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Editorial

Can CIOs Change Fixed Organizational Mindsets for Digital Transformation?

9 minute read
Myles Suer avatar
Digital transformation involves change, which includes change in how people think. Can CIOs lead the charge here?

Digital transformation involves change, which includes change in how people think. Digital transformation today is not a one-and-done. This means businesses should increasingly be looking for people that are change ready, starting with their CIO.

According to the research of Paul A. O'Keefe, Carol Dweck and Greg Walton, people tend to gravitate to one of two mindsets — a fixed mindset and a growth mindset. Fixed mindset people spend their time being excellent, proving how good they are and seeking to be right. Growth mindset people focus on learning, keeping an open mind toward new information and are less concerned with being good and more concerned with getting better. The struggle for CIOs leading transformation initiatives is working with, and sometimes through, those with a fixed mindset.

Changing Hearts and Minds for Digital Transformation

Digital transformation, without question, starts by changing hearts and minds. Where do CIOs find the most resistance and most fixed mindsets? Where do they see only historical ways of doing business? CIOs are clear that the fear of change can even exist within IT itself — the organization charged with changing the business. For example, an IT department, can be stuck in an "I do not trust the cloud" mindset.

CIOs suggest that after convincing top leadership, changing hearts and minds can involve asking people to give up control. According to Mevotech CIO Martin Davis, “Fear of change is a big problem. People may like the idea of change, but not like being changed. People tend to have a fear of losing something as the result of a change — status, position, knowledge and even coffee with friends. Another obstacle is making sure the business is thinking about change as business change and not just technology change.”

CIOs say common resistors, in other words those having fixed mindsets, include:

  • Incumbent/legacy lines of business stakeholders
  • Boards of directors
  • Staff that likes the status quo
  • Non-strategic CFOs

As IT leaders, CIOs need to help get stakeholders on board. In this process, they need to be a champion and a partner. Together, they need to assist fixed mindset leaders and consider perceived issues including:

  • What if we upset customers?
  • Will jobs be lost internally?
  • What is the why of the change?
  • When will the organization see results?

Harris Health CIO David Chou says, “Culture and mentality is where to start.” In addition, University of Michigan CIO Carrie Shumaker says, “The most resistance is priority misalignment. Major changes require coordination from many parts of the hierarchy. They must all be ready and able and willing at the same time.”

To succeed, CIOs need to be aware of where the fixed versus growth mindsets exist, and it may not be the same for every proposed change. “We all have things we learned that served us well when we learned them. We all have comfortable places. We find resistance when we do not bring people along and show them what's in it for them instead of just the change itself,” says Miami University CIO David Seidl.

Related Article: 'Beyond Digital': A Guidebook for Lasting Transformation

Digital Transformation Needs to Start at Top

According to Gary Hamel, things that once made organizations successful can get in the way of the future. Who are the best partners to open a discussion of orthodoxies that are no longer helpful?

CIOs think the CEO or whomever is responsible for the customer is the place to start. However, CIOs are in between a rock and hard place if the right partners are not in place because digital transformation should start from the top. And CIOs say whenever it is possible, it is a clever idea to get the CFO on board, too.

If people are resistant to this change, it is a red flag for the company’s direction. CIOs mention it is critical as well to not have the organization sabotage itself. For example, leaders may hide the need for change from the CEO or other leaders. In this type of organization, people do not want to tell the boss anything they do not want to hear. Or they do not tell the boss because they fear it will cause an unnecessary delay. It's also a problem if the CEO cannot be reached or leaders need to go through someone else to reach them.

CIOs stress that it makes sense to get the support of the middle of the organization, too. For example, Kodak famously lost its early edge on digital photography because the middle would not come along with the business change. Shumaker suggests, “It's smart to get users and first line manager’s support. They are the ones that are trying to balance things with not enough staff. It is good to have both expert staff and managers working together. This provides both the why we are doing this, and the why we are doing this now?"

Smart CIOs know that effective change agents come in all stripes. Sometimes change agents are outside experts or internal thought leaders, other times they can be the CEO or a key board members. Finally, they can be top customers. Clearly, Quickbase CIO Deb Gildersleeve is right when she says, “The best partners are in the executive suite — your CEO and CFO — as well as product and engineering leads. They represent the champions you need on your side to open discussions of change.”

