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To Innovate and Reduce IT Risk, Build a Solid Foundation First

To develop organizational maturity in an IT agency, leaders must foster a culture of continuous improvement and create a safe space for staff to try new ideas.

closeup of a computer chip in blue and white
Being a government chief information officer is both highly rewarding and exceptionally challenging. The work impacts every facet of the larger organization, including its operations, employees and constituent services. However, continuously navigating a landscape filled with growing threats, risks and escalating demands for services, projects and value delivery can be difficult. The environment grows increasingly complex, compounded by tech debt like aging infrastructure, with often inadequate funding. This shortfall hinders not only meeting stakeholder demands for new innovations and reduced IT risks but also fully leveraging emerging technologies like artificial intelligence. Workforce talent issues further amplify these challenges.

In the dynamic landscape of information technology, IT leaders are often tempted to chase the latest advancements. Yet annual surveys by Info-Tech Research Group consistently reveal a startling truth: Business satisfaction with IT remains low, and CEOs and business leaders perceive IT as insufficiently supportive of their goals. This gap stems from a critical oversight in the government IT sector: the undervalued importance of establishing a solid IT department organizational foundation.

The fundamental flaw in many IT strategies is the almost exclusive focus on working "in the business,” leading to the neglect of working "on the business." This approach results in organizational atrophy and underdevelopment in areas like structure, values and culture, methods and tools, people, and service economics. It also affects staff engagement and retention. Trapped in perpetual "reactionary" mode, IT departments fail to mature, thus unable to provide real business value or be recognized as business partners.

The Pareto Principle, the 80/20 Rule, posits that 80 percent of consequences come from 20 percent of causes. By dedicating 20 percent of their time to working “on the business," IT leaders can significantly impact organizational elements, enhancing value delivery back to the business. This shift from a quantitative to a qualitative perspective in delivering customer value can greatly enhance innovation capabilities and reduce IT risks.

Many IT leaders struggle to find time to develop the necessary skills to focus on organizational maturity. Comfortably entrenched in the "in the business" mindset, they often overlook areas such as transparency, communications, business relationship management, goals alignment, governance, and fostering a culture of shared vision and values. This lack of focus is a significant barrier to innovation and IT risk reduction.

To overcome these challenges, IT leaders must foster a culture of continuous improvement and high performance. Embracing an "infinite" mindset, encouraging experimentation and learning, and developing strong accountability and ownership are crucial. Creating a culture that values entrepreneurship, team safety and resilience leads to a more adaptable and high-value IT organization.

The most common excuse for not working “on the business” is a lack of time. But IT leaders need to understand that time will never be given; it must be made. There are numerous tools, techniques and systems available to help make time: governance and demand management and including personal and team efficiency systems like WIP limits and Kanban boards; books like Franklin Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People; adages like not letting the perfect be the enemy of the good; and empowering leadership at all levels can help. Liz Wiseman's book Multipliers: How the Best Leaders Make Everyone Smarter says that a multiplier leader achieves 2.1 times the productivity from their teams. This alone could help you free up 20 percent of time for critical "organizational engineering" activities.

Innovation thrives where experimentation and calculated risk-taking are encouraged. IT leaders should create a safe space for teams to explore new ideas without fear of failure. This approach fosters innovation and enhances the team's adaptability to changing business and technological landscapes.

Accountability and ownership among IT staff are crucial for building a mature organization. IT leaders should empower their teams to take charge of projects and decisions, fostering responsibility and commitment to the organization's success. While IT departments often have accountability through mature IT service management systems, portfolio management and strategic planning, few apply the same methodical approach to working on the business for organizational maturity objectives. SaaS solutions for organizational alignment, employee engagement and performance management can track top organizational maturity goals down to employee objectives and key results and one-on-one meetings, and greatly help here.

A paradigm shift is needed in IT leadership. Moving from an operational focus to an organizational engineer focus requires a deep commitment to building a solid organizational foundation. By prioritizing organizational maturity, fostering a culture of continuous improvement and developing key leadership competencies, IT leaders can transform their departments into innovative, risk-resilient entities integral to the larger organization’s success.

This shift is not just a necessity but also an opportunity for IT leaders to redefine their roles and impact within their organizations, leading to a more robust and dynamic IT landscape aligned with business objectives and capable of driving sustainable value delivery and innovation.

Steve Monaghan is the director of the Nevada County, Calif., Information and General Services Agency.