Specsavers CIO Phil Pavitt has worked for 18 companies in a stellar 35-year career in technology, across organisations as varied as Transport for London, Centrica, Aviva, and HMRC, the UK government department responsible for revenue and customs.
Phil was a star speaker at the recent AppD Summit Europe, where he delivered a compelling and thought-provoking presentation that summarised key learnings during his time in the tech industry. The importance of being passionate about what you do, the need for bravery in terms of challenging existing practices, and prioritising the addressing of everyday obstacles that may be seen as low down the stack rank were all highlighted. The latter can actually do wonders for staff morale and act as indicators of tangible improvement.
In a session full of sage advice and canny observations, a number of themes stood out for me:
1. Technology is at the heart of everything you do. Phil referred to his experience within Specsavers, which has focused on a medical retail store experience. The stores are no longer the home of dial-ups, but rather the fastest broadband available. He also reminded the audience that saying you’re putting technology at the centre is easy, whilst doing it is much harder.
2. Focus on the customer journey, of course, but start with customer-facing colleagues. These are the ones at the coalface of engagement, so make sure they’re fully supported with truly colleague-centric designed applications and infrastructure.
3. Ensure what you develop is designed for what it’s meant to do. Is it really fit for purpose? This may seem like common sense, but after numerous stakeholders and various teams have given their input into the development process, sometimes sight can be lost of what the original purpose of an initiative was.
4. Assemble the right team in the right place for the right purpose. Teams should last for the period they need to stay together to deliver a defined objective, not multiple years during which they can fall victim to stagnation, as well as an absence of fresh ideas and innovative thinking. Dynamically bringing together a different combination of talents focused on a specific challenge fosters collaboration and improves the overall abilities of existing teams.
5. “Split the room”, which means it’s a distinct possibility that upon commencing a new role, 40% of the IT department will hate the way you’re working, whilst 40% are likely to love the changes that are being made. This is actually fine, as it means you’re having an impact and generating a reaction of some sort. The remaining 20% who are in the middle and indifferent are the group to be concerned about. Most are probably disengaged from their roles and indifferent to the organisation achieving its goals.
6. Respect has to be earned by exhibiting the behaviors that you wish to see in your team. Only by demonstrating a true understanding of the organisation and what it needs to do will you earn the right to lead. This reflects the “Be the change you want to see” approach but also referenced the importance of not being deluded into thinking that the CIO title alone wins advocates for your strategy and adherents to your vision.
7. Always follow delivery, not fashion. Don’t rush towards a destiny you don’t truly understand. The IT sector is already awash with three-letter acronyms and new technologies, whilst even newer practices and buzzwords seem to emerge every month, all being touted as having a huge role to play. Don’t fall victim to a rebranding of an existing topic (“big data” was quoted as example of this) and believe it’s the silver bullet, panacea for all ills, or any other clichéd solution. Balancing the “fashion of technology” vs. the need for business processes is a huge challenge for the CIO community.
8. The classic IT department is fundamentally dead — recognise this fact and adapt. IT has become commoditised, and whilst some may hate the arrival of shadow IT, it is now so normal and growing that it must be seen as an opportunity for partnership, not conflict. Phil explored the shifting landscape faced by CIOs, whose traditional roles are now threatened by chief digital officers and other new job functions. He also highlighted the need for automation at every level to eliminate manual errors and labor-intensive repetitive processes.
9. Don’t measure projects by their size. Whilst empire-building and bragging rights around the water cooler over who’s leading the largest project measured by headcount aren’t unusual, this is flawed and outdated thinking. Modular and small projects are still the most successful method to adopt. They’re more agile, quicker to deliver value, and have more realistic expectations.
10. Don’t spend more money on technology than the arrival of technology. If only 30% – 40% of an IT project is invested in training, onboarding, and overall enablement, then change will not land well. The most important aspects are not the technology, they are the people who will use and be affected by the technology that matter most.
Become an Innovation Enabler, Not a Cost Centre
Phil ended the session by explaining how CIOs need to reposition IT in any enterprise, win board ownership, and have them believe in you. Demonstrate the IT department’s value as a broker and an honest partner. Start small and experiment — it’s much easier to gain permission for a $25 – 35k proof of concept that acts a rallying point with your team. It’s also critical to set a vision and journey, and generate dissatisfaction with how things currently are. Sometimes objectives can be very simple yet hugely effective. One example of a mundane but far-reaching goal was the reduction in “lottery” login times within a major energy provider. The team cut logins from up to 25 minutes down to under 20 seconds for 98% of employees. Phil ended by reminding anyone who embarks on the CIO path that it’s the most lonely job you will ever have, as you’re constantly driving change across the whole business without entrenched, enduring, and loyal internal ecosystems. A class-leading CIO must by nature always drive innovation and change, and strive to remain challenging, committed, and inspirational.
Watch Phil’s presentation below: