Do CIOs need to become speed demons as I suggested a few years ago? How are they coping personally with the increasing pace of change? How should they help their organizations cope? How can they be better at sensing when a quick response is needed before the ice begins melting at the edges?

These were the questions I posed in a recent CIO conversation.

The Pace of Change for CIOs

Most CIOs feel the pace of change has accelerated during the COVID-19 crisis. Mevotech CIO Martin Davis, said, “The pace of change has been increasing exponentially. However, COVID-19 took it to a whole new level.” He then referred to Deming who famously said, “Change is not mandatory, but neither is survival.”

Explaining the reasons for this accelerated pace of change, Miami University CIO David Seidl claims much of the increased pace over the last couple of years has been in response to COVID-19.

“Prior to that," he said, "there was a steadily increasing pace of change for the better part of 20 years. The slope just kept increasing. It has been hard to keep up! By the time I was 35, I had gone from no computer to having an Apple IIc to BBSes to the internet to mobile devices and internet everywhere and the cloud. And that's just connectivity and information related things! And organizations have had so much social change to adjust to and then our climate and world is changing around us too. It's fire hoses from multiple places.”

Related Article: CIO Leadership: Managing Through a Recession

Examining the Acceleration Economy

A way of encapsulating the changes that have been wrought over the last couple of years, claims former CIO Wayne Sadin, is "Acceleration Economy."

Analyst Dion Hinchcliffe believes the impact for the acceleration is important. “Individual human change has been possible," he said. "It is in business that it has proved harder. How can CIOs help their organization not have future shock of obsolescence in the face of increasing business change? This matters because technology change is only accelerating and will keep doing so for the foreseeable future. It is a long-term fixture, so, we must organize for frequent, regular change, and move away from occasionally planned change. I would also argue, the change curve been overwhelmingly good for humans.”

Supporting his argument, Hinchliffe provided this image of the change curve:

new mindset required

Meanwhile, Art and Wellness Enterprises CIO Paige Francis noted that how she manages that pace has dramatically improved thanks to COVID-19.

Quest to Avoid Obsolescence

CIO Anthony McMahon believes it is important to have a "change ready" team because there is, “a direct link between the changes being delivered, and the problems people experience. Change should simplify, not create complexity.” Managing complexity enables organizations to innovate faster and to reduce technical debt and other forms of organizational friction.

To do this well, Seidl said, “CIOs should pay attention to the products and solutions the organization adopts. Where there is not adoption, there is the opportunity to prune out things that would otherwise become institutional technical debt.” To be fair, CIOs could not completely stop technical debt from occurring during COVID-19, but they should pay attention going forward to lifecycle management and to establishing a healthy change culture.

At a personal level, CIOs need to be the change they expect from others. They need disrupt themselves personally. A part of doing this better is communicating the need for change while empathizing with people's worries. In this process, CIOs need to recognize that people are tired of the pandemic rate of change, and do not have as much left in the tank to support further change. Addressing this means understanding how things are going and how adaptable the organization is today.

At the same time, CIOs need to work to create business flexibility and adaptability. This involves finding ways to make technology modular for easy replacement. Change clearly is not a one and done; it is a constant evolution, and most organizations have no choice but to drive forward or be left behind.

In this process, Analyst Dan Kirsch suggests business planning remains important, “You can't approach business and technical change casually.” CIO Mark Orlan adds that “CIOs need to work with other business leaders to tell the story and sell the vision. CIOs need to have in this process the emotional connection so that leadership teams buy into needed change. They need to get everyone on board to invest in people, communication and change management.”

Related Article: Can CIOs Change Fixed Organizational Mindsets for Digital Transformation?

Learning Opportunities

Skills to Deal With the Pace of Change

The existing team and new recruits need to be change ready. So, what skills should CIOs look for, and mentor, in the existing team in order to better deal with the pace of change? They list, in order of priority:

  • Adaptability + Flexibility
  • Communication
  • Curiosity + Insight + Critical Thinking
  • Compassion
  • Humility
  • Desire to Learn
  • Emotional Intelligence
  • Reliability
  • Clarity
  • Resilience
  • Courage

Seidl adds that, “Change is as much about feelings, and feeling stable, as it is about technology.” In terms of feeling, Marco Vernocchi, EY global chief data officer, said it's important to have a lifelong learning and a growth mindset. “Technologies will change. The world will change. We need our people to see the possibilities and be willing to adapt. They need to be willing to fail. What we need is personal resilience.”

Helping Teams Deal With the Pressure to Deliver

Everything starts, says Orlan, by “CIOs giving people the tools to deliver, and then stepping back. It is critical that CIOs do not micromanage! This will kill team enthusiasm and commitment. We all need to become servant leaders.”

Beyond becoming a servant leader, Seidl stress that CIOs put “a focus on self-care, how the team feels and works together and healthy habits. It is a group who take care of each other in a lot of ways, and that continues through the organization.” CIOs clearly need to create a supportive culture at all levels. This should be about helping teams succeed. A part of this is about removing roadblocks and supporting the team. It is finally important to set clear expectations.

In this process, CIOs need to give people what they need to succeed. This includes helping them to see how to successfully move forward. Doing this involves ensuring the team set the right priorities. And importantly, insulating them from internal distractions and noise. CIO Paige Francis adds from her experience, “I have needed to squelch my biggest terrible trait, impatience. The pandemic helped me realize how much I pushed based on my impatience which — newsflash — was not a priority.”

Related Article: The CIO Playbook for Leading Against Uncertainty

Does a Higher Speed Organization Need Different Leadership?

The right leaders for the pace of change have the following personal traits:

  • Not hierarchical.
  • Values independent action.
  • Willing to trust.
  • Willing to support.
  • Not fixated on specific vendors or technologies.
  • Flexible in job roles.

This means, according to Seidl, “CIOs need different habits and different skills. This does not mean that people necessarily have to be changed out, but some people may want or need to change to get there. I have seen traditional higher education organizations make the change. And some brought everyone who wanted through the change. It takes patience, flexibility and investment from both the organization and the staff involved. But it is the human and caring thing to do, if you can, and keeps a lot of knowledge around.”

There will always be a balancing act between planned and agile working; the trick is to find the compromise that meets everyone's needs. At the same time, a higher speed of change needs to be built on trust, and that trust needs to be built into the culture.

Employees need to be hired that align with this key value: trustworthiness. McMahon suggests, “different ways of working are essential. But this does not mean that the people need to change.” According to Davis, “CIOs need to build the right team for the organization! But they need the right leaders, the right organizational structure and culture.”

Parting Words: Sensing Transformational Change

The speed of change will depend on industry. Retail, which is on the bleeding edge, will need to move faster. Whereas other organizations will be able to see where the ice is melting at the edges.

Being successful in today’s environment requires the ability to sense the need for transformational change and creating the agility to respond faster. This means that CIOs today are essential change agents and change champions.

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