As an IT leader, you’re in a good position to recognize which processes should be improved, and what should be done to change them. Problem is: people might not want to listen to you.
But as experienced IT leaders can tell you, it’s not easy being an instigator of change.
Even though as CIO you’re in a good position to recognize processes that should be improved, people might not want to listen to you, especially when you’re challenging long-held beliefs.
That’s why Bogdan Butoi, director of sales operations at Animas Corp., a West Chester, Pa.-based maker of insulin pumps, wears his politician’s hat when he questions processes that his business counterparts take for granted.
It helps, Butoi says, that he’s naturally rebellious. “It’s always a challenge to me when people say, ‘This is how you have to do it,'” he says.
At the same time, he knows there’s nothing like the suggestion of change to raise one’s blood pressure, so he has learned how to approach people in a politically correct way.
We spoke with Butoi, Beard and others to get tips on how to recognize and propose business change in a way that gets results. Here’s what they said:
1. Pinpoint processes worth changing
There’s no sense in even getting started if the business process you’re targeting for change won’t yield adequate payback, either in return on investment or reduced costs.
To find opportunities, either look for processes that run more slowly than others across the entire organization or those that slow down within a particular department, says Ron Bonig, vice president and CIO at George Washington University.
2. Recognize it takes time and effort
Change can take time. George Washington University CIO Ron Bonig worked for two years to improve various processes for inputting student data.
The problem was that the information wasn’t standardized. A recruiter at a college fair might type ” Tom Smith” in the original student record; the student himself might type, “Tommy Smith” when visiting the Web site; the admissions department might input “Thomas S. Smith” when he was formally accepted; and test scores might arrive under “Thomas Smith.”
The various systems saw the same individual as several distinct IDs. “So if they looked up ‘Tom Smith,’ they’d think he hadn’t registered, but if they looked up ‘Thomas Smith,’ they’d think he hadn’t paid his bill,” Bonig recalls.
The biggest challenge was getting departments at the front of the process to care about the problems on the back end, he says.
After all, the goal in undergraduate admissions is to increase the number of students registered, not improve the accuracy downstream. “The whole reward mechanism was built on a silo,” he says. “It would cost them to correct the problem, but they’d see no benefit.”
IT decided to use the “good citizenship” argument, convincing key people, including the senior vice-president involved, that the problem would lead to unhappy students down the road, which could result in decreased enrollment.
To draw in the senior executive, Bonig collected plenty of evidence, including the number of customer problems, which was in the hundreds per week, as well as three of the most egregious examples of how the data discrepancies affected current students.
IT finally succeeded in its educational efforts and provided users with a program and a process by which student information is cross-checked and standardized.
3. Use the whiteboard.
It’s important for you and your staff to thoroughly understand the problem you detect in the process before proposing any changes. This doesn’t come naturally to many IT people, who tend to go with their gut instinct when it comes to offering solutions, says Bonig.
“People out of grad school in computer science and engineering — even though they should have learned the scientific method — shoot from the hip instead of fleshing out the who, what, where, when and why,” he says.
To counteract that tendency, Bonig has his staffers write down everything they know about the problematic process on a whiteboard.
He compares the technique to the one used by doctors on the TV show House. “That’s a great way to get to an answer, whether you’re dealing with a problem or a new process or a manager who doesn’t know how to approach a problem,” he says.
4. Treat the person you’re addressing as the “expert”
IT enjoys a privileged view into cross-organizational processes, and because it operates above the individual silos that make up the enterprise, it can see where processes bog down.
At the same time, you have to give managers the benefit of the doubt that they know what they’re doing, Bonig says. So once you’ve pinpointed an inefficient process, treat the manager you’re addressing as the expert, whether you view him that way or not.
Rather than calling the process “broken,” choose phrasing that will be more palatable to the manager. Bonig suggests “rust in the process,” “an opportunity for fine-tuning” or “the need for a lube job.”
However, feel free to emphasize that while the IT department may not be the expert when it comes to that particular department’s operations, it is the expert when it comes to analysis.
5. Ask, don’t tell.
Change means more work for everyone involved, so when it comes to hearing news about the need to make an adjustment, people are more open to suggestion, dialogue and debate than they are to lectures and pontificating, says Laura Gorman, a consultant at Ouellette & Associates in Bedford, N.H., and co-author of Leading IT Transformation (Kendall Hunt Professional, 2008).
