A goal for CIOs: Invest in your change agents' ideas

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If CIOs really want to be successful they need to develop a network of change agents not only within the IT shop, but across the organization as a whole, says U.S. Federal Communications Commission CIO, Dr. David A. Bray.

“Your organizational partners may have a diversity of views and differ on where things need to go, and that’s actually okay. Diversity leads to better outcomes and avoids the risks of group think.”

Bray, a frequent user of Twitter to exchange ideas and recognize his team members, has shared a Harvard Business Review article entitled “In Praise of the Incomplete Leader” with the different teams he has led since 2010. He says that the best leaders recognize that in a rapidly changing world, they will inevitably have blind spots, and so they should proactively encourage their team members to point out missing insights and bring alternative ideas to the table supported by data. By modeling the openness to new ideas, good leaders equally encourage their teams to be open.

“The value that a network of ‘positive change agents’ has is that they’re really at the edge of their different functions across the organization, whether it be a business or a public service organization,” Bray said. “You can’t change within a single silo. These change agents are aware of what’s changing within their immediate mission.”

“I’ve seen others attempt to do change with a singular group that isn’t exposed to the different mission edges of an organization, and unfortunately such attempts at change usually don’t work. The change agents are best aware of what advancements need to be brought to bear through technology, and they may also have ideas for changing how we do things, changing the process, changing the way we share information, and being more collaborative. They needs to be involved both in giving inputs, highlighting potential blind spots, and helping to make changes,” Bray continued.

“That’s really what I believe a CIO should be: an encourager and cultivator of transformative ideas across the organization, or across multiple organizations in the case of public service,” Bray said.

Bray suggests CIOs start such a transformation informally by simply letting employees know that a safe space exists where they can bring forward good ideas relative to technology and the organization’s different missions.

Once you’ve formally articulated to your teams that you’re open to experimentation (as he did when he first started at the FCC), Bray recommends following-up with those who are interested in helping make the change through informal lunch gatherings, hallway conversations, or voluntary events after work such as casual happy hours.

“It’s really about getting together to talk informally about what changes we think need to occur and what challenges you’re seeing. Listening is crucial, and it should evolve into something where the CIO basically says: ‘Make your pitch. Do you have data to support your idea? What are three reasons why it would work, and three reasons why it might not work? How can I help you succeed?’ And once different change agents have a good framework of an experiment to try, the CIO should support them, almost like a venture capitalist.”

“I think it’s interesting we reward Silicon Valley for taking risks that might not always work out – including some that will fail to become a successful public offering. We have to do this to adapt to our rapidly changing world, particularly where technology capabilities in terms of speed and volume are growing exponentially. Risk taking is central to what entrepreneurs do,” Bray said.

“Yet within established businesses and within public service organizations, if we try that same model of experiments – then sometimes there can be a stigma for being an 'intrapreneur,' or entrepreneur on the inside, because you have to be a good steward of either your company’s profits or a good steward of your taxpayers’ dollars. And while I think it is true that we definitely have to be good stewards of such dollars, we also have to balance maintaining the status quo with doing experiments to adapt to our changing world. I’m not advocating folks go forth without a plan or do things without intentionality. Instead, I am saying our exponential era of change does not come with an existing textbook that shows us the way to go: in established businesses and within public service organizations, we’re going to have to experiment.”

Dr. David A. Bray serves as Chief Information Officer (CIO) for the Federal Communications Commission, overseeing the Commission's efforts to modernize legacy systems and transform technology partnerships in telecommunications, broadband, competition, the spectrum, the media, public safety, and security. He was selected to serve as a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and as a Visiting Associate for the Cybersecurity Working Group on Culture at the University of Oxford in 2014.

Ginny Holden is an independent consultant who brings the practice of IT to life through memorable storytelling.