Public Sector CIOs and Change: Not Strangers Anymore

|May 17, 2016 0
How to successfully lead change in government? And how public sector CIOs are leading change in what is considered by many to be one of the toughest environments to change?

Bard Papegaaij

INDIA: Leading successful change has challenged government CIOs for decades, even more so today as the digital age brings more and faster change than ever before. ‘Softer’ leadership skills are mandatory and separate CIOs who lead their organisations into digital business, from those relegated to IT roles that ‘keep the lights on’.

When dealing with a cultural aversion to taking risk, change leaders essentially have three options:

                                 

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1. Force the change on people by increasing the risks associated with not changing — usually by threatening people with punitive measures and performance management.
2. Encourage people to change by decreasing the risks associated with changing — by making it safe to try out new behaviours.
3. Reduce the collective risk aversion by changing the culture.

While it might be tempting to force change on people, which might even produce short-term results, it is almost always counterproductive. Scaring people into change causes them to experience higher levels of stress and anxiety, which may lead them to fall back to their default behaviours rather than try out new ones. Even when they display new behaviours when actively pushed to do so, they will not become part of their standard repertoire and as soon as the direct threat is lifted, the old behaviours will tend to come back in full force.

Changing the culture has the best long-term outcomes, but it takes time to settle and become embedded into the collective consciousness. Encouraging people to change, combined with activities associated with changing the culture is, therefore, the most productive approach.

Bard Papegaaij, Research Director, Gartner

Bard Papegaaij, Research Director, Gartner

Change leaders making a difference

We can learn a lot about change by looking at the way successful government change leaders are making a difference in what is considered by many to be one of the toughest environments to change. As can be expected, their journeys are not without their own personal struggles.

One CIO we spoke to from an Australian ambulance service finds embarking on change challenging and often hears ‘that isn’t how we do it here’ and ‘you need to be more patient; we don’t change that fast.’

The public sector can be a particularly tough place to lead change and the culture hard to transform. There are many ingrained stories of how the public sector works and these can be a challenge to dispel. However, even in these difficult environments, change leaders persist because the end result is well worth the effort, even if getting there can be difficult.

Permission to experiment with change

When an enterprise begins a change initiative, such as embarking on a digital business transformation, enthusiasm and excitement often run high. Leaders paint the vision of what the future holds and what the employee experience will be. However, as reality sets in and the specifics of how work will be performed, what new behaviours and skills will be needed and how the enterprise will function begin to emerge, the consequences of the change become real, and the trouble begins. It is at this stage that change resistance, more often than not, rears its ugly head.

Gartner believes as a first step that giving permission to try things and experiment is absolutely pivotal to creating the environment for successful organisational and cultural change. This step is not that obvious or intuitive and is one that is rarely practised explicitly. Putting it into practice will require resolve, diligence and patience on the part of leaders.

Support and protect employees’ efforts to change

Government change leaders realise they can’t drive change or make employees change, but they can enable it. Employees can begin to make changes when they understand the direction and vision, which results from change leaders clearly and constantly communicating with them. This creates understanding, which opens the way for employees taking actions and trying out new methods and behaviours that lay the foundations for change.

Government CIO change leaders make a big effort to share their vision. They spend much of their time out in their organisations, traveling around to different locations, adapting the conversations to each group of employees, and helping employees see they can make a contribution to the bigger organisation and how this creates change. To do this successfully, CIO change leaders are constantly honing their communication abilities.

These change leaders also listen — a lot! Active listening skills are key here. It forces a leader to attentively listen to others, which helps to avoid misunderstandings and tends to make people less defensive and closed, encouraging them to say more. Successful CIO change leaders also actively support employees’ efforts to change. Remaining empathetic, asking for input and being a good listener are tactics these CIOs continually apply.

The ambulance CIO I mentioned earlier, believes it is important that all teams within the organisation work together and feel they are part of the overall vision. He encourages everyone to share ideas about how to move forward, as well as listen to and understand everyone’s contributions.

The CIO’s role is to then move their ideas forward, demonstrating progress and achievements, which motivates and excites the team. At the same time, he continues to push them to pick up the pace, as he believes success instils confidence to take on more.

The key to leading change for him is to focus on finding the motivation, putting it into the bigger picture of saving patients’ lives, caring for the community and supporting paramedics, while continuing to push the pace.

What we can learn from this is that it is important to invite employees to come to you with new ideas and proposals. But it is also critical to protect those who try new things by shielding them from negative sentiments that may arise in the organisation. Your employees will be watching you closely to make sure you meant it when you said you would back them up and protect them. So, make sure you defend them in public; be visible when you stand up for your team, and show them clearly you take your role as protector seriously.

Be prepared – your current culture is likely to attack new ideas (and the people who propose them) in order to protect the status quo. As change leader, you must protect these employees from this response.

Also, change leaders accept overall responsibility for employee initiatives within the change program to reassure employees they can comfortably try things out and are not risking their reputation or job with every, even slightly daring, move.

Leading change is hard, but also fun and rewarding

Never assume that leading change is easy. It is exhausting and likely one of the toughest challenges you will tackle as a leader, requiring determination, passion, adaptability and the creativity to find methods that resonate with your organisation. But when the stakes are high, changing culture can be a fun and rewarding job.

(Bard Papegaaij is a research director for Gartner’s Office of the CIO group. Views expressed here are of the author and CyberMedia does not necessarily endorse them.)

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