Businesswoman standing and leading office meeting around table.
PHOTO: Monkey Business

In his article in the Harvard Business Review (“5 Questions to Help Leaders Achieve Growth Amid Uncertainty”), Joerg Esser said, “Even as business picks up in many places, the new normal is one dogged by uncertainty. Poisoning the mix further is the fact that many businesses now find themselves strapped for cash following nearly two years of crisis management. How can businesses overcome their understandable reticence and reorient themselves for the future? The question is particularly acute as the old, tried-and-tested management frameworks that served leaders well in a more predictable world — scale, division of labor, focusing on the best use of internal resources, and so on — are inherently unsuited for a world of unexpected twists and turns.”

Coping With Uncertainty

Fortunately, dealing with uncertainty is a core competency of CIOs. A good CIO is comfortable with ambiguity. They can lead forward their organization with confidence. According to Quickbase CIO Deb Gildersleeve, “Disruption is going to happen, so it is important to make sure employees have what they need to pivot when it is needed. It is also important to help them see areas where there is certainty. Data is a huge part of doing this well.”

Part of succeeding here, is providing business leaders with up-to-date market information highlighting what is happening within markets. It really helps to have a CIO that spends time with customers and can determine where there are gaps in product and customer experience. It helps, as well, for the CIO to assist their organization in streamlining organizational processes so they avoid waste and make the company nimbler. In today’s world, it is not only IT that needs to be more agile. Businesses need tools that allow them to be more flexible and agile.

Beyond this, a CIO is needed that keep their eyes open and sense changes that are just around the corner. With this knowledge, CIOs need to actively discuss what they're seeing with business colleagues, and in this process, demonstrate thoughtful, caring leadership. Doing this involves staying informed across multiple channels, focusing on the future state and discussing with the organization what they see as the pathway to that future state. Facing into this can be stressful and worrisome, but CIOs owe it to their organizations to do this as much as possible.

Related Article: Why — and How — CIOs Support Customer Experience Programs

Ability to Challenge Other Business Leaders

CIOs believe they should be leaders that can challenge other business leaders. Leadership teams have to trust and work with each other if they are going to have a chance to see around corners.

Capgemini’s chief data architect, Steve Jones, stresses the role of data in this process. He said, “The closer the view of the business is to reality, the faster it reacts, and the more it can be relied upon for forecasting faster than anyone can react to change. If data is a metamirror of reality, you're removing the biggest part of uncertainty. Where am I?

"Organizations want situational intelligence — the ability to combine that data into the specific context of decisions. Being able to show what is driving uncertainty and change, and link it back to what is impacted and what needs to adapt is very badly served today. It’s not something where technology and enterprise IT has helped that much. For instance, how today do we describe digital operating models and situational intelligence? Most likely this is done on whiteboards or in PPT.”

Personal Fortitude, Remaining Calm in Crisis

CIOs say their role requires resilience and a certain amount of fearlessness. They also need to have a combination of confidence and empathy. According to Mevotech CIO Martin Davis, “CIOs need to be able to remain calm in a crisis, however long it lasts. They need to be able to make a plan and avoid panic.” This is similar to what I heard from a WestPoint Instructor several years ago. He said that during a battle, captains need to remain calm to call and direct the troops even as the artillery is going off overhead. 

Clearly, everyone handles uncertainty differently. However, the role of a leader includes acknowledging uncertainty and the personal risk that it may bring to bear. To be effective, CIOs need to be able to engage the broader company and the broader team. In stable times, they can optimize for stability; however, when things are changing, they must accept instability. In times of instability, CIOs need to tie IT’s activities to business strategy and what is changing into the ongoing evolution of the business. Where possible this should involve A/B testing, which should include the company’s business model.

Related Article: CIOs Share Business Continuity Plans Amid COVID-19 Pandemic

Leading With Empathy, Not Fear

Another critical thing: CIOs need to do their best to rally people around data-driven decisions, while also leading with empathy. I remember several years ago talking with the CIO of the American Cancer Society who said everyone in the company understood why they needed to make certain changes, but at the end of the day, someone’s life was going to change when the change was implemented.

