The new CIO’s dilemma – Preserving what works versus changing what doesn’t

Strategy and Digital Transformation

Photo of Ian Sheen

Ian Sheen

Technical Lead - Strategy and Transformation, Telstra Purple LinkedIn

New CIOs have a fresh, exciting chance to make an impact. But sometimes it can be hard to tell when you’ve been brought in to continue existing, legacy processes, or if you truly have the latitude to drive meaningful change.

Even if you’re lucky enough to join an organisation hungry for change, it’s still a challenge to find the right mix of old and new. For example, plenty of IT strategies require bringing in people with new skills, while long-time team members can provide the historical knowledge and influence necessary to avoid pitfalls of the past.

That’s just a taster of the topics covered in Telstra Purple’s New-in-Role virtual roundtable, where 14 CIOs also explored the trickiest parts of their first year and how to navigate them. An overarching challenge was identifying what to keep versus what to change, then using that basis to implement lasting, positive change.

Our attendees identified three major steps to success:

1. Understand your mandate for change

Almost all new employees, no matter their role, are challenged by learning the vagaries of a new organisation and understanding how to make their own impact. But the technical aspects of a CIO’s role can magnify this challenge considerably, especially if an organisation is struggling to articulate what they need or expect from you.

From the recruitment process to your first 90 days, our attendees agreed that priority should be given to understanding why an organisation is bringing in a new CIO, what its needs are, and any gaps between those two areas.

In many cases, this is a matter of networking, asking questions, and building relationships.

One new CIO suggested that “I found that I was able to create a different set of relationships and take new ideas forward because I did not bring a long history of IT Leadership.” By contrast, a career technologist offered that he was able to initiate change because “I was fortunate that organisations I moved to respected that I was a tech expert and could implement good IT projects and practices to fill their needs.”

Others warned that not all organisations set up their new CIOs for success, noting that it’s critical to identify unrealistic expectations or conflicting objectives early.

“You have to really understand what you’re getting yourself into. You have to believe in yourself as a leader, and in your ability to implement change. Otherwise, you risk being seen as someone who has been brought in to continue along the same path they’ve trodden for years.”

2. Learn how to start and stop

Selling your ideas across the business is one of the most important skills a new CIO can learn, especially when it comes to making big decisions about projects. But potentially more important than that is knowing when to slow the momentum, even on a project you had initiated.

“In each role I inherited a project, but you have to spot when it’s wrong and stop them,” said one CIO. “You should never feel afraid to halt a project if necessary, even if some teams are heavily invested in it and have high expectations,” agreed another.

This isn’t only important for inherited projects – it also applies to the projects you start too. A change isn’t necessarily right for an organisation just because it’s new.

“It’s easy to get over-invested in a project and keep going even when it’s not working,” one attendee said. “You can over-promise and it becomes a pain to get out of. But it’s important to stop something if you feel it’s not going well.”

“I’ve never regretted ending a project.”

Another CIO added: “You almost have to sell the idea of cancelling the project in the same way you sold the start. You’ve been brought in for your opinion, experience, and knowledge. So, don’t be afraid to use it.”

That’s not to say these decisions aren’t difficult and there won’t be blowback – especially once teams are invested. That means it’s important to not only prepare a business case for pulling the plug, but to also approach the issue with an open mind and plenty of empathy.

“Nobody is a villain in their own story. So when I get my most vociferous objections, I’m always inclined to ask the critic, ‘How are you the hero?’ When you truly understand someone’s motivations and point of view, it’s much easier to work to a resolution.”

3. Focus on long-term impact

Whether opting to keep a legacy system or introducing new team members, it’s important to truly understand the organisation and then get buy-in from as many parties as possible so decisions aren’t doomed from the start. Yet there’s just as much work in making sure people stick to your strategy, regardless of its ratio of old to new.

“It’s not about IT. It’s about people, culture, and getting them to adopt the new ways that you implement,” said one CIO.

But sometimes, getting started is the only way to tell when you’ve got the right balance.

“You just have to implement. You have to try things. Some won’t work, some will, but you’ve got to just get it done,” the CIO continued.

One important recommendation to remember as you implement is to speak with teams at every level, especially those on the ground. Understanding the pain points and practical implications of a project are key to knowing when and why something might not be working, and even anticipating those roadblocks before they happen.

New CIOs also need to be forceful once positive change does start to take hold – and COVID-19 is a great example. In fact, one CIO said he believed the pandemic has been the main catalyst to digitise their business with mobile, paperless processes.

“Now is the time to double down on these changes. We can’t let people come back to the office and revert to old ways. We need to stay focused on reinforcing the new, more effective measures,” he said.

Ultimately, new CIOs need to prioritise in-depth knowledge about business needs and the organisational culture, and complement that with the empathy, negotiation, and diplomacy skills necessary for ensuring that change really is for the better.

“If people see that you’re working for the greater good rather than for your own gain, they’ll get on board and push for success. People are the important bit,” concluded one CIO.

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