Experience is a double edged sword – you know what to do in a given situation because you have seen something similar before, but it can also lead you to simply repeat previous actions without thinking, with the risk of you becoming or being thought of as a one-trick pony.
There is also a balance to be struck between becoming a specialist – many CIOs become known for one or two big things that they have done successfully, like implementing SAP, for example, where they are in demand to repeat that success in another organisation – and being unable to define a new solution to a problem encountered. Just like the old saying – if you have a hammer, every problem becomes a nail.
How do you avoid the negative connotations of being a tenured CIO, of having the experience over many years in a still fast moving role and thereby maintain a fresh view on the possible solutions to the current range of challenges?
This article is republished with permission of Shackleton investee company, CIO Connect. It was prepared by CIO Connect CEO, Nick Kirkland.
CIO Connect runs vibrant networks of CIOs in leading organisations in the UK, Hong Kong, and Singapore.
There is little worse than encountering the nay-sayer who moans “it wasn’t done like this in my day”. Such people are often to be found in sports clubs bemoaning the new tactics and strategies made possible by today’s very fit sports people and their new high-tech equipment. Such people also exist in business and can seriously hamper transformational projects, until, eventually they are moved out of the way – into retirement, or worse “special projects”.
Most IT people are risk averse – maintaining the integrity and operations is paramount. Change is a threat to that and over time it is easy to slip into reusing old ways to solve problems because they worked before and are perceived as being low risk to the organisation. But these approaches may be very high risk to the CIO, who develops a reputation for being staid, risk averse and a blocker to the digital ambitions of the next generation of executives coming along. In the end it is critical to ask “where is the real risk?” Innovation
There are many examples of IT regaining “control” of end user computing – PCs were the first bid for freedom, then client server, distributed systems and nowadays cloud based services coupled with so called “shadow IT”. Today it’s about digital, and it’s about rewriting the rules not about re-imposing the limits of yesteryear.
It is critical for the CIO to stay fresh and open to new approaches in such a world. Understanding the capabilities of the younger end of the workforce and utilizing the technologies and approaches that are second nature to such people is one important learning experience for CIOs. In a number of big US companies, reverse mentoring is now available for senior executives to learn about how “millennials” think about and use technology. The senior executive’s experience is rightly valued, and when coupled with thinking differently about what can be done as suggested by less senior members of the team, leads to big steps forward. In many cases this allows organisations to tap into what their customers are already doing.
Some organisations run strategy sessions where senior execs are asked to send along members of the “awkward squad” to represent their division. These people are the ones who are calling loudly for change rather than just going along with the corporate strategy. In listening to those people who think things should be done differently, ideas – sufficiently different to change outcomes, but recognizably mainstream also – can emerge to challenge the set-in-ways thinking that frequently gets in the way of innovation.
CIOs need to expose themselves to different thinking. Not to jump on any passing bandwagon, nor to be different for differences sake, but to ensure their thinking remains current and fresh, and that they remain enthused about doing things in the best way for the organisation. Indeed, all senior executives need to be open to new ways of working. They can then use their experience to select the ideas that will work in the organisation, rather than being condemned to repeat previous approaches for the lack of new thinking.
The CIO has a responsibility through their recruitment policy to ensure they are surrounded by people who, whilst sharing the team’s and organisation’s values, think differently about possible solutions to problems. Recruiting “people who think like me” is the easiest mistake in the book. As well as ensuring there are a mixture of “team types” as described by Belbin, these people need to have different ideas and be prepared to speak up. Healthy debate is critical. Leadership is really important in such environments – there must be no doubt about the direction and the agreed decisions, and there must be a robust way of challenging along the way to making those great decisions.
It’s not always easy, but it is always necessary to do this. Getting to the top role requires a set of skills and successes in the earlier part of your career. Staying there requires much more than repeating those things.
What you must do now – the CIO Connect recommendation
To stay aware of the nuances of problems you have incurred before – asking what is different this time – and to look at a new range of solutions rather than simply implementing tried and tested old methods in a knee-jerk fashion is a critical success factor for longevity in the CIO role, quite probably more than in most other senior roles, given the continuing speed of change of digital technology and the demands placed on the CIO by their organisation.
Being aware of the risk of becoming stale is a good first step. Reverse mentoring is an opportunity put in place in many organisations and being part of a network of senior executives in order to stay involved in current thinking is important too. CIO Connect can help you with that.
Above all, get out of your comfortable office and talk to the people who see things differently. You may just reinforce your existing views, and strengthen your belief in the right thing to do, or you may find yourself thinking of different ways to approach challenges which enhances your reputation for innovation.