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CIOs only need one question: what’s right for this business?

20170731-Aikman_Mark_CIO-5Ever since the 21st century got underway, I’ve been leading complex transformation programmes, often on a global scale.  Looking back, I guess they’ve taught me that however complicated the programme is:

a) there’s only one question; and

b) there are five key lessons.  These are:

1: Large-scale nearshore hybrid development works

Excitingly, I’ve learned that there’s nothing to be afraid of in near-shore hybrid development – even on a large scale and with vast complexity.  During my career I have worked with enormous development teams – each containing a blend of in-house employees, contractors and development company specialists in mainland Europe. 

With clear objectives based on the needs of the business, progress in this environment has been swift and smooth.  The blended teams ensure we all work on the same side, with a clear and innate understanding of what the business wants to achieve.  This differs hugely from my experience of Waterfall development, in which it can be easy to move into the mindset of marking the supplier’s homework and keeping that supplier at one remove from the business.  Instead, nearshore Agile lives inside the business and is far more likely to offer a suitable development solution – and at speed.

2: Successful innovation isn’t about the bleeding-edge

In any transformation, everyone wants to out-run obsolescence.  And by definition, because there’s a need for transformation, people are usually becoming extremely exasperated by elderly technology.  These motivations often combine to cause the business to focus excitedly on the bright lights of the very latest and trendiest technology.  But I soon learned that bleeding-edge technology isn’t necessarily what is needed.  Instead, it’s essential to balance the technology specification, design and build against those business benefits we truly need.  So if the business needs bells but not whistles, we’ve always taken care not to get distracted by using whistles, just because they’re there.

The rule for selecting technology has been: does it benefit the smooth running of the business, which in turn benefits the customer?  And those benefits might be soft and intangible, as well as RoI-based. So, for example, if an item of technology speeds up a process, that’s great, we can use it:  because the time saved on running that process can then be invested in further developing customer care.

The question what’s right for this business has always been invaluable in helping us select a suite of technologies that perfectly fit the programme’s stated needs.  I also believe technology selections have to be unbiassed – at the outset. I take care not to commit to any particular solutions that I feel must be used. And equally, I will always select a new system that doesn’t include content that’s there for the sake of it: over-stuffed packages or over-complex systems are not helpful.  I have also learned to make a point of only changing business processes where this improves customer service or operational efficiency – and not because any new technology imposed process change upon the business.

3: Communication is more important than technology

The third lesson is: the technology choices we make pale into insignificance behind the communication choices.  The most technologically-brilliant solution has no credence whatsoever if communication piece isn’t right.  So business and stakeholder engagement – getting people onside and keeping them there – have always been pivotal to the success of any project.

Take the example above, of technology that speeds up a process.  Such technology always has the potential to threaten people: for a suspicious workforce, faster processes translate quickly to mean fewer jobs.  Therefore, it’s important to ask the executive sponsor of the programme, wherever possible, to expressly state that improved processes will not mean job losses.  There’s an enormous benefit in assuring workers that all time gained will be invested in further developing customer service – not in the dreaded efficiency savings – because that’s what’s right for this brand.  This type of reassurance will immediately help people view the programme as a positive benefit to their working lives, and not a threat.  Honest communication like this puts engagement on a firm footing.

4: There’s no success without vision and delivery

Some of the programmes I have worked on have been vast: and we all know large bespoke developments take a long time and are immensely complicated!  From the start in such programmes, it is always obvious that there will be infinite opportunities to get side-tracked – such as by emerging technologies, or over-complication, or by failing to balance priorities.  And that’s where the one question mantra really comes into play.

I believe it’s crucial to solidify the vision of what any new system will help the business achieve really quickly.  Doing so gives an immediate and easy-to-remember yardstick that helps people decide on whether something is a necessity or a priority – instead of a nice-to-have.  My job has always been to be the keeper of the vision, challenging anything that falls outside the central requirement, and to keep the team focused on the delivery. In turn, this gives confidence in empowering the rest of the team to deliver. 

When you have intelligent and capable people who understand the vision, they do not need the boss to tell them every day precisely how to achieve it.  Some team members will immediately take the initiative and bring forward great ideas, all on-message; others take a little longer but learn how to have confidence and the courage of their convictions.  But in the end. they all experience the satisfaction of being both permitted and encouraged to think for themselves. That’s where productivity lies.

5: Strong relationships matter

The final lesson is an old one: relationships matter.  We all understand this concept in close-up – for example, of course it’s important to have strong relationships with those we work with every day.  But what I have really had brought home to me is the importance of productive relationships with those more-occasional participants in the programme – such as the minor suppliers; the board; the end-users of the system, worldwide; and the auditors. 

Without positive relationships with these less-obvious stakeholders, the programme will fail at one hurdle or another.  So that key question has a slight extension: what’s right for everyone in and around this business?

This much I’ve learned so far.  But then, I still have another half-career to go!

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About Mark Aikman 4 Articles
Listed in the CIO 100 for 2017, Mark is a Technology Leader working with Global companies, IT operations and leadership of highly complex change and digital transformation programmes. He has an innovative and contemporary approach to leadership and partnership, and is passionate about delivering successful business outcomes using technology rejuvenations. His background spans many verticals such as FMCG, Finance & Insurance, Oil & Gas and Telecommunications, leading major operations and transformations at North Group, BP, T-Mobile and the Cadbury Schweppes organisations.
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