CIOs and technology executives have their work cut out for them this year. A 2017 survey of CIOs by Harvey Nash/KPMG revealed that tech leaders are experiencing unprecedented levels of change, and it’s often coming from unexpected sources. This isn’t surprising. There are some scare tactics at play here, certainly, but we continue hearing the warnings: digital is slated to disrupt even the most secure, long-standing industries, and it’s an unparalleled opportunity for the nimblest businesses to gain tremendous amounts of market share (or even jump into new industries altogether).

However, one key survey finding stood out to us among the rest. The survey responses demonstrated that “weak ownership, an overly optimistic approach, and unclear objectives are the main reasons IT projects fail.” As a firm rooted in strong process and project management, this is surprising. What this means, at a high level, is that large firms who have CIOs or technology leadership at the executive level struggle to prioritize, plan and execute technology projects when they cannot effectively manage change.

The CIO Must Own Change Management

Let’s break that key finding into pieces. The first reason IT projects fail, according to the survey, is because of weak ownership. In an article from Bain Digital titled “Never Waste a Good Transformation,” David Michels discusses the need for the business’s top performers to lead critical technology and transformation initiatives:

“The path of least resistance unfortunately is to staff these key positions with people who are available, those whom members of the leadership team are willing to give up. While perhaps satisfying in the near term because of minimal disruption to the organization, the long-term consequences are severe.” 

In these failure scenarios, while the CIO or CTO may “own” the project on paper, he or she doesn’t truly lead the execution of the project in any meaningful way. True change management includes appointing a project lead who will not just passively agree to make the change, but overperform, excite the workforce and be held accountable to measurable, time-based goals by other business leaders.

Optimism Must Be Replaced by Realism

The shiny, exciting newness of a big technology initiative often garners initial support followed, slowly but surely, by change fatigue. Employees are mired in the old way of doing things, and middle managers get distracted by their day-to-day lines of business responsibilities or other operational and administrative duties. This happens everywhere.

How can CIOs and business leaders keep the momentum going? By employing sound project management best practices, like:

  1. Creating smaller projects with frequent milestones and stage gates to inspire confidence and a sense of accomplishment, according to Digital McKinsey.
  2. Appointing your workforce as your steering committee, informing them when key milestones are reached and keeping them up-to-date on the progress of the change. However, the role of the steering committee needs to be fully defined for it to be effective. Is the committee providing feedback or simply absorbing information? The Project Management Institute summarizes the potential negative effects that can be imposed by your steering committee, like “delaying important implementation decisions” or even “instigating organizational conflict.”
  3. Fine-tune a strategy statement for the initiative. This strategic planning process from the Harvard Business Review is a straightforward blueprint for crafting short 35-word statements that “employees can easily internalize and use as a guiding light” to drive projects through to completion.

CIOs Must Set and Communicate Clear Objectives

Perhaps most critical to the success of business-wide technology initiatives is the definition and communication of clear objectives. The SMART model to goal-setting (specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and timely), while simplistic, is reliable and effective for CIOs and business leaders working to set clear objectives.

In this CIO.com blog post, “Planning for Digital Transformation Success,” tech leaders are encouraged to ask themselves the following questions about their digital initiative to help inform the main objective:

  1. What is the business case for implementing this initiative?
  2. Exactly what metrics and benchmarks must the system deliver in order to be considered a success?

In addition to getting these questions answered, full and total alignment at the executive level on these objectives is a must. A study by Wipro Digital found that nearly 50% of companies fail to execute a digital transformation strategy, and a “leadership issue” is often the cause. A lack of clear strategy was cited by 35% of the executives surveyed as a key barrier. Other reasons for failure at the leadership level included underlying doubts, a wide skills gap, poor project ownership and a focus on back-end benefits instead of growth strategies like the customer experience and product innovation.

CIOs, While Often the Most Technologically Skilled, Can’t Do It All

The CIO must be the project owner, but that should not be confused with taking on the role of project manager. CIOs and business leaders need dedicated change management talent who have the digital and organizational skills, sense of urgency and accountability necessary to drive lasting transformation throughout the company.

These teams can be internal with external support (common), or external with internal support (less so). Some large organizations even set up off-site digital transformation offices (DTOs) and bring in Chief Transformation Officers to run the program. Outside consulting firms that specialize in helping companies implement change programs, including Falls Digital, are combining traditional change management processes with digital transformation strategies to help CIOs evolve their companies digitally from within.

Effectively managing change gives businesses a striking competitive advantage. Top CIOs know this well and plan to leverage this opportunity to enable change for their organizations in 2018.

Topics: Change Management, CIO, Digital Transformation

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