When COVID-19 upended our lives in the spring of 2020, federal government’s Chief Information Officers (CIOs) took bold steps to ensure business continuity. They rallied to provide the technical capabilities that enabled a remote workforce. These incredible efforts have not gone unnoticed; CIOs delivered in a crisis and proved they can be counted on when needed.

For new CIOs taking over in 2021, the demands are only increasing. While the initial response to the pandemic was awe-inspiring, it is just the first phase of many changes that will require a new operating model, more rapid adoption of new technologies in service to mission needs, and exponential increases in improved customer experiences.

What this comes down to is speed. The pace of change must increase to meet customer demand for government services. One of the key challenges for any new CIO in 2021 is to understand the organization’s appetite for, and capability to deliver, innovative solutions to government’s most pressing problems.

Federal executives see the need for rapid change

Accenture data shows that federal executives have high expectations for innovative solutions.

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78%

Of federal executives agree that organizations need to dramatically reengineer the experiences that bring technology and people together in a more human-centric manner.

74%

Of federal executives believe the stakes for innovation have never been higher.

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The recent $1 billion funding of the Technology Modernization Fund (TMF) – 10x larger than any past funding - demonstrates just how critical technologies are to meeting the moment. With this funding, CIOs are again asked to be on the front lines of dramatic transformation – an immense but rewarding task.

A rapid start-up approach: Apply agile principles

The reality is that federal CIO tenures can be short. They must engage, add value, and make their presence known from day one. They will need to articulate their own vision for the future and ensure the right strategies are in place to achieve it.

When a federal CIO takes over an organization, they are also inheriting an existing set of strategies and initiatives. They will have to quickly identify what initiatives to accelerate, continue-as-is, slow down, or discontinue.

The key steps below can help ensure immediate impact and a “future ready” organization.

  1. Act in the short-term with a long-term focus

Initially, new CIOs should assess the organization’s situation and identify the areas to focus on first. CIOs can discern who the key stakeholders are, conduct a listening tour and deep dive analyses, and identify “quick win” opportunities, such as alleviating a service delivery issue, being more responsive to customers, or removing a bottleneck.

Based on weighted analysis of stakeholder feedback and internal deep dive briefings, CIOs can identify the most critical items to address in the short, medium, and long term (what you must implement now, what you must start preparing for now, what can be shifted to the future).

With this initial data capture, new CIOs can then apply the same type of approach that is employed for agile systems development but adapted for rapid strategy development.

  1. Establish agile strategy teams of experts

Define the executive team and sprint teams, including customer experience, data, and technology experts, in addition to functional experts (e.g., cyber, IT operations).

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  1. Conduct iterative strategy sprints and reviews

Conduct rapid (e.g., three week), iterative sprints on priority strategic areas. Inform strategies with “art-of-the-possible” briefs by subject matter experts who can provide an overview of leading thinking on the application of new methods (e.g., data management) or new technologies (such as AI applications).

For example, if looking at digital transformation, sprint teams can ask the following types of questions during a sprint:

  • What are the burning platform mission delivery issues and how can we be more innovative in addressing them?
  • How much of my portfolio is spent on maintaining existing legacy systems?
  • What common business functions and manual processes can we automate?

Often these sprints can be facilitated in a way that minimizes disruption to daily operational responsibilities. The executive team should receive briefings on proposed strategies (including the “backlog” of things that have not been done) and provide guidance to the sprint team on how to proceed. 

  1. Finalize strategies and develop a roadmap

Based on the sprint results, the CIO helps to refine both short-term and long-term strategies. During this step, the teams also identify additional data and analyses that are needed and build that into the roadmap.  

For example, a strategy to accelerate IT modernization may include establishing customer engagement teams to coordinate with mission areas in the development of prototypes that leverage new technologies; facilitating more rapid adoption of digital platform technologies like Salesforce and ServiceNow; and establishing application factories to accommodate more robust modernization throughput. 

  1. Execute, monitor, adjust

Once CIOs have their roadmaps, it’s important to develop a data-driven approach to managing their portfolios.

As they execute, CIOs should communicate actively, establish metrics, and monitor and manage in the context of an overall governance process. Because this is an agile approach, it’s essential to adjust strategies as new information is gathered or the situation changes.

The CIO rapid start-up approach is not a drawn-out 100-day plan or strategic planning approach that too often results in shelf ware. By adopting the agile mindset, new CIOs are committing to a vision of the future and an iterative approach that delivers value incrementally along the way.

The rapid start-up approach will help the organization to build confidence in you as the new CIO, demonstrate that you have a bias-for-action, help you to build key relationships within your IT organization and across the agency, and ensure you have enough runway during your tenure as CIO to realize significant accomplishments.

John Low

Director – Accenture Federal Services

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