What the pandemic has taught me already: A CIO's perspective

What the pandemic has taught me already: A CIO's perspective

CIOs have managed change for decades, but we love to ridicule words like pivot. Until now. Hello, COVID-19 pandemic. What have we learned so far? 

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Woman on a computer wearing a face mask during COVID-19 pandemic

Don’t be reactive, they said. Ha! I’ve matured enough as a technology leader to grasp that deliberate and intentional is generally the best direction to go at that fork in the road.

But I’m looking back over my career at those unanticipated technology outages and glitches; those moments when an urgent, immediate, and reactive response was required. There were enough to show that I consciously and measurably improved my response to and through those crises. I’m recognizing that, though not ideal, this is why many (if not most) technology leaders are rising to the current pandemic occasion.

While our response has been reactive due to the severity of the why, how we’ve transitioned in many instances has been anything but.

Those in the CIO role across all industries have been managing change – both effectively and ineffectively – for decades. There is a deep value to the buzzwords and phrases that are endlessly parodied and ridiculed – pivot, change leader, transformation, responsive, change culture, right-size, blah-blah-blah. Those words, though exhausting, have power when harnessed. Unfortunately, many administrators use the words and long to embody them but have no idea how to live them.

Until now. Hello, 2020.

Our industries have watched effective change management through this pandemic. And while I’m sure there are many more lessons to learn in the coming weeks, I think it’s important to take a breath, enjoy your coffee (currently taking a sip), and focus on what we’ve learned so far from this profoundly peculiar experience. While our response has been reactive due to the severity of the why, how we’ve transitioned in many instances has been anything but.

[ IT leaders in our community are sharing advice on navigating this crisis. Read Crisis leadership: How to overcome anxiety. ]

I feel as if my entire career has prepared me for this moment. And here are my pandemic-hazed takeaways and lessons learned (and I fear there will be more) on responding to change:

Listen, learn, continuously formulate, repeat

Within a 12-hour period, we went from saying, “What if we need to close the university in two weeks?” to “We’re going all-online tomorrow morning.”

My inside voice had been batting that scenario around throughout the prior week. I continuously considered all the pieces, parts, needs, and desired end results – all parts moving, adding parts as I envisioned them – the whole picture, not just technology. Technology leaders should always be thinking outside their lanes. Now more than ever, all lanes are our lanes.

Technology leaders should always be thinking outside their lanes. Now more than ever, all lanes are our lanes.

Take control

If you see any hint of confusion, step in. Offer assistance. Use your grownup voice. As a technology leader, this is your routine “we-didn’t-expect-that-firewall-modification-to-bring-down-the-entire-network event,” times a billion. This is not a comfort zone for many others, so if you can shine, please shine. Be the light in the room.

Start communicating

In every instance, you are already considered late in the communication game, so start now: It’s coming. Whatever “it” is, it is indeed coming. Raise the flag before the tides raise it for you. Let your people know. Awareness exudes confidence.

What will “it’s coming” look like? If you don’t know, you don’t know, so share that you don’t know. If there are 20 ways it could go, infer the existence of possibly up to 20 different ways.

It’s ok to not know the what, but you need to start preparing for the how and communicate its tangible trajectory and overarching impact as soon as possible. If ego is a problem for you, douse it immediately. It’s OK to be wrong; there’s value in owning that you were wrong and showing that all change requires a human response.

You’re gonna need a whiteboard

Seemingly so elementary. Sounds silly, but to write the final chapter, you’re going to need the whole storyline mapped out. All change requires a roadmap: The pieces. The parts. The path. And you’ll need more than one eraser, as change has a pesky habit of changing course unexpectedly.

Recall though, that there will always be a desired end-state. Wayne Gretzky’s famous quote, “Skate to where the puck is going,” applies here. Throughout today’s crisis, we are continuously skating to the puck of “deliver to home, not on campus.” Same levels of quality and experience, albeit different.

Embrace difference

Change is traditionally served with a heaping helping of new and different.

Change is traditionally served with a heaping helping of new and different.

In the simplest terms, understand that most people consider themselves adaptable – until you present them with a fine-tipped fountain pen in the shade of green.

Let’s face it: We are predominantly a medium-point, black, ballpoint Bic nation. Change requires inside tolerance work and outside training-for-difference leadership. Recognizing pushback and criticism is largely based on the fear of change. Learn to work gracefully in that space. Don’t get defensive. Users simply can’t deliver a traditional Bic experience via a new green fountain pen if they’re focusing on the pen itself and not the body of work being delivered.

Your experience and knowledge are more than the delivery method in which they are shared. I challenge everyone to find a creative way to embrace that fountain pen, rock that snazzy green color, and reframe it to enhance your traditional teaching methods. Embracing difference often turns a challenge into an unexpected opportunity for growth.

Spoiler alert: Those who say they have a problem with change will inevitably be the quickest to adapt. Why is that? Because they’ve already envisioned their worst-case-scenario a million times, and reality is rarely that.

Let's look at five more lessons:

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Paige Francis, Vice President for Information Technology and Chief Information Officer for the University of Tulsa in Tulsa, OK, is a strategic and performance-focused executive with 15+ years of innovative, energetic technology leadership across a variety of industries.

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