Herding the Smart Cats: Successful IT Change Leadership

Herding the Smart Cats: IT Change Leadership

Technologists are notorious for having independent thoughts and ideas. Sometimes this is a help to organizations, such as they’re innovating a new process or technology. Other times, this is a challenge, like when trying to change behavior. Now imagine that those desired behaviors are perceived as limiting freedom and independence on projects. Change could be hard.

One organization, a former client, succeeded in herding a group of smart cats—technologists—to implement software engineering best practices by adopting the Capability Maturity Model (CMM). For those of you who live outside IT Land, CMM is a proven approach to process improvement implemented by many companies throughout the world. Companies at Level 1 are considered to have an unstable environment for software development, while Level 2 companies have repeatable processes and some controls in place. Level 3 companies have a standard process for defining and maintaining software.

In 2002, the year in which this organization sought CMM Level 3, the median time to attain Level 2 maturity was 23 months and Level 3 was 22 months. This organization sought to jump from Level 1 to Level 3 in just 2 years. Only 38% of all organizations attempting Level 3 or higher had achieved this goal. The organization’s challenge was daunting.

The CIO recognized that success would take superior execution and implementation, not just of process, but also of people. He put into place a few critical elements that helped the organization succeed:

  1. Use of Critical Connectors. The project team was comprised of people trusted by their peers. These were the informal leaders in the organization who he took from their line positions to serve a 2-year CMM assignment. Because these informal leaders were already well-regarded, their words were taken seriously. It wasn’t some distant executive advocating CMM processes. It was their friends.
  2. Active Leadership Involvement. Another piece critical to success was that executives weren’t distant. They were right there, advocating for CMM processes every day in their team meetings, hallway conversations, and one-on-ones. This support didn’t come easily. It took the CIO some time to gain their support. Many debates were had behind closed doors. However, when the time came, the support was there. Visibility was modeled by the CIO who personally evangelized the new way of engaging in project work.
  3. Continuous, Dedicated Focus. This wasn’t a “one-and-done” activity. The project team stayed together for several years. Employee change management was an early concern and team members came together in the discovery phase of the project to identify stakeholder concerns. A subset of the team formed a Change Management group that met frequently to assess the impact of decisions on employees, determine how to talk about these decisions, and plan sequence of communication activities.
  4. Employee Engagement. Technologists tend to be smart thinkers and savvy problem-solvers. They’re also not particularly good at swallowing new processes without tasting them first. The CIO recognized this and sponsored many ways for employees to be involved in the design and delivery of the new processes. The project used a pilot approach which allowed the project team to test before implementing on a large scale. It also launched semi-yearly engagement surveys which measured perceptions of and progress towards adoption.

More unusually, the organization put together an Engagement Team consisting of people across the IT organization. They served as the eyes and ears of the change process and spoke frankly about implementation challenges. The Engagement Team delivered significant and unanticipated value for the project by helping solve nagging implementation problems and becoming unexpected advocates for the process.

Finally, the division sponsored a host of companion activities designed to change the culture of the organization from one of knowledge hoarding to knowledge sharing. These initiatives included employee-initiated brown bag sessions on anything from creating wireless home networks to working successfully with a specific customer group, communities of practice; and a special space dedicated to learning.

All of these efforts paid off. The organization was assessed by outside auditors as operating at Level 3 certification in 50% the time recommended to achieve this goal. By doing so, the organization boosted productivity and throughput significantly, improved project estimating and management, reduced software defects, and improved project delivery. And, in the process, enjoyed some much happier customers.

What techniques has your organization used to successfully lead change?

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