Today's must-have IT skill: Adaptability

CIO Robert Walden explains why adaptability is key to creating a more nimble organization
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CIO Disrupt Yourself

The things IT people used to be the experts in are not that special anymore. Because technology has become so fundamentally critical to everyone’s job, everyone is now a technologist on some level. Services or activities that used to require a Java developer can now be done by a salesperson, for instance. Improvements in user interfaces and capabilities in integration have made technology accessible and applicable to anyone in the business. 

[ Why is adpatability the new power skill? Read our new report from HBR Analytic Services: Transformation Masters: The New Rules of CIO Leadership ]

As CIO, you have two options – try to keep your death grip on the way things were and resist these changes, or focus on enablement and then get out of the way of the people doing the work. Choose the first option, and you’ll likely fail to differentiate and fall behind in the market. 

I’ve gone as far to do away with the name “IT” for our organization.

The second option is more aligned with the future of IT and where I see things going. I’ve gone as far to do away with the name “IT” for our organization. From my standpoint, IT is no longer an organization. IT is a set of tools and services that enable companies to do things better, faster, and at a higher quality. All of that information technology can no longer be contained within an organization. Instead we call ourselves “Shared Technology Services.” That terminology does a better job conveying the message that we’re building repeatable services that can be leveraged and shared by our consumer base.

I’m not suggesting every IT organization change its name; in fact, the name itself doesn’t matter. It’s understanding the essence of what you’re trying to accomplish that’s important. CIOs must have a solid handle on the long-term vision – where do you see yourself in the future, and what will ultimately help you get there? For most, it’s no longer about owning information technology for the business. In fact, that will only slow you down. 

Enablement for my team means providing what I call the “traffic cones around success.” We do the due diligence around architecture, cost, compliance, and security. We advise on the best path forward. But then, importantly, we get out of the way. By giving users the reins, we can much more successfully and quickly drive the change or the service throughout the organization.  

The adaptability factor

Operating in this way requires one very important trait from everyone on my team: adaptability. The more effectively you can build adaptability into the mindset of your people and the culture of your organization, the more successful you will be – especially when it comes to being an enabler of change.

Once upon a time, you could implement a new technology, and then enjoy a nice, stable plateau for a little while, as you waited for the next new thing to come along. But that’s so far off from what organizations are experiencing today that it seems like a fairy tale.

Now we’re in a continuous state of change. You need to be ready and able to pivot at a moment’s notice. Those who can’t readily adapt their policies, standards, and technologies are the ones who will choke. 

There are no five-year strategies anymore. We’ve moved all of our strategies from three years to two years.

The importance of adaptability is woven into how we work as an organization and how we work as individuals. There are no five-year strategies anymore. We’ve moved all of our strategies from three years to two years. From a strategic planning standpoint, we’re not looking at anything beyond 24 months. 

Individuals know their roles are adaptable, as well. We have a client and product technology services team that focuses on all of our revenue-facing systems and we have an associate technology services team that primarily handles the back office work: IT, help desk support, laptops, desktops, phones, etc.

When I first joined, these two teams were combined as one and it was (to no fault of their own) somewhat similar to watching young children play soccer, where everyone runs around the field chasing the ball instead of playing their position. That meant that on a given day, one of those team members may have focused on the associate side, and the next day they were focused on the client-product technology world. To bring focus to their roles, I divided those teams so they could better play their respective positions. This allowed them to focus their energy and time on the things that mattered in their realm and not drop the ball on one side or the other. This provided much better service quality for our associates and our clients. 

Short of brainwashing people on the importance of adaptability, CIOs can do a few concrete things to begin operating in this way. Look at whatever you’re doing from an organizational standpoint and ensure you have the ability to pivot or at least have a line of sight into how you would get to that point. Identify and eliminate any roadblocks that would stand in the way of updating or completely changing course – not only with technologies, but also with skill sets and industry trends.

Then look at how much of the change process is solely the domain of IT. What can you enable users throughout the business to own so that change happens more seamlessly? On the individual front, make sure your people feel empowered to absorb new information and explore new ideas that can move them forward in their roles and impact the larger business in which they operate. 

Enablement and adaptability are key to creating a more nimble organization. Be nimble, be quick, and you’ll be more likely to get to a happily ever after in today’s state of continuous change.

[  IT leaders, do you want to give your team a greater sense of urgency? Get our free resource: Fast Start Guide: Creating a sense of urgency, with John Kotter. ]

Robert Walden is Chief Information Officer at Epsilon, where he is responsible for cybersecurity and global infrastructure services for Epsilon's portfolio of client-facing products and solutions, as well as internal corporate IT services.