man holding his head  in thought
PHOTO: Kazi Mizan

According to Stanford University professor Carol Dweck, people and organizations tend to have one of two mindsets. And these mindsets — fixed or growth — determine whether organizations embrace or avoid challenges like COVID-19 and work-from-home. The problem for CIOs is figuring out how to move their people and organizational culture to a growth mindset that is ready for change. Otherwise, their organization will experience a “Kodak movement” and market irrelevance.

Why Is It Critical to Change Mindsets Today?

Boston College CTO Peter Salvitti said business leaders need to change their mindsets because, “today’s problems cannot be solved with the same level of thinking that created them.” Accuride Corporation CIO Paul Wright agreed, but continued, “if the mindset is one that leans toward innovation (a growth mindset), then don't change it anywhere. Unfortunately, the biggest issue I've seen in IT is that people get comfortable with their favorite products and vendors (a fixed mindset).”  The problem with the fixed mindset said Miami University CIO David Seidl is “change is a constant, and an unchanging mindset makes organizations and individuals fragile. If you can't change, even if you're currently very successful, you will eventually not be, and the world will move past you.”

Southern Company CIO Martin Davis goes further when he discusses the mindsets at the core of the IT/business relationship. He said, “historic mindsets often were based on a them vs. us mentality. However, moving forward with technology driving new business models, IT is the business and the business is IT.” Former CIO Wayne Sadin believes for this reason it is important to realize “we're all in this together. Both IT and the business, for this reason, must believe and act like their destiny is shared.” Michigan State University CIO Melissa Woo summarized the discussion by saying that “once upon a time, IT was the tail wagging the dog. This is no longer an appropriate way to do business, if it ever actually was.”

Related Article: Technology Leaders Lead Innovation by Seeing Around Corners

Where Have Fixed Mindsets Limited IT's Ability to Respond to Business Change?

Seidl provided an amazing example of how fixed mindsets avoid challenges. He described team members saying, “we've tried it and it didn't work, so it can never work.” For this reason, he said, “IT leaders need a balance of people who can question what the organization does, and people who can keep the organization from doing too many crazy things and thus wasting time. I constantly try to ask myself will I know if I've stopped learning, and is my reaction to this thing new, or applying useful wisdom.”

Sadin said, “It's hard to enumerate all the specific orthodoxies/legacy mindsets because organizations are different, but habit makes poor procedure, and worse policy. It drives me crazy when we implement a technology then design the process changes because we could only do one at a time. You end up implementing your process in the new tools twice in the best case, and in the worst moving bad old process to the new tool.” For McBreen, one of the fixed mindsets that has limited organizations he has worked for “is we need to do things different than everybody else. In reality, most companies do 90% of the same things. IT organizations need to concentrate on understanding what is unique about their business and separate them from the common.” For this reason, Salvitti said, IT leaders “need to constantly question what they do, not to the point where nothing gets done but to the point where new ideas can begin to germinate. Similar in nature to SAFe's exploration enablers ... try something, if it works then great.”

Related Article: 4 Surprise Innovation Lessons From COVID-19

How Do You Get People to Shed Their Long-Standing Beliefs and Assumptions?

Seidl believes this starts by “building an environment where questioning is OK, where teams can get to a useful agreement about where they'll spend time, and where people are empowered to make appropriate branch/tree/root decisions to overcome their long-standing beliefs. As well, investing in formalized techniques and processes to move mindset and change habits in intentional ways can help. It is important to realize that strategies shouldn't be carved in stone, nor should processes.”

Facilitating changes within team members often needs to start with leaders themselves. Sadin believes, “it is critical for CIOs to model the desired behavior, to walk the talk.” They can do this by taking the following actions:

  1. Encouraging questions and giving thoughtful answers.
  2. Seeking out diverse opinions and listening to them.
  3. Supporting and promoting people who are curious and ask why.
  4. Moving decisions out of headquarters by empowering the field.

To deliver against these, Salvitti said, “manage the organizational chart, convey good and bad news immediately, don't be the go-to answer person, bring out answers from staff, and manage time wisely.” Additionally, CIO Joe Sabado recommended you “meet people where they are. Understand the reasons driving their beliefs. Signal the direction you want to go and get them involved, and answer what’s in it for them.” As part of this, McBreen said smart CIOs “always build a unique game plan for each stakeholder, leader and influencer and assign different people including myself to work the game plan at that level.” Most importantly, CIOs should “help the team understand the reason to change, show them the new world, and then lock it in as the reality,” said Davis. Not surprisingly, Seidl added, “this is one reason that change management training is a foundational leadership skill, and a useful organizational skill.”

Related Article: Have We Been Doing Change Management Wrong All Along?

What Are Some of the Most Common IT Mindsets That Need to Be Replaced? 

The top mindsets CIOs feel need changing are:

  1. There's a process for that when users need something fast or different.
  2. Them vs. us.
  3. Running IT like a business means profiting off clients.
  4. Siloed thinking.
  5. Forming committees instead of acting.
  6. It's not my problem.

Seidl believes that a lot of this comes down to figuring out when once valuable habits aren't valuable anymore. CIO Paul Wright added, “When people tie their own value to a specific product or process, they are writing their own death warrant in a changing world. What is needed instead is a cross functional team who back each other up and help each other solve problems leads to improved collaboration, creativity and a global perspective.”

Given this, McBreen believes it is critical that “IT professionals: 1) Have a deliver and serve mindset; 2) Communicate with everybody all the time; 3) Challenge leaders and others in IT to get the best; and 4) Implement based upon ideal, real and practical approaches. Sadin said “he has had great success at overcoming this by co-locating 'chunks' of IT within divisional/functional units to increase business alignment. When IT is talking to their business, they represent IT; when they're talking to me, they represent their business.”

Related Article: One Bright Spot in COVID-19: The Rise of Self-Directed Teams

How Can CIOs Build a Culture That Takes a More Flexible Approach?

Sadin kicked off this portion of the conversation with a personal example. He said he “once worked for a CEO who told everyone repeatedly, if you've always done it that way it's probably wrong.” Additionally, he suggested that “once an IT team exceeds the 2 pizza rule size, CIOs are forced to make organizational decisions about chunking. I've done it successfully at multinationals where teams/strategic business units spanned the globe. It's about decision rights and promotion of shared identity.” Meanwhile, Wright said it's important to “integrate as diverse a workforce as possible. Doing this can lead people to confront their resistance to change. Having a culture where questioning is not just tolerated but expected becomes a flywheel of change.”

Parting Remarks

CIOs clearly need to build a growth mindset into their extended team. This requires walking the talk and diligently rooting out the "this is the way it was always done" mentality. This will be a big step for some CIOs. However, this is the essence of leadership — the willingness to ask questions. Theodore Levitt once said, “Few things are more important for a manager to do than ask simple questions .... It is not to get answers that the good manager asks these questions, but to get people to think rather than just to act, react or administer.”