Jon G Hall CITP FBCS explores how to survive memoryless leadership regeneration.

Count Duckula, the much-loved spin off of the much-loved Danger Mouse, was a (vegetarian) vampire duck, the most recent in a ‘dreadful dynasty of vicious vampire ducks’. Our eponymous hero was – like Dr Who – reincarnated every so often, with – unlike Dr Who – no memory of their past lives. On the plus side, each generation was free to develop their own vision for vampirism. Including vegetarianism.

There are no vampires  – or Time Lords, for that matter – leading British universities. 

(Ouch, sorry, my inner scientist has just kicked me.)

My working hypothesis is that there are no vampires leading British universities. One corollary is that, like Count Duckula, they should be free of leadership reincarnation without memory. Yes?

And yet... if your organisation has something of a leadership ‘churn’ – a word I hate, by the way – you might see something akin to memoryless reincarnation: a leaving leader leaves their accrued accountability; an arriving leader starts afresh.

Unfortunately, leadership changes often come in bursts, without warning and in the middle of radical digital transformation.

What's a CIO to do? Well...

Last time, we left Chris Youles, Open University (OU) CIO, having got to ‘Yes!’ with his board for a solution to the OU's tech debt: a rapidly ageing, very loosely coupled, 25-year-old tech stack of around 350 – individually solid – systems, which had previously been bought by the university some time at the beginning of the internet age.

Chris's next step, procurement, went well – remarkably well, in fact. ‘World-class!’ according to one potential supplier (and not the successful one, either). Just like that, the university had chosen a single supplier product: a one-stop University-In-A-Box.

With procurement praise still ringing in his ears, Chris's thoughts turned to customisation, parametrisation, and implementation – first with finance and HR: ‘Best not mess with student-facing systems just yet,’ he sagely thought.

Chris's mentor – a savvy, well-known, got-the-T-shirt CIO, with a big, boomy laugh – added a note of caution: ‘Never take sole responsibility.’ So, Chris took care to convince both the CFO and HR Director to champion their part of the change. Each committed project teams to sweat the details, with Chris reporting back.

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Chris's thoughts at this point echoed Harold Zidler, CIO (Chief Impresario Officer) at the Moulin Rouge! – ‘Everything's going so well!’

And then – surprise! – the CEO left, followed quickly by both CFO and HR Director.

Interims were appointed quickly, but those finance and HR project teams specifically appointed to work with Chris became headless, slowing implementation to a crawl. Chris was left solely accountable for a radical digital transformation that had stalled due to leadership change; not only was Chris's risk dashboard flashing red, and the alarm bells were ringing too. That took a personal toll.

In time, with new permappointments, things came together again. And, a further two years on, things are again looking up for the university, with systems coming online and the university beginning to think out-of-the-box about the potential of its University-In-A-Box concept.

Looking back, Chris is philosophical: ‘Can an organisation ever be stable enough for digital transformation?’

Probably not, but the domino effect of leadership change can leave a CIO very exposed. Longitudinal accountability between leadership changes is not a luxury – if, for no other reason, than radical digital transformation of an organisation depends critically on leadership cover throughout.

What’s the takeaway?

Like Chris, you may be leading your organisation to its radical digital awakening that will see it set for the next 20 years. If so, don't let the curse of Count Duckula get you: always build a-count-ability for change into your plan that will survive memoryless leadership regeneration.

If you're looking for a more substantial read in this area, you could do worse than Stouten, Rousseau, and De Cremer's 2018 tome, Successful Organizational Change. Available in full from Google Scholar.