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December 17, 2015

Blog Feature: 10 Misconceptions I Overcame to Break Free from the Past

Joe Topinka is a recognized, game-changing career CIO, published author and executive coach. We were proud to have him as part of Think IT not only as an active member, but also as a mentor and Board of Advisors member. “Changing the perception to one that IT can and should play a key role in shaping customer engagement is a great way to break free from IT’s old school past.” In his LinkedIn post, 10 Misconceptions I Overcame to Break Free from the Past, Topinka illustrates the many misconceptions about IT organizations and partnership, or lack of, with the business side; and how organizations can break the habits of the past and be the change they wish to see.

Originally posted on LinkedIn 

It’s a safe bet that there are few if any companies in the world today where someone isn’t complaining that IT never seems to work on their priorities. The reality is that companies routinely struggle with this classic “IT Versus the Business” wrangle. It stems from a perception that IT is a bottomless pit of resources and that project requests seem to go into IT’s black hole. The truth is that not every project should be undertaken, and even if IT had an unlimited budget, not every project would magically get done. 

The misconceptions about IT extend beyond just projects. In my own experience, business leaders from every area within companies, including IT, have developed bad habits and misconceptions about IT organizations that routinely limit performance. It is commonplace to think of IT as outside of the business; a mere “service provider” or “order taker”. This mindset isn’t just held outside of IT organizations either. Far too many IT leaders hold the same antiquated notions. I even hear up-and-coming IT leaders use the old school language they’ve learned and adapted from the leaders they work with.

The world is ripe with leaders who are comfortable talking about “aligning IT to the business “or referring to IT as a “service provider”. These are antiquated concepts that lead companies down the wrong path, missing an opportunity to make the kind of business impact most executives long for. Awareness is one way that organizations are able to pull up anchor on the past and begin sailing to a less frustrating world where high performance IT and improved results are commonplace. 

10 Misconceptions 

Over the years, I have seen a common thread of misconceptions that surface in most every company I have worked for. What I realized is that these same misconceptions are prevalent in most industries regardless of company size or business model. Call me wacky, but I think about these things when I wake in the morning. I love the challenge of trying to overcome the old school notions that limit IT’s performance, and ultimately, the company’s performance. Here are 10 ways for organizations to break free of the shackles of the past.

 1. Bottomless Pit

Leaders aren’t always aware that IT has an existing investment workload they’ve already committed to and are working on. It is true that business leaders really don’t pay much attention to IT investments so as new ideas surface, they assume that IT can just start working on them at the drop of a hat. In all fairness, these executives have full-time jobs and it’s understandable that they don’t keep up with IT’s active projects. This seemingly innocuous problem is a source of frustration for executives however, because they just think IT should be able to start a project at any moment in time.

It’s helpful to give these leaders insight into IT’s active project portfolio by letting them know you can make adjustments to the active project list as long as it makes business sense. Discuss the business consequences of suspending or slowing an existing project, or the implications of adding more resources to take on a new investment. They appreciate being able to influence and talk about options and possibilities. 

One approach that helps is to relate the well-understood concept of supply and demand. Drawing parallels between IT and the supply chain council’s Domains of the Supply Chain helps reveal the process similarity that exists. This goes a long way to offering pragmatic insight into the demand side of IT. The result is a clearer understanding of the process needed to manage the investment intake process. For example, they understand that in a manufacturing process you can’t just add capacity overnight on an assembly line or stop production to make a completely different product on a line. They intuitively get that switching costs and securing skilled workers is fundamental to these sort of shifts. You can draw parallels to IT and the switching costs of stopping and starting projects by using the five domains model below.

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2. In Words Only

Partnerships are supposed to be about teams cooperating to drive a common goal. I haven’t come across an organization that doesn’t say they want this or claims to be living it. The truth is, however, that most companies haven’t proactively implemented programs to develop partnerships across the company. Check your company’s commitment by looking at job descriptions, annual incentive plans, and training programs for evidence that partnerships methods and tools are present.

Far too frequently, companies fall short of truly putting in place the tenets of real partnerships. It is a lot like company executives who say their company is customer-centric and yet there are no CRM solutions or training programs (outside of customer care teams) that focus on driving customer-centric behaviors. For IT organizations, helping executives see this reality can be eye opening. It is easy to get lulled into complacency, especially when markets and competitors are breathing down the company’s neck. Consider implementing a Business Relationship Management program to put some muscle behind partnerships in your company. 

3. Sausage Making

It is commonplace for people outside of IT to be unfamiliar with how projects actually get done. IT organizations have many roles ranging from project manager, business analyst, database analyst, developer, user experience designer and more. These roles are largely misunderstood and confusing to those outside of IT.

Spend a bit of time explaining the functions and purpose of key IT roles. Focus on the role played by each IT expert in both operational support activities and projects. It is useful to draw analogies to more familiar things in their lives. Consider using home construction as an easy way to show how different skills and resources are needed to work as a team to complete a home building project. It is easy to show how rough carpenters, plumbers, roofers, and electricians collaborate and build on each other’s skills when completing the house. The key is to make people feel comfortable asking about IT. Making it safe and reducing their angst is a great way to build trust and confidence.

