How can CIOs influence change? 

Teri Takai shares advice on how to win support, digitize workflows, and transform organizations in the public sector

Teri Takai has had a long career as a CIO, both in government and in the private sector. After 30 years working in IT at Ford, in 2003 she began a series of government CIO jobs, first for the states of Michigan and California, and then from 2010 to 2014 for the U.S. Department of Defense.

Along the way she’s learned that great ideas aren’t enough. She has had to build consensus, prioritize projects that would advance the organization’s overall goals, communicate often and practice a lot of patience.

Now executive director of the Center for Digital Government, Takai spoke with Workflow about how to succeed as a technology leader, best strategies for digitizing workflows, and what she thinks government CIOs should focus on moving forward.

Edited excerpts:

Is there one thing that stands out as critical to your success?

The most important thing for any chief information officer to remember is that your job is not about technology. It’s really about how you use technology to improve the organization.

You have to get in and listen. You have to really understand what the organization sees as success. Then, when you can help them, you get credibility and then you’re able to do a number of things that perhaps might not have been on their agenda in the beginning.

As individuals, if we have a great idea and we try to sell that idea, if somebody else didn’t agree with us, we get upset or offended. But really, as CIOs, we’re negotiators, and I just think it’s a skill that we don’t often think of as important. Everything we do is in negotiation. How do you work with your customer to get to a solution that works for them and works for you?

Do you have a set strategy you use for workflow digitization?

It’s important to have a point of view. You can’t just go in and say to someone, ‘What would you like to do?’ Because you have some folks that are afraid of the technology, you have some folks that embrace the technology but are maybe way out in left field, and then some folks that just want you to help them.

Also, very often the workforce identifies with whatever technology they’re using and, in many cases, whatever technology they’re using defines their workflow. When you bring a new technology and that changes their workflow, it’s easy to think, “Wow, this is just a technology change.” In reality, you’re actually disrupting the way they do their jobs. It’s important to recognize that distinction so that people aren’t threatened by the new technology.

Is there a project where you feel you did this well?

In the automotive industry, we implemented software that made standard processes across all of our non-automotive assembly plants. Every plant was used to running differently. Every plant had their way to do it. Every plant knew their way was the best. It took us close to a year just to get a leveling of those processes, just to show people that we weren’t going to damage their jobs even before we started to actually implement software.

I had a similar case in government. Many state governments were putting in new child welfare systems. It took my state, Michigan, three tries. Two of the three failed. Ultimately, it was a combination of the technology, leadership, and then working with those individuals that had to change their workflow in order to make it successful.

What did you learn from these experiences?

First of all, don’t introduce technology for technology’s sake. Also don’t assume that the most complex technology is going to be the best. I used to tell my folks I would rather put in a really simple technology that everybody liked than a really complex technology that nobody could understand. I’ve put a few very complex technologies in that just never got traction because people didn’t identify with them.

It’s also really important to me to have a partner in senior leadership in that area say, ‘yes, we want to change.’ Then, to have that person identify one or two champions within their organization that would work with us to determine what the way ahead is. Without that, I’ve just seen so many projects fail.

Always involve those who are going to have to use the technology. Maybe not in the decision process because that gets a little tough, but at least make sure they’re represented and also make sure that they’re involved in the actual rollout of that technology.

How do you make sure people feel involved?

My technique is to give everyone a chance to be involved. We can do it with work groups or focus groups—there are a variety of different ways to do it. But start off the process by saying, look, I want your input, but you’re going to have to come together and collaborate and come to a consensus.

The second thing I tell people is consensus means that we do it in a way that fits for everyone. But if you can’t come to a consensus, I will make the decision, which is not what you want because I don’t have the experience and background that you have.

When you’re changing a workflow, you always get a few who are mad, and you always get a few that say, I don’t want to do this, but you also get some really creative input from individuals.

We did this with a process around being able to do field support in the state of Michigan. I had field support folks that came up with fantastic ideas that we implemented. People realize you’re listening to them and they realize that they have a role. They go out and talk to their peers. It isn’t just coming from Teri.

In the next three years, what do you think government technology leaders should prioritize when it comes to their digitization strategies?

Just continuing to make it easier for citizens to do business with government. A business should be able to say, ‘tell me all the licenses I need’ instead of needing to know that one is from environmental quality and one is from tax.

Another one is if you have a hunting license and two months before your license is due, you get a ping that says, click here and renew your license. Wouldn’t that be great? We don’t do much of that today.