How to crowdsource your way to success as an IT leader

100 wins in your first 100 days as CIO? Curt Carver beat that goal - and learned much about collaborative leadership
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CIO Hands Technology

[ Editor's note: This article is part of The Open Organization Workbook, released today, the newest volume in the Open Organization book series. In the workbook, author Curt Carver joins more than 30 other writers and IT leaders discussing the ways open principles – transparency, inclusivity, adaptability, collaboration, and community – are changing the way we work. Get the free download. ]

Two years ago, I wrote about my team’s plan to crowdsource our IT priorities during my first 100 days as CIO of University of Alabama at Birmingham. We had an ambitious goal: Identify 100 “wins” – 100 things we could do to improve university life – in 100 days, then implement all of them within a year.

I can now report that we did not achieve 100 wins in our first year.

We actually achieved 147.

The initiative was successful by any definition, including my own. But it wasn’t easy. We built a digital platform anyone in the community could use to submit an idea for something the IT team might do to make their work easier. We collected hundreds of ideas, both through that platform and in-person meetings, which we then sorted, ranked, and incorporated into a list of priorities that guided our work for the year. It was challenging. It was surprising.

And it was extremely rewarding. Looking back, I’d do it again.

Here’s what the experience taught me about the value of transparent and collaborative IT leadership.

Trust the community

Opening a feedback platform to anyone on campus seems risky, but in hindsight I'd do it again in a heartbeat. The responses we received were very constructive; in fact, I rarely received negative and unproductive remarks. When people learned about our honest efforts at improving the community, they responded with kindness and support. By giving the community a voice – by really democratizing the effort – we achieved a surprising amount of campus-wide buy-in during a short period of time.

Transparency is best

"I've always been a proponent of the idea that everyone is an agent of innovation. "

By keeping as many of our efforts as public as possible, we demonstrated that we were truly listening to our customers and understanding the effects of the outdated technology policies and decisions that were keeping them from doing their best work. I've always been a proponent of the idea that everyone is an agent of innovation; we just needed a tool that allowed everyone to make suggestions.

Iterate, iterate, iterate

Crowdsourcing our first-year IT initiatives helped us create the most flexible and customer-centric plan we possibly could. The pressure to move quickly and lay down a comprehensive strategic plan is very real; however, by delaying that work and focusing on the evolving set of data flowing from our community, we were actually able to better demonstrate our commitment to our customers. That helped us build critical reputational capital, which paid off when we did eventually present a long-term strategic plan – because people already knew we could achieve results. It also helped us recruit strong allies and learn who we could trust to advance more complicated initiatives.

It's more work

Sure, acting alone to sketch a roadmap for my first 100 days would have been easier. But it wouldn't have generated the results the crowdsourced version did. Without a doubt, collaborative approaches like ours require more work than solitary, draconian ones. You'll need to think strategically and long-term. (Case in point: Launching our SPARK crowdsourcing platform on June 1 actually required three months of planning and development leading up to that critical day.) But if you really seize this opportunity to engage with your community, you'll realize better results.

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Curtis A. Carver Jr., Ph.D. is the Vice President and Chief Information Officer for the University of Alabama at Birmingham. In this role servant leader and enabler of others, he leads a team of dedicated professionals focused on providing solution to the UAB through world-class IT with a focus on innovation, agility and cost efficiency.

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