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Editorial

How Can CIOs Manage Strategy Through Uncertainty?

7 minute read
Myles Suer avatar
How can CIOs help their business become an adaptable organization that can create an appropriate corporate future?

In a recent Harvard Business Review, Joerg Esser distills the era we live in: “It hardly needs to be said, but we live in uncertain times. The COVID-19 pandemic, the war in Ukraine, the reshuffling of supply chains and capital structures — the past few years have seen unprecedented disruptions, and the turmoil shows little sign of letting up any time soon. Challenges abound, and companies are finding it nearly impossible to plan for the future. Such a volatile environment requires a new approach to devising strategy.”

The question is, what is a CIO to do? How can they help their business become an adaptable organization that can create an appropriate corporate future?

Creating Strategy and Planning for the Future

CIOs repeatedly have told me that the pandemic caused them to shift gears. Yet the crisis represented an opportunity to connect better with the rest of the business, to do a better job at continuity planning, to build plans that were more resilient, and to pursue smaller, quicker projects with clear and tangible business impacts.

CIO Paige Francis says, “Being successful today starts by reinforcing how important it is to develop a strategy aimed at future-proofing the business and its technology. There is no rest for the wicked in technology leadership these days. Today, CIOs need to use their newfound credibility as leverage to help their organization improve.”

New Zealand CIO Anthony McMahon adds, “The pandemic made businesses realize technology is not something they can ignore if they want to remain productive.” Analyst Jack Gold adds, “It is important that CIOs not be married to one idea or way of doing business. They can no longer pursue investment without regard to what's going on around their organization. Isolation and blinders are not a good business strategy. It's always been a challenge to plan for the future as there are many diversions that come along. Most organizations believe they can produce a three- or five-year plan and be done, when in truth it needs constant updating. The pandemic proved this in spades!”

Related Article: CIOs: Time to Sense Transformational Needs, Create Agility

Getting Business Leaders to Think About Opportunity

University of Michigan CIO Carrie Shumaker argues that, “It is important organizations get back to the basics of their corporate value proposition. What do you offer? To whom? Why is it a good value, and is there anything in today’s environment that could make it an even better value?”

To do this CIO Jim Russell says, “CIOs need to refill the empty buckets of trust that were used to put out the COVID fire.” Clearly, CIOs should advance IT’s credibility by utilizing the opportunity that is in front of their businesses. As a part of this process, Gold says something important: “When IT is seen as a business driver rather than a service organization, then all kinds of positive business outcomes happen!”

In terms of planning approaches, McMahon says, “Simple tools like SWOT and PESTLE can help bring people out of the weeds and look forwards.”

Summarizing the problems, analyst Dion Hinchcliffe claims, “The challenge is that uncertainty/continuity vs. opportunity are two very different business mindsets. It's proven extraordinarily hard for many a CIO to balance both well. Each tail tends to wag the other. At the end of the day, worries about risk often kill innovation. One reason that innovation in IT is gaining the upper hand is the growing board and C-Suite understanding that digital trends tend to have a strong 'winner takes all' outcome in the local landscape. It is time seize opportunities and own them.”

To explain the difficulties of reactive or inactive business strategies, Dion shared the Red Queen and Network Effects. In the Red Queen effect, digital ecosystems constantly adapt, evolve and proliferate not merely to gain market advantage, but also to survive while pitted against ever evolving opposing competitors in an ever-changing environment. The network effect reflects the impact one user of a good or service has on the value of that product to other people. When a network effect is present, the value of a product or service is dependent upon the number of others using the product or service.

Related Article: CIO Leadership: Managing Through a Recession

Helping Their Organization Imagine What They Can Do for Customers

“After the crisis, too many have still wanted to jump into action without knowing the pain or friction points,” says Russell. For some this was “not a new behavior but rather a symptom of how many organizations moved to reflexive reaction rather than planning. Fixing this involves ensuring that IT connects the organization to the customer wherever they have ended up after the crisis.”

Francis adds, “CIOs should pull people together, whiteboard, model excellent customer focus.” In this process, Hinchcliffe says, “the most powerful asset the CIO has to help others imagine the future is storytelling. Every chance, tell stories of incremental wins with both how and what with metrics and numbers. Stories can be via any medium. Paint powerful pictures of a better future. Create understandable visions of the digital art-of-the-possible. Use passion plus purpose to create internal and external demand for these new futures. Unleash potential!” Gold adds, “Tell as many customer-oriented success stories as possible. It's highly likely that the customer (internal or external) is not the only one you can help with your solution.”

Learning Opportunities

Make Sure the Right Business Questions Are Asked

In the coming book, The Unicorn Within, Linda Yates says, “Too many companies do not start with the customer pain. Instead, they jump right into what they think is a great product or service.” (Page 70). For this reason, Russell, says, “CIOs need to start by slowing folks down. I spend some time and steer the conversation back to the big why questions.”

The process of making sure the right questions are being asked is key to CIOs building trust. CIOs critically need to be seen as having the best interests of the customer at heart. It is important that they don't try to be the smartest person in the room. Instead, they should try to make the right person look smarter. For this reason, Francis says, “CIOs need to ask the questions of themselves and show others they not only survived, but possibly uncovered huge missteps before making them, and they were able to execute on leap-frog opportunities that would have never been realized by playing it safe.”

Hinchcliffe says CIOs can ensure the right big questions are asked by:

  • Getting a board seat.
  • Co-leading business strategy from the front.
  • Being the change that sparks the questions.
  • Provoking thought in C-suite peers.

Clearly, CIOs are often in the best position to understand complex problems across all parts of organization since they hear from all parties. But to use this position, CIOs need to seize the opportunity established from the crisis credibility.

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

Creating an Adaptable, Idea-Oriented Organization

Clearly, CIOs have to put in place an enterprise architecture that creates the integration and standardization needed for adaptability. This enables “strategic agility through customized and reusable modules.” (Enterprise Architecture as Strategy, Jeanne Ross, Page 77). Once this is in place, CIOs stress the importance of people and process. This starts by CIOs helping their organizations have confidence in their adaptability.

In this process, McMahon suggests, “CIOs not try to turn innovation into a team, rather let it be part of the culture.” Hinchcliffe, however, suggests, “Leaders need two simultaneous organizational structures. One for continuity that's more hierarchical. One for innovation that's much more networked.” With this Gold concludes, “the biggest thing is empowering staff to think beyond the box. CIOs should give them the time to do so. They should encourage their ideas. They should make extra training available. And the best CIO is one with the most creative staff.”

Parting Words: Powering the Future

This is clearly the time for an adaptive, innovation focused CIO. If you do not have one, you need to get one to weather the change that is going to come. These CIOs look for opportunities to power the future and build an adaptable organization that can prosper in the face of accelerating change.

These organizations can help design an appropriate corporate future. These CIOs can challenge their organizations to see around corners and sense when "the snow is melting at the edge."

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.