A Tale of Two CIOs: One “Managed Change” While the Other Skyrocketed Productivity

Blogger’s note: this piece is reblogged from The Cutter Consortium. I originally wrote it for their Business Technology Strategies Email Advisor, July 2012.


CIOs sit between a rock and hard place.

On one hand, the already ridiculous pace of change continues accelerating. Then the C-suite hands down more numbers you must meet for the business to succeed. On the other hand, staff feels comfy all cozied up in a technology security blanket. “Talk business,” they balk? “Not me, let’s talk tech.” Business-facing initiatives come and go, and then things settle back to status quo. Or worse, the board and executive committee keep clanging the outsourcing bell. Unless you get some major alignment and momentum between your department and overall business direction, heads will roll. But that’s not the half of it.

One CIO I watched suffered visible distress to his health and family relationships. Why? Job stress, of course. The same was true for member after member of his top team. Their story line tells all: “It is what it is,” invoked more often for look-you-in-the-face denial than for facing the actual truth. Interpretation? “Wear these health and marriage scars as badges of honor. Keep reaching for that brass ring. We didn’t climb this far to be wusses.”

Sound familiar? Like these executives, you may be looking for solutions to problems such as:

  • Faster and more valuable innovation
  • Increased competitiveness
  • Better alignment and engagement with the business
  • Employees who care about the greater value stream
  • Less stress and more sanity

What to do? It feels like you need some kind of fundamental change but are not sure where to turn.

Consider this tale of two CIOs and their sizable IT organizations

One organization changed little outwardly yet dramatically improved productivity year on year by up to 100%. The other organization changed org charts, initiatives, strategies, and people. Yet they failed to make any real headway.

By the way, my observations in each organization stretched across multiple years thanks to ongoing business relationships. This offered plenty of opportunity to collect the evidence I share here.

So what was the difference between these two CIOs and their organizations?

Let’s look into the not-so-successful case first.

The leader, who I’ll call Smart CIO, gathered a large covey of sharp execs around him for a top team. They invested hundreds of hours together searching for the “just-right” plan. They launched dozens of initiatives into the organization, and they restructured department after department. Each quarter they would communicate to the hundreds of employees that “it is all coming together nicely.”

But the group of managers reporting to this top team played musical chairs as they got reassigned. They became more confused about their roles and how to actually lead their own teams to add any value. “This is insane” was a popular conversation-opener when these managers talked with me. They frequently confessed, “I don’t understand where we’re going.” And they rolled their eyes at the top team pronouncements that “It’s all coming together nicely.”

Now what about the first department and their success case?

Let’s call this leader Wise CIO. She gathered her top 40 managers — about three levels’ worth. She asked them, “How can we create one context for communication, problem solving, and decision making for our 800 people?”

She realized that accelerating complexity, change, and uncertainty could never be managed by a small group of execs directing the actions of hundreds of others, no matter how smart those execs are and how much time they spend analyzing and planning. And she knew that her organization must move thousands of conversations rapidly from bottom to top and back, and peer-to-peer-to-peer every day. Each of those conversations must add value. If problems were swept under the rug as a means to ensure personal safety, then honesty and openness would also get bottled up, progress would cease, and the complexity would win the day.

The complexity did not get Wise CIO. Last I saw it was cooking Smart CIO.

On reflection, the question I pose is this: are you trying to make all of the “right things” happen? That’s what Smart CIO did. Or are you, like Wise CIO, creating a context where hundreds of people make thousands of valuable things happen every day?

“Creating a context,” you ask? What the heck do I mean by “context?”

I admit it is a fuzzy reference, and I’ll explain more below. But to answer, by context I mean an environment, a container, or what most call a “culture.” As you know, context shapes behavior, so understanding it can be useful to leaders.

The glaring difference I saw was that in Wise CIO’s organization, leaders met in a variety of meetings and talked about the organization (How are stress levels? Slack levels? What are people asking for? Complaining about? Where are people happy? Upset? What are we doing to support the context we want? How are we unintentionally creating the context we don’t want?).

In Smart CIO’s organization, leaders met and talked about the content (i.e., the throughput, the numbers, and what they probably ought to restructure or initiate in order to meet their numbers).

Could leadership success really be so simple and straight-forward? Maybe it can be; maybe it can’t.

Maybe there’s a better question: can leadership mediocrity be so evident and predictable? The unfortunate answer is “yes.”

I know that in 25 years as an applied organization and leadership science guy working in the trenches with all kinds of organizations from Fortune 500 to privately held small businesses, I’ve seen one change model that consistently tops all others. It is the most successful and the least-known approach to change. It is also the easiest and least expensive. Yet few top leaders have a clue that it is available to them.

Want to know what that is? I bet you do, and I bet most readers will then dismiss it or laugh it off. I don’t recommend doing that.

Here it is.

It is simple: the top leader — the person in the buck-stops-here position — has a personal epiphany, a transformation of sorts, and he or she just starts behaving differently. What’s different? It could be a million different things, but usually has the characteristics desired in powerful leaders like courage, honesty, and authenticity.

This leadership difference ripples through the leadership team, and they start behaving differently, too. And those ripples generate a context (or environment or container – whatever you want to call it) that makes a big difference. People communicate more openly. There’s less fear, more honesty, and greater initiative. People are happier. Real problem-solving multiplies. Participation increases. Good decision-making happens.

So I’ll leave you with this. Are you the leader who’s trying to “drive change” to make productivity happen? Or are you the leader who releases pent-up productivity in wave after wave of success?

[Image used courtesy of Flickr]

Do you want to manage change or be a better, more effective leader? Join Christopher in beautiful downtown Seattle March 27, 2014 for Leading Agile Change for Executives.

Posted in Change Management, Leadership on 02/23/2014 01:53 am
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