4. That Ain’t My Job 

Martha Heller writes about the CIO Paradox. She explains that CIOs say there are only two types of projects: business successes and IT failures. Somehow it seems that too frequently, IT becomes solely responsible for project execution and success. Sponsors and business executives don’t always consider their engagement on projects as a critical project success factor. It isn’t that we need executives to get burdened with project execution. But we do, on the other hand, want executives to understand that their support and commitment to projects is noticed by team members. When they stay connected and engaged, project team members feel that what they are working on is important. When executive commitment is low, project success takes longer and the results might still miss the mark. Teach executives the importance of their role with staying engaged in projects. Teach them that it is just as much a part of what they do, as it is IT’s job to execute the project details.  

5. Over the Wall Syndrome 

In every virtually company, someone is complaining that IT isn’t working on their projects. Here is the scenario: project requests are thrown over the wall to IT with little consideration for the business impact they bring (or don’t bring). One of the key jobs of a BRM is to help colleagues and peers understand their role in requesting projects. Show how coming prepared with top-line or bottom-line benefits improves the odds of securing a “yes” answer when it comes to funding. Teach them that this is their responsibility as a business leader. Explain that companies aren’t bottomless pits of cash and there is only so much available for project investments. The practical reality is that companies have finite resources and only the best ideas will get funded. So even if their idea has demonstrable top-line or bottom-line benefits, it will still have to compete for scarce resources against all the other great project proposals.

6. Investment Decision Process

It is frustrating for people outside of IT when they don’t understand how project investment decisions are made. One simple way to demystify the process is to make it transparent. Show the criteria used to vet new ideas. Reveal the business centric approach that is utilized and provide insight into the business criteria the company is looking for as they vet new ideas. I have used a simple scoring tool that shows the methodology. Below is an example of a scoring matrix that has done the job for me at many companies. Rate new investment candidates on a scale of 1 to 5. The end result is a ranked order of project impact that can be used for debate and discussion.

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7. Set It and Forget It 

Executives are rarely interested in routinely spending time discussing IT projects, or even IT, in general. Many business leaders still don’t understand IT, think it costs too much, and is just isn’t naturally included in their strategic thinking. One technique I have used over the years is perhaps a bit edgy: I guilt executives into paying attention. I tell them that they can’t b*tch, moan, and whine (BMW drive) about IT and yet not spend time reviewing IT progress. I challenge them by asking “If we cost so much, then isn’t it worth your time to spend 1hour per month – 12 hours per year- to review our progress on investments?” Typically, that is all it takes. You need to gauge your executive team – some will be satisfied with a bi-monthly or quarterly meeting. Take what they give you. Use the time wisely, share the top-line or bottom-line realities of the projects your team has undertaken. This is a perfect time to show the executive team how IT drives value. 

8. Chest of Secrets

Another challenge faced by IT is the “I Don’t Know What IT is Working On” syndrome. Turn it into an opportunity to shed light on the good work you are doing. In my book IT Business Partnerships: A Field Guide, I detail an Intranet idea where project information is shared openly across the company. I affectionately refer to the Intranet site as PNN (Project News Network). On the site, all the relevant information about active (strategic, operational, and information-based) projects is shared. This includes project plans, status reports, issues logs etc. By providing easy access to this information, you will open the IT chest of secrets and show the rest of the company that IT has an open door policy on all things IT. This too builds trust and confidence around the company. 

9. It Isn’t My Problem

Generally, IT isn’t working on projects just for the IT department. Most projects are being done in concert for another business unit. If you are working on a project for sales, marketing, finance or the supply chain, it stands to reason that you want both teams to have skin in the game on the project’s success. Reciprocal incentives get all parties involved in the process. Be forewarned however, partner business units will likely resist at first. For example, the sales team might say they have no way to influence project outcomes. This is an opportune time to point out that reciprocal incentives mean that IT will have sales success goals related to the project in its incentive plans even though IT staff members will feel they don’t have much influence on successful sales activities. In truth, you need each other to be successful. Pointing this out is usually all it takes for a progressive business leader to buy into reciprocal incentives. Incorporating project success in the sales team and conversely, including sales successes in the IT organization, is unifying and a core principal of mature partners. It is also a hallmark of converged IT and business organizations – the ones that outperform their competition.

10. The “Voice of the Customer” Myth 

Many business leaders miss the opportunity to see customers firsthand or hear them with their own ears. They rely too heavily on focus groups and surveys. They call this collection of input “the voice of the customer”. These are good tools, but in today’s customer-driven marketplace, in-person field research is the key to understanding customer engagement. Getting IT (in the form of business relationship managers, for example) out in the field is game-changing. It shows the execs that when IT gets plugged into field research, they find ways to knock down customer pain points, making it easier to do business with the company. Changing the perception to one that IT can and should play a key role in shaping customer engagement is a great way to break free from IT’s old school past. 

Summary 

For too long, leaders, inside and outside of IT, have allowed old school notions of the past to limit the results of cross-functional teams. Consider the misconceptions of the past and think through how you can tackle them, thereby rewriting the company script. When you do, I have no doubt you will help create a much higher performing IT organization that will ultimately grow the company. Do what I do: wake up every morning and think about what you can do to make a difference and change your reality. Remember that you can succeed despite your circumstances. Break free from the shackles of the past and chart a new path to success. Do me a favor; share your results and your favorite misconceptions. See you on the other side of the IT/C-suite chasm.

How do you work toward overcoming the past when it comes to the IT and the business struggle?

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Tags:  Think IT Members, IT Industry Trends, IT Leadership

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