Miami University CIO David Seidl said, “A friend used to tell me that as leaders we must not care, we must be tough, and we must do the hard things. This friend was wrong. We must care, we must be human, and we must listen. Sometimes, we may still have to do the hard things in caring ways. On a personal level, this means making sure we are taking care of ourselves and our loved ones too. It means carving out space and time not just for working, but for keeping personal reservoirs filled, because the last two years drained them fast and often for most of us.”

Better Sensing Inflection Points

CIOs caution me that many businesses aren’t as process driven as one might think. In these cases, CIOs have a role in helping their entire organization to mature. Specifically, they need to ensure their leadership team is aware of how the environment is changing. This includes what competitors are doing and how the market is flexing. Obviously, this is a lot more than a traditional Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats (SWOT) analysis. 

To perform this function well, it is critical that CIOs have a good understanding of how technology can be used to shape or reshape their businesses landscape. This means today’s CIO needs to have a strategic bend to them, and as Columbia University Professor Rita McGrath suggested, to be able to sense early an inflection point that is in process and provide early warnings to their organization. This starts by establishing strong relationships outside their particular industry because as McGrath said, "The snows melts first at the edges."

CIOs clearly need a strong personal foundation to do this. This includes knowing where they can help with organizational changes. Effective CIOs are able to engage these organizations in a regular dialog. These CIOs have the personal credibility to ask hard questions. What happens if nothing changes? What is the trigger point for change? How will we recognize a trigger point? What is impacted? How will we know?

And at the same time, they are able to help manage for today and the future. These dual hatted leaders, however, need to ensure people don't have uncertainly in their roles. Otherwise, they won't have the stability to deal with the uncertainty in business situations.

Related Article: Why CIO Success Starts With Building Effective Partnerships

Seeing When Technology Has Reached the Tipping Point

Gildersleeve said to do the above well, it is important that, “CIOs be in conversation. This way they will be able to see when indicators to technology has reached a tipping point. Any place where technology leaders gather can show a soon to be inflection point.”

What CIOs need is to not only perceive tipping points, but also know where an uptick requires further validation. CIOs need to be cool and collective as well because old technology still needs to be maintained for a decade or more. They also need to have the ability to smooth the hype rather than look for the peaks and troughs. Market analyst Dan Kirsch said, “While technology often dominates CIO discussions, it is important think about the impacts it has on people as well as process.”

Making Small Bets So You’re Ready

CIOs believe quick wins help drive momentum and prove value. The problem is these sometimes can miss key market pivots. For this reason, CIOs need to build a diverse team. CIOs say that sometimes IT leaders need to add people outside their industry that look at things differently. The nice thing about small bets is that small bets, in contrast to innovation and exploratory projects, don’t have to be balanced against spending constraints and resources.

CIO believe that small experiments are valuable to being ready to respond to an inflection point. Edenred CIO Pedro Martinez Puig said, “Any great idea that requires buy-in from distinct stakeholders benefits from a proof of concept (POC). A POC is worth a thousand slides for both convincing and gathering significant feedback at early stages of the project.”

CIO Theresa Rowe added, “Moving the target closer with small bets and small steps is excellent, especially if one is budget constrained or operating in an annual fund budget. No investment in learning the tech horizon is ever lost.”

Jones adds that CIOs should make “their small bets on different things, but make big bets on rationalization and industrialization. If you do something in the same way 10,000 times you will be much more agile than continually changing something that should be a commodity.”

Parting Words: Empowering Employees to Do Better Work

Washington Irving once wrote, “There is a certain relief in change, even though it is from bad to worse; as I have found in traveling a stage-coach, that it is often a comfort to shift one’s position and be bruised in a new place.”

Clearly, uncertainty and the pace of change is only going to increase. Having CIOs with the fortitude to deal with uncertainty is critical.

According to Gildersleeve, “A CIO can be most impactful when they are seen as a strategic business partner, not just the tech brains of the company. A more strategic seat at the table allows CIOs to identify problems quicker and bring solutions to the table sooner. ... This also fosters a company culture of cross-functional collaboration, which ultimately empowers employees do their jobs better.”