the ability to think expansively, innovatively, and imaginatively. Together, these create preparedness for the unexpected." Former CIO Joanna Young identified one final quality: "CIOs have the ability to use data and process information to find the grit in gears that impede empowerment."

Organizational Lessons From COVID-19

COVID-19 provided lessons for business leaders of all stripes. For CIOs, the lessons included:

  1. Have a comprehensive business continuity plan in place, including proper training for all staff and holding frequent situational exercises.
  2. Create business agility, the ability to flex and adapt as the world continues to change.
  3. Establish continuous organizational communications.
  4. Prioritize response areas — you can’t fix everything at once.
  5. Model grace, patience and a sense of urgency.
  6. Prepare and have the ability to surge, including having spare equipment.
  7. Move most people to laptops and ensure they have connectivity at home.
  8. Empower people to do what's right.
  9. Actively listen. Ask how you can "vaccinate" the organization against the main risks.
  10. Think about the impacts for the entire organization.

With these as a backdrop, Shumaker said the key outcome of the crisis for her was, “We have an increased trust in one another as leaders and as people. We came together to work through this crisis and each leader brought skills, hard work, and talent. We’ve definitely stormed but we came out the crisis a stronger team.”

Learning Opportunities

Related Article: Has Digital Transformation Left Your Business Continuity Plans Behind?

Assembling Responses in a Timely Fashion

With the impacts of an inflection point clear, how do organizations operate in a timely fashion to plan and then respond? Francis said, “I tried to use the past to potentially predict future. It didn’t work. Given this, I gather all the critical players together routinely. At the same time, I let the pros do their job and I focus on clearing the way of obstructions.” To be able to do this, Young said it is "important to hire good people, empower them, give them resources they need to operate at the best of their ability, and let them do their jobs. The basics of practicing disaster recovery/business continuity should be built into organization DNA.”

CIO Martin Davis claimed, “it is important to think through common scenarios and workout how you would handle them and ensure you have game plans on the shelf that can be adapted for the unexpected. Ensure you learn from previous and have practical advice ready to use and people with the right training.” To do this, Gildersleeve said the organizations needs clear definitions for who is responsible for what areas in advance of the unexpected. "This makes it easier to get the right people activated when a disruption occurs.”

Creating a Foundation to Manage Through the Unexpected

COVID-19 won't be the last crisis CIOs and business leaders face. Given this, an agile foundation is critical to responding effectively. CIO Jim Russell said, "Agility not only wins the game, but it is also necessary for survival in turbulent times. There is no new normal, only an ever-changing landscape of next normals."

Not everyone agreed however. Davis asked, "Is it an agile technology foundation or a well-structured modular flexible foundation that helps most?" Gildersleeve sees it as a combination of tech and response time, saying, “Agile tech like no-code or low-code is crucial to helping any organization create new solutions, workflows, etc. in a matter of hours and days compared to weeks and months. Reaction time is just as important as the solution.” Young advocated CIOs develop “the ability to iterate-refine, fail-learn fast of agile is helpful in building resiliency characteristics.”

Adaption Is the Name of the Game

We live in increasingly uncertain times. Not only is the pace of change increasing but the environmental changes that business leaders and their CIOs are facing are larger and more significant. To power through, we need to build adaptable bases and be ready to respond to the changes that are coming. This requires the ability to sense inflection points faster, the ability to learn on the move, and the creation of an agile foundation.

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