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Red Robin CIO Drives Change Through IT Management

Statistically speaking, CIOs don’t become CEOs. But it’s not because they don’t want it. Research shows that nearly half of CIOs aspire to become chief executive, but only four percent actually get there. Much more frequently, CEOs for the world’s top companies — about half in fact — come up through C-level financial or operating roles (Vanson Bourne, 2012).

Chris Laping, CIO of Red Robin Gourmet Burgers (, strongly believes this is because technology executives are too often focused on engineering and IT solutions to embrace their most valuable leadership quality: the ability to manage change. Technology leaders, he believes, possess powerful project management skills that can and should be leveraged across the business for even the most non-IT initiatives, with the particular role of being agents for change.

Laping’s official role at Red Robin is indicative of that practice: he’s the company’s senior vice president of business transformation and CIO. In that role, he oversees the company’s technology, learning and development, enterprise project management and operations services teams. In this exclusive interview with Hospitality Technology, Laping shares how the technology team has taken on a business transformation role at Red Robin, and describes his overall vision for IT leaders. But it’s not something CIOs are handed; they have to drive it, says Laping. Driving this change, perhaps, will also help more CIOs chase down their chief-executive dreams.

HT: Let’s start with some definitions: “business transformation” and “change agents” are pretty heady buzzwords that get tossed around executive boardrooms. What does business transformation really mean?

If you look at a classic Wikipedia definition of business transformation, it talks about people, process and technology.

So when you push change through people, you usually do that through training. If you want to change business performance, one of the things you do is help people obtain more skills and competencies. Next is process; Red Robin has a group called ops services to focus on that. As a process-oriented team, they’re constantly looking at our operating model in the restaurants and how we can be more efficient. In any change — it could be new menus, new team member uniforms, a new IT system — our ops services team takes that change and operationalizes it in a way so that when a guest walks in, it looks like we’ve been doing business like that forever.

HT: And how does the IT team traditionally fit into business transformation?

: For the IT team, they push change principally through technology and tools. But when you think about classic IT organizations and the CIO’s responsibility, typically it is limited to change that has technology as the front-and-center lever for making that change. You then see classic IT departments rolling out training or process changes related to the technology, but they don’t take the driver’s seat in helping orchestrate that change. They say, “That’s the business’ responsibility to figure out.”

HT: What’s different about the way Red Robin approaches business transformation?

We draw people, process and technology as a Venn diagram with intersecting circles, and in the center is an enterprise project management function that helps orchestrate all the changes that need to occur.
Originally, this sort of project management practice was being utilized to drive IT projects at Red Robin, but wasn’t applied elsewhere. We’ve applied those practices across the business to drive change in other initiatives, so our scope of work in IT isn’t just limited to new IT systems.

I really believe that IT leaders have a lot of best practices at their disposal that are very applicable to driving big change initiatives beyond IT projects. At Red Robin, whether we’re consolidating our distribution centers from 36 to 13, rolling out a new loyalty program, or innovating changes to our menus, we build change plans that comprehensively cover the operational and training needs of our managers and tea    m members. I think that’s unique at Red Robin; we go through an operational shake-down process and cover all of our bases when we roll out a change.

HT: Red Robin uses an internal social networking tool to get all levels of the business involved. What’s that look like?

When we have these ideas, we do a quick write-up and we engage our restaurant managers to be a part of helping us design the answer to the problem. We do that via our own internal social networking site, built on Yammer (; that’s where the concept development projects are managed. For restaurant managers and team members that want to participate in innovation, we’ve built a “take it, tweak it, share it” mentality. We can rapidly deploy proof-of-concepts. Last year, for example, we rolled out a pilot iPad waitlist app from Noshlist ( to 55 restaurants. We basically had this innovation team of home office and restaurant team members that helped us identify all of the operational elements we needed to be successful.

HT: Can you give an example of the IT team’s role in a non-technology project?

