The best Chief Information Officers (CIOs) have always felt comfortable wearing several hats. Depending on the situation they need to be strategists, leaders, organisers, influencers, teachers, innovators and so much more. It’s time to add another core skill to the pile. That of storyteller.
In his excellent book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, Yuval Noah Harari says storytelling was the skill that set humans apart. While other animals could communicate, they weren’t sophisticated enough to manage large social groups.
Being able to share information about who was likely to challenge the group leader, or the whereabouts of a deadly predator, set Homo sapiens on the road to world domination. So how is this relevant to the CIOs evolution?
Shifting perceptions of technology
It’s not so long ago that CIOs were dismissed as technologists who built and managed the infrastructure underpinning business operations, driving out unnecessary costs and improving productivity. It was a functional role charged with ‘keeping the lights on’.
The lion’s share of annual technology budgets were allocated to refreshing and upgrading existing equipment to deliver marginal improvement. Budgets were squeezed and there was relentless pressure to do more with fewer resources. Not anymore.
Now there’s a much greater focus on delivering innovative digital strategies to fuel business transformation. Research firm Gartner has estimated technology spending in Australia will reach almost $85 billion this year, with software and services showing the fastest growth as organisations build out digital capability to drive innovation.
By its very nature, innovation is about trying something new. Something that isn’t proven. Something that needs imagination and doesn’t have an articulated return on investment. You need to create emotional buy-in to get projects like this off the ground and the best way to do that is with a story.
Who’s the hero of your story?
At a recent lunch we hosted in Sydney, CIOs agreed you need to make your audience the hero of the story and work back from there. If you’re talking to the head of the fire department, for example, he’s not going to care about your request to fund a new mobile technology project. He will show interest if you can tell him that you’ve figured out a way to alert fire crews that the job they’re going to is a false alarm. Now he’s bought into how it will improve his world.
Tell the head of a charity that you want funds for a blockchain project and it’s likely to be met with a blank stare. So how can you frame the conversation from her worldview? What if you could demonstrate how this project will show donors that the money they invested did further somebody’s education or provide fresh water for a village. Now you’ve got her attention.
Take this storytelling concept one step further: how can you create executive experiences showing how your ideas will have a positive impact on customers or staff? Your stakeholders don’t need to know about the technology that underpins your plans. If you sell them on an outcome, they’ll be happy to give your project the green light.
Turning the next page
CIOs must help the rest of the leadership team navigate their way through the demands of this complex digital world, keeping the business safe from more pervasive cyber security threats. They must have an eye on the future; whilst helping their business discover opportunities to change the game they’re in. That is why storytelling skills have become so desirable.
In the next decade, these same skills will go a long way to determining which technology projects and leaders are most successful. The need for CIOs to prove this new talent is being driven by a shift in the perception of technology within business. Rather than being a building block, it’s become a central component of delivering memorable customer experiences.
So, how will you tell your next story?
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