In their book Competing in the New World of Work, the authors note that “the best teams transform their ways of working through radical adaptability.” In a crisis, these teams go beyond mere coping. They use a crisis to reappraise and reinvent their work processes so they can continue to adapt to unpredictable change in the years to come. Being adaptable means that firms “are able to innovate to engage and satisfy customers at the same time as reducing costs.” So how do organizations create business adaptability? And how can CIOs, as key enablers of digital transformation, guide their CEOs and other business leaders to build truly adaptable organizations? I recently spoke with a group of CIOs about fostering business adaptability; this Advisor shares some of their thoughts.
Building a Culture That Is More Adaptable to Change
Having studied cultural anthropology as an undergraduate, I remember that culture change is never easy. Often, it takes an exogenous risk for a culture to change. Culture is like a spun-up gyroscope that is hard to push in a different direction. To create a culture that is more open to change, leaders must create a work environment that minimizes personal anxiety and lets people see the growth opportunity present in change (that is, a culture that responds positively to market change).
Former CIO Martin Davis says, “CIOs need to help people understand the critical nature of adaptability and the need for constant change. Culture change takes time and can never be totally controlled.” According to Adam Martin, IT Director at American Structurepoint, CIOs should start by providing education on why change is needed in the first place: “A lot of the reason people fear change is because they do not truly understand it. Skipping education can be catastrophic.”
In terms of helping people understand change, New Zealand CIO Anthony McMahon says that CIOs accomplish this through communication: “They do it by leading through example and by seeking feedback. CIOs don’t have to adopt the feedback, but they do have to listen to it.” In addition to communication, CIOs should “build an environment that promotes and practices psychological safety and a growth mindset ... and model the behaviors of a change and being an adaptable leader,” says University of California, Santa Barbara, Deputy CIO Joe Sabado. “They should have a vision regarding the destination, adopt formal change management, and provide the resources to achieve change.” Getting even more explicit, Smart Manufacturing CIO Joanne Friedman says that improved agility comes through cross-pollinated skill sets, including job shadowing.
Eliminating Beliefs, Orthodoxies & Processes That Limit Adaptability
Recent management research explores expelling beliefs, orthodoxies, and processes that limit adaptability and personal growth. How can CIOs and other technology leaders help here? CIOs honestly have different viewpoints on this topic. Davis claims that “CIOs cannot remove beliefs; they just can encourage and reward other beliefs.” This is an interesting perspective for leading change shared by Friedman: “CIOs can reduce the fear, uncertainty, and doubt that reinforce current beliefs through their own leadership and by understanding that processes are created through a different lens.” For this reason, Martin says that “emotional safety is extremely important especially with things like empathy.”
Sabado agrees, noting that “CIOs should change how people work, who they work with, reward those who are aligned with the desired ways, and promote and hire folks who promote the adaptable culture.” McMahon reminds us to “celebrate and reward those driving positive change and accept that not everyone is at the same stage of their journey, so don’t ostracize them.” He notes that everyone is motivated differently, and change can be scary: “Don’t assume a one-size-fits-all approach will work as an incentive to become flexible.”
Leaders should also remember that not everyone will agree with creating a more pliable culture. I remember hearing Steve Luczo, CEO of Seagate, explain a few years ago that he aimed to increase revenue and profits despite selling fewer drives by adapting to the market’s rapidly changing storage requirements. He said that some of his people did not want to make the personal change to support the new corporate strategy, and it was their decision to not continue with the company. Organizations building adaptability will be in the same boat.
Role of EA & Corporate Operating Model
In building adaptable organizations, enterprise architecture (EA) is critical. EA at its core is about creating an agile and adaptive business. Some call this process “industrialization” and suggest it should be about standardization to avoid complexity and technical debt. Sabado agrees: “They are enabling tools when used appropriately. They provide structure and cohesion.” EA should be “flexible enough to support corporate strategy, which by its very nature must be value-centric,” adds Friedman. According to McMahon, EA “helps create a vision of the organization as it could be, a shared roadmap for getting there, and identifies the risks along the way.” But EA only works, he says, “if the people who create the architecture are prepared to evolve as forces of internal and external change.”
What Technologies Most Enable a More Adaptable Organization?
There are a lot of technologies that can help. But which ones do CIOs think are most valuable? Wake County, NC, CIO Jonathan Feldman says that adaptable organizations come from the people, not the technology: “Collaboration, EQ, empathy, compassion, and candor are the key success factors for adaptable organizations. Technology just magnifies the success or failure.” Davis agrees: “It is not so much a technology but more a mindset. For technology to help, make it as modular as possible. Here, cloud and low/no code are great enablers.”
McMahon concurs: “Technology isn’t the adaptability game changer, collaboration is. So, anything that enables the greatest possible collaboration across the organization. That could even be a humble Post-it note.” Technology, therefore, should be an enabler by decreasing the time to decision-making, reducing the timeline for change implementation, and enabling more human-centered change.
Being adaptable matters; it is a precedent for continuous digital transformation. And digital transformation is not a one and done. Instead, it is the work of CEOs and CIOs for the rest of their careers. It’s time to lead change and bring along the workforce to help implement it.