IT leadership: 5 truths for CIOs in 2021

IT leadership: 5 truths for CIOs in 2021

To thrive – or even survive – in today's still-turbulent environment, you will need to focus on these five key areas

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Woman sits at desk looking at bar graph of data from the cloud

Last year at this time, you were likely dealing with “old-world” business-critical issues – i.e., adapting to constantly changing technology and providing systems to help business leaders deliver strong results and improve the customer experience.

Then, bam! COVID-19 hit, and the world rapidly became far more difficult and treacherous. Almost instantaneously, you were forced to provide great customer experiences in ways that changed overnight, shift your company to a remote work model, ensure that everyone had the technology they needed and the ability to use it while maintaining security and information integrity, and cope with radical changes to budgets – all while desperately trying to survive.

To thrive – or even survive – in today’s still-turbulent environment, you will need to focus on these five key areas:

1. Adapt your strategy

The key is to understand how you can help enable the business to create value. Your company’s strategy – how it creates competitive advantage and wins in the market – has likely changed, perhaps dramatically. You must change your information strategy to support that change.

Consider how you will:

  • Support a rapidly changing customer experience and journey
  • Create value, as the fundamental processes by which the business creates value have changed almost overnight
  • Help accelerate execution of the business’s vision and strategy
  • Help align organizational energy towards the most critical business drivers
  • Decide what you should stop or avoid doing – either because it no longer fits with the environment or it doesn’t optimize the value you provide.

[ Will your organization thrive in 2021? Learn the four priorities top CIOs are focusing on now. Download the HBR Analytic Services report: IT Leadership in the Next Normal. ]

2. Align the best talent

It’s critical to get the right people in the right roles with the right capabilities to execute your strategy. The capability requirements for your team members were probably already evolving at light speed pre-COVID. Adapting to the changes that have happened since then threw a step function change on those requirements.

Consider:

  • How do you ensure your team is fully engaged and delivering their best, even as they navigate through uncertainty themselves?
  • What capabilities do you need in your organization as work processes and technology evolve?
  • How intentionally are you reskilling your team members to be effective in this rapidly changing environment?
  • How are you recruiting and selecting the talent you need both today and in the future?

[ How are you staffing your efforts? Read also: Digital transformation teams in 2021: 9 key roles. ]

3. Create a culture of communication

Everyone in the organization is feeling the stress of struggling to care for family members, manage kids who may or may not be going to school, and maintain their own health. On top of that, many may also be fearful about their own futures.

Ensure that everyone is well informed about the challenges your organization faces, along with its direction and response. Effective communication is always important; now, it’s paramount to survival.

Effective communication is always important; now, it's paramount to survival.

Show that you care. To forge that connection, you need to understand and remain empathetic to their feelings and concerns.

Communicate, communicate, communicate. Once is not enough – people don’t always get what you share with them the first time. If they don’t have information, they tend to make stuff up – and it’s rarely accurate or positive! Communicate clearly, consistently, frequently and through multiple channels to minimize individual and organizational anxiety.

Always be open and transparent about both what you do and don’t know. With conditions changing nearly every day, it’s impossible to know everything. Being honest and up-front about that is critical to building and maintaining trust.

Practice 2-Up/2-Down. In these uncertain times, nobody really knows how to navigate the next normal, and rapid learning is critical. Make a point to always communicate two levels up and two levels down. That ensures that your messages are getting through and you’re learning questions, challenges, and ideas from everyone in the organization.

4. Create organizational gravity

Align your organizational architecture. Architecture includes the systems, structure, processes, and culture that shape how work gets done. When these factors are aligned with your strategy, they create gravity that pulls your organization in the direction you want to go. When they’re misaligned, you’ll feel like you’re swimming in mud.

To ensure that your organizational architecture enables whatever evolves, think about these questions:

  • How do your information systems need to change to support the organization’s next way of delivering value to your customers?
  • How quickly can you adapt your systems, structures, processes, and culture to respond efficiently to rapidly changing circumstances?
  • How can you quickly adopt the technology needed to enable your organization’s success?

5. Maintain focus and alignment on critical priorities

Executing your strategy requires that the efforts of everyone on your team are aligned with the strategy. To create focus and alignment, you’ll need to:

  • Redefine your team’s goals to reflect new organizational priorities
  • Realign your scorecards to reflect progress toward these new goals
  • Identify new performance drivers (critical tasks, behaviors, and actions) needed to deliver outstanding results
  • Rethink your follow-up/follow-through processes and rhythms. Timely, consistent follow-up and follow-through is critical to learning what works and doesn’t work in a new environment.

The next normal for your organization looks significantly different from that of a few months ago. Adapting to it may be uncomfortable, but it’s also a great opportunity to rethink and redefine the information strategy and refocus on how you create value.

[ Get exercises and approaches that make disparate teams stronger. Read the digital transformation ebook: Transformation Takes Practice. ]

Sean Ryan is a world-renowned business consultant, speaker, trainer and executive coach. As the founder of Whitewater International Consulting, he has worked internationally with companies such as Disney, Nucor Steel, FedEx and Nestle Waters of North America/Perrier Group of America.

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