: I think what we did with consolidating our distribution centers is a great example. Everyone recognizes there’s an IT component, but it’s not an IT project — it’s more supply chain. That didn’t matter. The IT team was actually providing the project management resources to that effort.

Most companies in general don’t have project management capabilities. IT, because of the mere complexity of the projects that we manage, has developed pretty robust project management skills. But most organizations don’t have that project management capability outside of IT. So how do marketing efforts get done; operations efforts get done? If I pull project management out from underneath just IT and make it an available skillset across the organization, we can execute on other projects.

At the time we were consolidating our distribution centers, we had a project management gap at the company. We didn’t know who would run it. Without a project manager you would have had a bunch of people loosely connected to each other, cooperating instead of collaborating. You’d have a kick-off meeting with a bunch of people, talk about who would do what, break the huddle, and you’d come back together three months later and hope like heck it all fit together.

HT: In your experience, how receptive are IT teams to their role in business-wide change management; what you call “transformational change agent?”

It depends on how the IT team is oriented. Some are offensively organized, where they are focused on growth opportunities, innovation and development. They’re turning things on. There are also defensive-minded IT organizations; those that are focused on operations, risk and security. I think it’s important that you maintain the balance between the two, but I think the offensive groups are better prepared for being change agents.

Another tell-tale sign is when IT teams are oriented for problem-solving, and not technology engineering. When they understand that not every problem is solved by technology, it makes them stronger candidates for being transformational change agents.

HT: Aren’t IT leaders, if they’re offensive or defensive, often
reacting to their company’s culture and the objectives set by
the business?

They are, but we’re also leaders in the company. IT leaders often say, “Every group in the business is the business, and we’re IT.” They’ll say, “The business asked us to do such and such.” I have a point of view that IT is as much the business as marketing, operations, legal, and accounting. It’s very important for IT to start the dialogue, and to help create that transformational change. Rather than be a byproduct of what it is that everyone says they should do, I’m highly advocating that IT executives take the time to be advocates for change, and be advocates for the offensive-minded IT shop.

People always say to me in my business transformation role, “Gosh Chris, it must be great that you’ve been empowered to do these things.” What I wonder, when they say that, is whether or not they understand the difference between influence and power, and how much work can get done when you learn about the power of influence.

HT: Can you describe the difference between power
and influence?

As a transformational leader, I’ve really got to influence people, and get them there collaboratively, and articulate that offensive-minded opportunities are worthy of investment. I have to talk to them in terms of business benefits and outcomes, and compare them to other projects — marketing, ops, etc. — that are in the pipeline competing for time and attention.

I understand that businesses are in different lifecycles, but even for those who are in “maintain,” what we’ve learned about the economy the last 10 to 15 years is that it’s not the big eating the small. It’s the fast eating the slow. If we are going to compete, we can’t say that our business is to keep the lights on for what we turned on 10 years ago, especially in the restaurant business, where things are highly evolving.

IT has got to get around the table and help drive this conversation. We’ve read for 10 or 15 years in trade journals, “We’ve got to be the partner to the business.” I would say there’s a higher value relationship than partner, and that’s advisor. When I think advisor, I think about lawyers, and tax accountants, and my doctor. When they give me advice, I don’t really challenge it. We in IT have to drive and influence the business in such a way that they start to see us as advisors over time.

HT: What qualities do CIOs need to have to be successful in
this role?

The number one quality of a CEO is that they are change leaders. Statistically CIOs don’t become CEOs. I’d argue that’s because CIOs are often only focused on IT change; we only focused on engineering; we only cared about IT projects. We didn’t know how to go out into the organization and build collaborative support. We just tried to go through hierarchies and executive sponsorships to get things done. Our job isn’t to turn the lights on for new IT systems. Our job is to turn the lights on for new business benefits and possibilities. We can’t live in a technical engineering box where all we’re doing is turning on tools.

IT executives have to put business needs in front of their own desires and express everything they do in terms of business value and outcomes. Traditionally, whenever a business problem looks like it needs a technology fix, that’s the only time IT would get involved. We’ve got to put that behind us.


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