Want to embrace change and foster creativity? Here's how

Coming up with new ideas isn't enough: persuading staff to accept change is a key part of succesful projects.

IT leader Brad Dowden: "My advice to other CIOs is to build something new. If it works, people have to drop the emotion and start again."

Image: Romolo Tavani

The IT department is often criticised for focusing on bits and bytes rather than people and policies. The modern technology professional -- so the theory of engagement suggests -- should spend more time communicating and collaborating with managers outside the confines of the IT department.

With this in mind, ZDNet sat down with two CIOs to discuss how to embrace change and foster creativity, covering the challenges of globalisation, the requirements for innovation, and the need for great project management in an age of consumerisation. Here's their advice.

Going global and dealing with disruption

Enterprise Rent-A-Car European IT director Jeff King has run technology in the region for the past three years, during which time the company has continued to expand across the continent. The firm was keen to create a global footprint and has successfully entered new marketplaces across the region, including through the acquisition of smaller firms.

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"That growth process represents a transition," says King. "In Europe, every country has its own way of doing things. That can be a serious challenge for a global organisation that tends to have a standardised way of operating and which is keen to create the same experience for everyone around the globe."

King says Enterprise remains a US-centred business, but it is a global firm whose European presence boasts a loud voice. "The advantage of having owners that want to move into Europe is that they'll persist when things don't turn out as they might have planned," he says.

Businesses, says King, must always be aware of the potential for markets to change quickly. He believes the biggest threat to traditional enterprises are fast moving, disruptive entities that enter a stable sector and concentrate on improvements in customer service.

These startups, such as Uber and Airbnb, are unencumbered by legacy systems and capital assets. They use technology to bring a fresh approach to staid sectors. "Such service-focused startups make a sold margin and create a competitive advantage," says King, who says CIOs in all sectors must pay attention to the disruptive threat posed by new, agile firms.

It is a threat that is recognised by Brad Dowden, former CIO at Adecco, and someone who now completes interim transformational projects for big firms, including a recently completed programme management stint at Odeon and UCI Cinemas. Bowden says new market entrants have the advantage of being able to treat their technology setup as a blank sheet of paper.

Rather than running scared of the threat, Dowden says blue chip CIOs should investigate carefully the approaches taken by other successful organisations. He refers to Amazon, for example, whose executives analysed how traditional firms fulfilled orders and who realised that technology could be used to create a faster, more efficient approach to logistics.

Some retailers have now been through a similar change process. Yet transformation will not be straightforward for everyone. "You can't change your business while it's running," says Dowden, who believes smart executives will consider building a separately funded startup within the existing firm.

He says running the organisation as an individual entity helps mitigate risk. Workers in the startup create innovative services for new customers, while the core of employees continue to focus on the firm's traditional client base.

Managing cultural change and implementing projects

The creation of a successful spinout firm also provides a means to help executives deal with cultural change barriers. Dowden says people within traditional organisations are often averse to transformation. "People don't want to change," he says.

"They can be dedicated to the systems that they've helped to implement. If you build a new, separate business within your organisation, you get to work with people who are committed to the project. A new organisation allows you to cut the emotional ties."

If the spinout is successful, Dowden says other people -- who might have been resistant to change -- will have to get used to a new way of working or risk losing their jobs. "My advice to other CIOs is to build something new," he says. "If it works, people have to drop the emotion and start again."

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King says the idea of starting afresh has a lot of appeal. He says Enterprise is always looking for ways to bring newly acquired organisations within the fold as it continues to increase its presence across Europe. Building a new platform, says King, offers one way to include recently purchased entities.

CIOs across all sectors continue to struggle with ways to integrate new tools, systems, and processes into existing infrastructure. In an age of consumerisation, end users want to make their own decisions regarding the implementation of the technology, and they want those choices supported quickly.

Most traditional businesses, however, do not move at breakneck speed when it comes to IT. CIOs, as the executives responsible for the governance of enterprise-wide IT projects, will only have a limited budget for new technology projects.

The rest of the business must be patient and help CIOs understand which features really matter most. Technology chiefs should engage with the line-of-business managers and then empower their workers to push back against the demands of end users.

"The rest of the business doesn't generally like the idea of a minimally viable product -- users don't want 20 new features, they want 100," says King, referring to the issue faced by most CIOs. The challenge, however, is not insurmountable.

"If they're given something that actually works, people can get used to a smaller feature set. Users sometimes need to go through the product cycle development to understand that 20 features that work brilliantly can be better than 100 features that aren't used properly."

Dowden agrees and says CIOs should look to develop a corporate programme office to ensure any new demands for projects are funnelled through a single approval channel. While key issues like governance and security will play a part in the endorsement process, executives must help CIOs to decide which projects matter most and which create the best returns.

"The business needs to make its own decisions regarding IT projects," says Dowden. "Funding will always be limited and the common language for everyone across the organisation is money. In the end, any project must either help the business increase its profits or cut its costs."

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