UAB CIO: How CIOs can rethink team pace for the next normal

After learning from the lessons  of last year, it's time to retrain and reorganize our teams to get ready for what's next. Here's the cycle we plan to follow
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CIOs who successfully led their organizations through the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic were rewarded with an honor many have been seeking for quite some time – we’ve been recognized as agents of innovation. 

That’s no small feat. For years, even the best CIOs have been trying to step out of the long shadows of IT’s history. Even when we reached new milestones, it could be hard to shake the legacy perception that IT is a cost efficiency center or a transactional “process improvement” center.

In the past year, CIOs have been working at a pace unlike anything we’ve ever experienced. 

At the University of Alabama at Birmingham, tools and technologies we had been advocating for were suddenly adopted. People realized that not only could they work from home effectively, but they were actually more productive. Hybrid education was working. Systems we campaigned for were working. 

It was validation: Not only did everything we had been championing work, it was all working quite well. 

We’ve changed perceptions about what was in the realm of possibility.

Today, our IT organization has solidified its role as the innovation and transformation center. We’ve changed perceptions about what was in the realm of possibility. Other CIOs who have achieved a similar feat this year recognize that this all comes at a cost. Our IT teams have been moving at 180 miles per hour for a year now, engaging in new initiatives while staying aligned and delivering flawlessly on them all.

[ Does remote work leave your team exhausted? Read our related story: Remote exhaustion: 13 tips to reduce fatigue. ]

Moving at 180 MPH isn’t a practical speed to sustain for the foreseeable future. We’ve put in all-nighters; we’ve worked weekends. We did what we needed to do to maintain transformational speed. 

Here’s how we achieved so much in the past year, and how we plan to recover in the months ahead so we can continue to be agents of innovation. 

Move to what's most important

There’s an old military adage that says, “Leaders move toward the sound of guns.” You’re not trying to manage everything; you’re trying to manage where the current fight is – the area where you can be most decisive and strategic for your ongoing operations. You move toward the sound of the most important guns. Then you shift, leaving a deputy or subordinate leader in charge, and move off to the next fight. 

That’s similar to how our IT organization has been fighting the effects of the pandemic at UAB. 

At one point last year, we were juggling a series of initiatives. One was around hybrid education, which included classroom technology upgrades and creating safe study areas on campus. We were also working on the exposure notification app that uses Bluetooth cell phone signals to anonymously alert people who have been exposed to another user who tested positive for COVID-19. We were also developing a symptom tracker, which enables universities and other organizations to proactively attack the pandemic. 

One day, I was booked in four meetings at the same time. I found myself literally trying to attend these meetings remotely on multiple screens. It was clear I had too many balls in the air, and I needed to put my deputies in charge of some of these projects and coach them through. This was an opportunity to develop my deputies. 

That’s how we handled those days of pandemic – we approached the most important projects first, and when it was time to shift, we left a deputy in charge and moved along.

Throughout the pandemic, I’ve been brokering relationships, developing partnerships, and coaching my deputies through many large initiatives. I could have tried to micromanage these projects, but that’s not my approach. Instead, I added value to these initiatives where I could, whether it was by facilitating a meeting with one of my industry relationships or making a pitch to a potential partner.

That’s how we handled those days of pandemic – we approached the most important projects first, and when it was time to shift, we left a deputy in charge and moved along. The deputies did fantastic work because they’re great leaders, they were up for the challenge, and they were supported with coaching. Ultimately, this approach allowed us to go above and beyond university expectations and truly be part of UAB’s mission to grow knowledge that will change the world. 

Examine, reinvest, realign, sprint

After a year of moving at a tremendous pace, we’re now moving into our own version of what the military calls a “rapid deployment force.” I borrowed this process from my years serving in the Army. When you’re in a war, you’re focused only on the fight in front of you. Once the fight is over, you clean your weapons and patch your tents. Then you take care of your soldiers. You send them to college and get them training so they’re ready for whatever is next.

After moving full speed for several months, we need to take a step back and strategically examine the work we did, identify any new policies or documentations that need updating, etc.

During the March to May timeframe, we’ll take a look at everything we’ve done this past year, identify any gaps, reinvest in our employees, and then realign the organization in anticipation of another full-out sprint.

There’s a clear purpose to this cycle. After moving full speed for several months, we need to take a step back and strategically examine the work we did, identify any new policies or documentations that need updating, etc. Our goal is to be reflective in all that’s happened and identify where we have opportunities to improve.

By late spring we plan to reinvest in our employees. This will include a reorganization of our team based on the skills we need for the future. For example, I know now that we need more people in artificial intelligence, mobile app development, and security. We’ll provide training for our employees to prepare them for the next battle. And, when it’s safe to do so, we’ll host social events so we can build camaraderie. 

 

 

Then, when students return in September, we’ll be ready for another cycle of an agile sprint. We’ll plug those holes, reinvest in employees, and realign the organization for the year to come.

This past year has been the longest, most difficult battle that IT has ever had to face. We had an intense burst of creativity and innovation, and it’s only natural that we take some time to think strategically about what we did, what we need to fix, and really invest in our employees. We want them retrained and reorganized so we’re ready to take on whatever the next year brings.

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

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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