Embarking on a major IT transformation?

Ian Cohen, former CIO at JLT, offers 4 pieces of advice.

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As CIO at Jardine Lloyd Thompson (JLT), Ian Cohen led a transformational change programme that turned JLT into a social information business. His achievements earned him the number two spot in the CIO 100. Here, Ian shares 4 pieces of wisdom that he would offer to other leaders responsible for driving transformational change in IT.

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Ian Cohen

Having been fortunate enough to lead a number of big transformation programs over the last 15 years of my career, I’m often asked for a few words of advice. Now that’s actually much harder than it would seem at first glance. All such programs have incredibly different challenges from the nature of the transformation itself, the industry or most importantly the people involved. That said there are a few things to make sure to get right so here it goes.

Remember the nature of transformation – It seems an odd place to start but many people confuse change programs with transformations and vice versa. The clue is in the name. A change is something that can happen many times and there can always be an ebb and flow between where you’ve started and the outcome. Transformation is different. A genuine transformation leaves nothing of the original behind – its transformed. Think of this as a journey where once you’ve crossed the initial canyon of getting the program going, you destroy the bridge you crossed – this is transformation – there’s no going back.

However much you communicate, it’s not enough – …. so do more. Transformation is really difficult. Actually change is difficult – transformation is challenging, unnerving and often extremely uncomfortable for those involved (in part due to the “no going back” element mentioned earlier).  One of the most important skills in leadership is rallying people behind a unifying vision and that’s key in leading a transformation program. It’s easy to get sucked into the weeds and the details of the various tasks and forget the overall objective. So your communications have to cover the what (what’s happening in the program,) but they must also remind people about the “why” – why we set out on this journey in the first place.

Build an incredible strengths based team – Having said that this is gonna be tough and often uncomfortable. You need to build an incredibly strong team and the key word here is “strong”. Forget about seniority, job titles and alike, you need people who are really up for the journey; who are strengthened by the very thought of a transformation program. People who can eat fire, spit nails and smile at the very thought. And it won’t always be the people who you thought were good at the project “stuff” or the ones who produced the best Gantt Charts – remember a Gantt chart never delivered anything. These will be people in your teams who are genuinely excited by the journey, who love communications and simplifying complexity. They will be the ones who thrive on ambiguity but equally seek to remove that self-same ambiguity for their activities. You have to learn how to spot these people but invest the time and effort as they will be vital to your success.

Don’t be afraid of detours – The road to success is rarely a straight line. If it was, most transformation programs would be a breeze. You will always encounter the unforeseen along the way or face numerous unplanned or unexpected challenges. With the objective always clearly in your mind, remember it’s OK to turn left or right, take a B road so long as your direction of travel remains predominantly forward. Like all challenges, it’s not that they occur – they will; that’s the nature of the journey, rather it’s how you deal with them that counts and how you turn them into positive outcomes.

So there you go. By no means an exhaustive list but 4 things that, if you get them right, will put you on a firm foundation for success.

Good luck

About Ian Cohen

Ian Cohen is an accomplished and innovative board level CxO and Non-Executive Director with experience that spans the Media, Technology and Financial Services sectors. He is the former Global CIO of insurance group Jardine Lloyd Thompson plc, CIO at Associated Newspapers, and also worked as CTO and Global IT Director for the Financial Times. Ian has been a regular in CIO Magazine’s “CIO 100” listing of the top UK CIO’s (ranking 2nd in 2013) and is a frequent columnist in the publication. He currently operates as a Digital Advisor with the Leading Edge Forum and holds NED and board advisory roles with a number of London’s brightest start-ups.

Click here to connect with Ian on LinkedIn 

About Company85

Company85 is an independent IT consulting firm.  We’ve supported many senior IT executives that are seeking to drive transformational change within their organisation. We can help you to validate strategy, justify investment, and deliver the programme with strong governance and control. Change is something we do every day and we’re proud of our ability to accelerate programme implementation by 25%, and deliver at typically 40% less cost than the big four.

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