How CIOs can pioneer digital transformation

By Daniel Sanchez Reina

Many of the world’s most influential CEOs have one thing in common: they led and grew their businesses with inventions that started or changed entire industries. But they didn’t do it themselves — behind them were leaders as committed to disruption as they were. And whether the product was the iPhone or something else, this ethos permeated the entire executive committee. 

It isn’t surprising that CEOs are eager to lead change within their own industries. In fact, 78% of CEOs believe their companies are industry pioneers or fast followers, according to Gartner’s 2018 CEO Survey.

But in order to disrupt, these CEOs need to surround themselves with people who adopt a pioneer mindset. With leaders united in the belief that digital transformation is inevitable, there is a unique opportunity for the CIO to influence the executive committee in exciting new ways.

CIOs have a natural advantage today because ‘digital’ is at the core of any transformation. That advantage comes with a big responsibility: CEOs will expect CIOs to play a predominant role when it comes to pioneering transformations. 

CIOs have the technical acumen to lead digital transformation, but they must also exert influence by presenting intelligently formed strategies. Although that’s easier said than done, tactical exercises can help the CIO surface and refine pioneering ideas while also placing themselves at the natural center of the executive committee — and the future of the business.

Play the ‘what if’ game 

Pioneers venture beyond the norm. They successfully execute ideas that differentiate themselves from their competitors and force industry change at the same time. One way to surface a potentially disruptive idea is “wishing” ideation.

Ask your direct reports or a sample of your team members to put those crazy ideas on the table that they would implement if there was zero risk for the company, the IT organization and their jobs. These ideas must lead the company to meet its strategic goals and/or provide a competitive advantage.

During your what-if session, don’t belittle any ideas. Instead, talk through as a team how to tweak them so that they’re more realistic. The trick is not to lose sight of the original idea’s disruptive impact by watering it down. 

Assume a certain level of risk during this reduction. Otherwise, you might tend to find a zero-risk version for each idea, which most likely will not be a disruptive version.

 Challenge fundamental “truths”

A similar exercise that encourages dystopian thinking — and planning — can also produce interesting outcomes. During this session, challenge “fundamental truth” statements about customers, products, your internal culture or the market. 

For example, “Customers need our products and services” is a statement that few in your organization are likely to dispute. But imagining a world where your products aren’t necessary can inspire out-of-the-box thinking.

Start by asking team members to state the opposite sentiment of your fundamental truth. Then, challenge them to find a solution to the dystopian problem. By positioning the mind of people in a different scenario, ideas will also have a different nature.

Engage the C-suite

Brainstorming and challenging the status quo make an excellent start, but unless internal culture embraces new ways of thinking, the culture is unlikely to change. Culture change, however, is more than adopting new processes or technologies. Working closely with executive committee members helps nurture innovative mindsets throughout the enterprise. 

No matter if the CIO reports to the CEO or another C-level member, CEOs expect new behaviors to be acquired across the organization. There is a growing awareness among CIOs and other C-suite members that changing tools or operating models does not alone bring a change in the culture.

Your next steps

Culture begins at the top, and stakeholders throughout the organization follow the C-suite’s lead. Embrace your natural role as a digital transformation expert. Listen to what your fellow executive committee members need for their own organizations, and create digital solutions that will transform the entire business.

Next, encourage the C-suite to open a discussion with their team members on what behaviors, habits and ways of working need to change to acquire those cultural traits. For example, if removing bureaucracy is a goal, a practical proof could be to reduce the number of approvers in the purchasing process from six to three. 

Engage the C-suite in a conversation about the cultural traits they find lacking in the enterprise — for example, accountability, risk taking, collaboration or decision making — and discuss why they are important when looking ahead.

Once you create a strategy and a roadmap with clear deliverables to address these challenges, take on the role of change agent. Sitting regularly with team members — for example, every 15 days — helps everyone evaluate progress while also fostering cultural change momentum.

Gartner analysts will discuss leadership, digital transformation and other topics of interest to CIOs and IT executives at the Gartner IT Symposium/Xpo taking place May 11–14, 2020 in Toronto, Canada.

Daniel Sanchez Reina is a Senior Research Director for Gartner’s Leadership, Culture and People Dynamics team in the CIO Research group. He covers the challenges of high-performing teams, organizational and cultural change, Leadership skills and competencies and digital transformation initiatives. 

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada
Gartner, Inc. (NYSE: IT) delivers actionable, objective insight to executives and their teams. Our expert guidance and tools enable faster, smarter decisions and stronger performance on an organization’s mission critical priorities. To learn more, visit

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