Although it might be tempting to show off everything you know or demonstrate your enthusiasm for changing a process, she suggests leading with questions, not answers.
That way, “when people don’t have the answers to your questions, it naturally shifts their thinking,” Gorman says. Remember, the point is to gain the manager’s commitment, not coerce him into accepting your view of the situation, she says.
The purpose behind the questioning, Bonig says, should be to unearth the logic behind the person’s assumptions, not to make him uncomfortable. “You need to question their assumptions, not to be obnoxious, but to see if there are holes in their reasoning,” he says.
6. Get the facts.
Keep in mind that the manager will likely resist the idea of change, even if your line of questioning is perfectly on target. Business executives speak a language that’s based on facts, so if you want to be heard, load the conversation with hard evidence, suggests Beard.
“A case based on the hard facts is the best approach,” he says.
7. Take time to present a very strong case
A recent survey reveals that CIOs spent 17 per cent of their time doing things outside of IT, including talking informally and formally with top executives on business strategy and transformational change. The topics of CIOs’ discussions with executives included the following:
• Business strategy: 55 per cent
• Transformational change proposals: 54 per cent
• Issues related to business profitability: 39 per cent
• Project briefings and program status updates: 39 per cent
Source: CIO connect survey of 100 U.K. CIOs, November 2008. Multiple responses allowed.
The secret, says Butoi, is to present such a strong case “that there’s no way they’re going to come back and say no – or if they do, they’ll need to come up with a good argument.”
For instance, a department head might tell you there’s no need to implement an automatic lock on her department’s computers because her staffers log off or lock their computers every time they walk away from their desks, and they lock their laptops in drawers or take them home every night.
All you need to do is walk around after hours with a camera, taking pictures of the unlocked computers or the ones left on users’ desks, Butoi says, pointing out that “a picture is worth a thousand words.”
If you repeat this for a few days and catch several people being non-compliant, you’ll show that the manual process — as strong as it looks on paper and as much as it is emphasized in training — does not work.
8. Make it personal
As Bonig’s example shows, different constituents are driven by different incentives, and it’s up to IT to identify what makes the various parties tick.
For instance, don’t assume that a key stakeholder will be moved by the idea of gaining efficiencies; he may not care much about efficiency if his processes meet his other requirements, especially the ones that show up on his performance review.
As Gorman puts it, the challenge is to turn information into information that can’t be ignored. To do that, you need to understand what motivates the people you’re trying to influence, she says. What are they rewarded for doing? What are they held accountable for?
For instance, while senior leaders want to know the facts, other employees may be more interested in how they’re going to get their jobs done.
“If someone can’t speak to them in a way that ignites a fire under them, they’ll have no energy to direct toward your initiative,” Gorman says.
There are two ways to make an effective appeal, she says. Either create a “burning platform,” painting a picture in which the status quo is so risky that people are willing to jump into the unknown, or describe a future state that is so opportunity-filled that it creates dissatisfaction with the here and now.
Beard prefers to find what he calls “rallying points,” or common interests that serve both users and IT. “If I can tie it to their performance objectives, that’s even better,” he says.
9. Find allies
If key constituents are unapproachable or uncooperative, Gorman says it’s important to identify other people who will support the effort and even advocate for it.
These could include an employee who has no formal standing in the organization but who has lots of influence on the people he works with.
This is a good strategy when you meet resistance at a high level, Butoi says.
He also suggests that you can sometimes avoid high-level resistance altogether by identifying someone within the department who will get on board and broach the idea with the manager himself, making it seem as if the idea was generated from within the department, rather than from IT.
10. Learn how to negotiate
One last piece of advice from Beard is to develop your negotiation skills, either on your own or through formal training. He points out that some MBA programs now teach negotiating skills, and many training firms offer seminars on the subject.
There’s nothing easy about change, but CIOs worth their salaries know that they sometimes need to push the envelope on people’s comfort.
As Bonig says, “Someone who’s willing to take on new things and challenge the status quo makes a good CIO.”
This story originally appeared in Computerworld’s print edition.