Be the change

Posted on October 21, 2019 by

A few weeks ago I was talking to my team about what would be a good blog post and the suggestion came to talking about “change”. This made sense to me, as I think the role of the chief information officer (CIO) is fundamentally around driving change and it can be really hard to do.  So let’s unpack this a bit within the context of the CIO and higher education culture.

Last month I spent a productive day with my peer leadership team and we spent some of that time talking about leading change and how, as leaders within the University, do we overcome resistance to change. I recall many interesting discussions around such things as social influence, trust, common purpose, shared accountability, common goals, interdependence and even motivation/alignment through shared control. The latter is one we talk about in ITS and one we sometimes find really difficult to get to. It always seems like it comes down to trust and accountability, going both ways. I think a big part of the IT@UofT framework is trying to push forward on some of these foundational pieces.

I will suggest that if you haven’t read anything on change there are piles of good (and bad) books out there. The foundation for me is Leading Change by John P. Kotter. Just google Kotter change quotes and you will start to get a sense of what he has to offer.

Change is hard in any organization and I think higher education has some unique challenges. We live within a culture of critical thinking, which is not a bad thing, but it means that sometimes our natural tendency is to find fault, or be critical of new initiatives, and we spend a lot of time focused on that. It means we need to consult a lot, and that is a good thing, but it also causes dilemmas, not the least of which is increasing the time and resources needed to get to a decision. Sometimes there is even an expectation that the consultation is not complete until you have talked to ‘me’. In essence that translates to everyone, if you consider each persons perspective, but nobody would ever say that it is a good idea to talk to everyone. It is all about balance and trust.

For those of you who know me well (I probably wrote an earlier blog on this) you will hear me talk a lot about the duration for a CIO being about five years in higher education. A few years ago we did an informal survey across Canada, and average tenure was about 4.9 years, with it being lower for the U15. Gartner also sites a number across all sectors in the four-to five-year range. That doesn’t mean there aren’t longer serving CIOs because there are many. After the survey we had a debate on this during a CANHEIT session in Saskatchewan. My premise is that in order to successfully mature our organizations and their IT department the CIO must push change/innovation and this is difficult for both the CIO and the organization. Eventually you reach a point where either the CIO is burnt out or the organization needs to hear a different twist on the story. In truth, it is probably a bit of both. I am not sure all my peers agree with me on this, but I think it is a valid hypothesis, worth discussion.

The question then becomes how do we help the CIOs have longer tenures, or why is change hard and why aren’t we better at it. Kotter presents an eight-step model in order to lead successful change:

  1. Establish a sense of urgency
  2. Create a guiding coalition
  3. Develop a change vision
  4. Communicate the change vision for buy-in
  5. Empower broad base action
  6. Generate short-term wins
  7. Never let up
  8. Incorporate changes in the culture

It seems so easy when you look at this, but each and every one of these steps can be hard and it takes time. Number eight speaks to the cultural challenge piece, which has a whole other dimension that needs to be addressed.  My recommendation to a CIO trying to drive change (which should be pretty well all CIOs), make sure you lay a solid foundation around cultural change, never take your foot off the gas, recruit a solid team throughout you organization who will help you, and get going on the first five steps in the above list.

I’ll leave you all with this inspiring quote:

“Change will not come if we wait for some other person, or if we wait for some other time. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek.” – Barack Obama