Openness – The Key to Rapid Change in the Digital Era

Change is never easy, particularly in an age of constant change. So, consider new ways to implement change and smooth the process.

Andrew Horne, IT Practice Leader, CEB, now Gartner

November 21, 2017

4 Min Read
Image: Pixabay

Digitization is changing every aspect of businesses today. Companies are now embedding technology and data into their products, digitizing marketing and sales, and introducing innovations large and small throughout their operations and workforce.

The result for employees is seemingly never-ending change. On average, employees experienced three changes in the last 12 months, and the pace is set to increase. In IT some of these changes include adopting new product-aligned operating models and embracing continuous delivery. It also means building expertise in rapidly evolving technologies such as advanced analytics, IoT, and the cloud. Additionally, becoming consultants, brokers and coaches to ever more tech-savvy colleagues working in other parts of the business is a must for IT.

Across the enterprise however, only a third of these changes succeed. In response, IT leaders must take action in two parallel areas -- equipping their teams to better absorb change and rethinking how change is introduced -- and the key to both is greater openness and versatility.

Boosting openness and versatility in the IT workforce

Years of efficiency drives and standard operating procedures have left IT staff risk-averse and clinging to processes and protocols. Changing IT employees’ mindsets and behaviors so they become risk-tolerant and open to new ways of working starts at the top. IT leaders must share examples of risk taking and lessons from failures in their own careers. These communications should emphasize that appropriate levels of risk taking are essential to innovation, and that setbacks provide valuable teachings that accelerate career development. Successful leadership teams also carefully calibrate the messages they send through IT’s metrics and scorecards. They highlight measures of speed, innovation and talent development, while giving less exposure to measures of efficiency and reliability as these promote risk-averse behaviors.

In addition to fostering open mindsets and behaviors, progressive IT leaders encourage their teams to build a broader range of skills and competencies by pursuing diamond-shaped career paths. Unlike traditional career structures where employees work their way up within a specific silo, employees with diamond-shaped career maps progress by accumulating experiences across multiple roles and domains. As a result, they build a wide range of abilities and learn how to flex to succeed in new situations. The biggest barrier to this approach is employees’ fear that they will fall behind if they step away from a linear career path. One way to address these concerns is to develop sample career maps that show how employees who follow non-linear paths can accumulate valuable experiences that prepare them for desirable senior-level roles.

Adopting an “open source” approach to change

In an era of rapid digital change, fostering an open, flexible IT workforce is vital, but by itself it is not enough. IT leaders must also make the changes easier to absorb. Traditionally, change has been managed top-down; senior leaders define the direction of the change and the implementation plan and then attempt to explain the rationale and benefits to win employees’ buy-in. This approach dates from an era of slow change and clear hierarchies, but it is ineffective in today’s world of rapid change and blurring organizational boundaries. Instead, leading companies take an open source approach in which employees help set the direction of the change and co-create the implementation plan. Open source change increases the likelihood that the change will succeed by 24% and reduces the time needed for the change by one third.

Open source change does not require painstaking efforts to reach consensus, nor is it a free-for-all. It involves representative groups of employees, not all employees, and they are given clear direction on the intent for the change. For example, a leading software company selects a group of 15 to 25 employees to participate in defining a change. They look for people who will be affected by the change in different ways and who represent different regions, roles, tenures and levels of seniority. The group works through a time-boxed process to set the future direction, carefully balancing the company leadership’s objectives for the change against real-world constraints.

After the new direction has been set, a second aspect of open source change is to talk to employees about the implementation plan rather than just tell them what the plan is. Implementation planning becomes a two-way conversation that builds employees’ capability to implement the change and allows employees to obtain information from each other rather than just cascading it from the top. A leading insurance company takes this approach by running workshops where employees can express their reactions to an upcoming change, discuss the implications as a group and develop personalized action plans to help them prepare.

Change in large organizations is never easy, but by creating an open and versatile workforce and making openness a hallmark of conversations about change, organizations can set themselves up for digital success.

About the Author(s)

Andrew Horne

IT Practice Leader, CEB, now Gartner

Andrew Horne is an IT practice leader at CEB, now Gartner, a best practice insight and technology company. Since joining CEB in 1999, he has authored studies on topics including IT strategy development, performance and value measurement, business intelligence and big data, IT staff and leadership development, and IT innovation. He is currently based in London.

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