Related Article: Successful Digital Transformation Is More Than a Technology Project

How CIOs Can Reset Organizational Mindsets

CIOs believe opportunities to surface a resetting of organizational mindsets exist across the whole organization. Seidl says, “It is important to look for change champions and willing partners. They may not be in the part of the organization you initially target, but successes are built from folks being willing to listen to you and to partner with you for change. Trust matters when you want to change the world.”

To succeed, CIOs need to meet regularly with their peers, host company-wide town halls, and encourage subsequent team meetings. Art and Wellness Enterprises CIO Paige Francis says, “CIOs should consider all communication opportunities. It is important to just make sure the messaging is consistent and complimentary.”

Beyond this, it is important CIOs practice what they preach and create a culture that is ready and excited for change. Culture remains the ultimate barrier to digital transformation. For this reason, CIOs need to encourage employees to be open to change. It is important, some CIOs say, to pursue multiple settings for reaching people because often they need to hear things more than once before it sinks in. Shumaker adds, “Go where the light is. What is the need that is top of mind for key leaders whose ideal solution requires mindset reset? This will enable success with digital transformation.”

Learning Opportunities

CIOs say be aware there can be a long warming up and vetting period. CIOs must start at the leadership level and then get their team on board. CIO Anthony McMahon says, “In this process, go wherever people congregate to chat. Teams, Slack, lunchrooms, water coolers and organized show-and-tells. The list is endless.”

Organizational Mindsets Most Needing Change

CIOs should start with customer and employee experience. Historically, employee experience did not reach the top 10 agenda for CIOs, but the great resignation has changed that; it is now a priority on the corporate agenda. Work is needed on the employee experience to move it from a detriment to a corporate advantage. Francis says, “It's been my experience that customer needs heavily outweigh employee experience and that's a huge mistake, especially in today's competitive hiring environment.”

Fixed mindsets view the needs of customer and employee experience as separate things. By doing this they fail to consider the importance of personalization and the ability to empathize. Design thinking can help. However, the risk to not fixing experience for customers and employees is that each will vote with their feet. Davis says, “You cannot be successful on one without the other; digital experiences need to focus on the customer, but it involves process and cultural change within the organization that must be linked together by employee experience.”

The past two years have proven that employee experience is key to business success. How we work is different, and old fixed mindsets need to change now. For this reason, Analyst Dan Kirsch says “businesses are increasingly going down the path of treating employees as customers. New, younger members of the workforce expect consumer-like experiences.”

Analyst Dion Hinchcliffe says both customer and employee experience “requires a long-term rethinking of what employees do and how they do it. So, both must be re-imagined and be re-thought on a regular basis.”

Related Article: Is It Time to Retire the Term Digital Transformation?

Researching Organizational Mindsets Limiting the Vision of the Future

Francis puts things simply by saying, “If not us, then who?” CIOs have an advantage in doing this. Davis says, “Often the CIO has a very broad view of the organization and can definitely provide insights, but it needs all of the C-Suite to help drive and remove roadblocks.” Shumaker is right when she says, “CIOs should be armed with tools in this process, including humility, curiosity and empathy.”

Although business teams might understand that technology can change the business, they often do not understand how and where to implement disruptive technology. CIOs have an advantage because they see that "snow melts first at the edges."

It is essential there be a partnership between IT and line-of-business leaders. A barometer of whether things are working is if IT has a strategic seat at the leadership table. The nature of today’s IT work puts CIOs in the middle of strategic change, which helps them see connections that their peers sometimes cannot.

CIOs can use this knowledge to lead the conversation on organizational mindsets. This means that CIOs are often change agents. Being a successful change agent requires CIOs to understand where resistance and challenges may come from and how to overcome them. However, Hinchcliffe says, “Most CIOs have only research for the IT organization, unless there has been a partnership with the rest of the C-Suite. But understanding obstacles to change is essential before engaging in any change effort.”

Parting Words: Getting Past Historical Orthodoxies

Paul A. O'Keefe, Carol Dweck and Greg Walton were right in sharing that people tend to lean toward fixed or growth mindsets. However, Seidl is also correct in asserting that many have a mindset Ying and Yang.

We all have our comfort zones, our places of being more fixed, and we need to have a willingness to get past historical orthodoxies. This is critical to digital transformation being successful. In the end, this should be the business goal. This requires partnership to succeed and for change to come out of what Geoffrey Moore calls "the transformational zone."

About the author

Myles Suer

Myles Suer is the leading influencer of CIOs, according to Leadtail. He is the director of solutions marketing at Alation and also the facilitator of the #CIOChat.