Digital transformation: How to get buy-in

Digital transformation, or any major initiative, requires many decisions to be made — and many opinions to navigate along the way. Gaining approval and support is a critical and often difficult part of a leader’s job. Even if it’s easy to get a group of people on board What To pursue goals, there are often many different and contradictory perspectives how to reach them.

We asked CIOs who recently won the ORBIE Award 2022 Wisconsin CIO of the Year to share their tips for winning buy-in. From asking the right questions to building strong relationships, you’ll learn how to work together to onboard people with your next big idea.

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Ask the right questions and use the right tools

Neal Sample, former CIO, Northwestern Mutual: I always recommend that teams take stock and make sure they have their goals right before tackling any proposed approaches.

For example, if one group believes a team goal should be “increase sales,” while another has no objection but is more concerned about “increasing profitability,” they could be headed for trouble. If you have more than one goal (and who doesn’t?), analyze which ones might be competing for resources, and agree on how you’ll resolve conflicts later.

To develop buy-in for your plans, I recommend asking an important, often-overlooked question: Should I get buy-in at all?

Start there:

  • Is this something we need to “win” or is there an equivalent idea from another voice that we immediately gain support for by embracing it?
  • Does another partner have a greater right to win, dictate the solution, etc. – e.g. does the primary partner live/consume/operate the solution?
  • Is there a corporate, industry, or technology standard that limits the scope of reasonable plans?
  • Is it really worth using political capital to gain support for your project?
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After this exercise, the best way to come to a solution is to immediately drop the debate, politics, emotions, appeals, etc. and use a tool to shape the decision-making process. There are many good tool options (Pugh matrix, weighted decision trees, lightweight alternative architecture assessment methods to name a few).

Tools like these allow participating parties to specify the decision criteria driven by the stated goals and the weighting of those criteria, and then experts can enter the attribute values ​​for the proposed solutions until the best answer emerges.

[ Culture change is the hardest part of digital transformation. Get the digital transformation eBook: Teaching an elephant to dance. ]

If you ever debate hypotheses to agree on a solution, you’ve already lost! Instead, start with a tool and let that agreed framework guide your decision-making process. You might even learn at low stakes that your idea wasn’t as good as you initially thought and that there’s a better approach!

Build relationships before seeking buy-in

Steve Hannan, CIO & CRO, Landmark Credit Union: Consensus building begins with building relationships. When you have a deep understanding of what drives stakeholders, you are better able to clearly and effectively demonstrate how your vision for technology can help others achieve results.

When you know what matters most to your peers, you can build a compelling story that goes beyond data/technology and takes the conversation to a conversation about the need for change and how technology is enabling the broader business strategy in a meaningful way.

Well-established relationships also give you an opportunity to share ideas with key stakeholders before formally presenting your vision. This gives you an important avenue to uncover and address important questions or concerns early on, paving the way for a smooth approval process.

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First listen, then talk

Chad Steighner, CIO, Clarios: Today’s IT leader needs to be much more than just tech savvy, they need to be business savvy as well. Today’s IT leaders are expected to recognize and build support for transformative growth, even when it’s not popular.

At Clarios, I included “Challenge the Status Quo, Be a Respectful Activist” in our IT Guiding Principles because I knew there needs to be a disruptor or two at the table of every CEO or GM – IT leaders should be one. However, once this activist IT leader has sold his vision to the boss, he must now drive change among his peers and the entire organization without formal authority.

To gain approval, I like to address the lack of approval head-on: listen first, then speak. A change leader needs to seek out and listen to their stakeholders to identify their biggest concerns about the initiative, where they think things will go wrong or miss the mark.

After that, you can usually formulate a methodology that moves forward as hoped, but also addresses their concerns. If they feel like you really listened and incorporated their input into your plan, you have their support.

Broaden your perspectives

Jeri Koester, CIO, Marshfield Clinic Healthcare System: Our IT leaders can engage with new ideas by actively listening to our business partners. Our focus is to understand from their perspective the challenges that hinder their work by visiting our hospital sites to see the issues first hand.

So when we propose solutions, we do it from their perspective. Leveraging these practices allows us to achieve Marshfield Clinic’s healthcare system vision by enabling us to implement technology that bridges the human interaction between our patients and the care teams that are at the heart of healthcare delivery.

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Three Cs: consensus, collaboration and communication

Laurie Panella, CIO, Marquette University: Gaining buy-in is an iterative process and is accomplished through consensus building, fostering collaboration, and effective communication.

Consensus: Developing a clear vision of the problem to be solved is the first step in reaching consensus. What problem does your idea solve? What data and solid arguments support the idea? If possible, provide concrete examples.

Collaborate: Invite others to help develop the solution. Invite criticism and opinions to improve the idea and use that feedback. People are more likely to get involved when they feel they have made a contribution. This approach will help secure engagement, motivate stakeholders and make them feel part of the process.

Communicate: Demonstrate incremental progress. Maintain momentum while addressing emerging issues. Help stakeholders continue to feel part of the vision by being part of the integrated team and celebrating milestones and incremental achievements. Your vision now becomes a team effort with the drive to succeed.

Celebrate incremental victories

Allen Smith, CIO, Baker Tilly USA: Organizations overestimate the big project or transformation and underestimate the incremental changes. How can CIOs and other leaders achieve both in the face of organizational pressures to execute large-scale transformations? A successful approach is to embrace relentless incrementalism and celebrate all victories, big and small.

[ Leading CIOs are reimagining the nature of work while strengthening organizational resilience. Learn 4 key digital transformation leadership priorities in a new report from Harvard Business Review Analytic Services. ]

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