Last week when I wrote about selling projects, there was a flurry of responses on what is wrong with the overall approach proposed; according to many, I painted a picture of a CIO who is subservient to business and not proactive in his/her approach to creating change and transformation using IT. Some were of the view that if the CIO does not sell, it will lead to CXOs creating a shadow IT organization which will be available at beck and call to do their demand thereby side lining the CIO.
I met with a senior IT leader who postulated that the “order taking” CIO will not find success as s/he is waiting for the business to define what they want. Most of the time business does not know what they want and in such a situation there will be little progress and lot of dialogue and frustration. According to him the business friendly CIO will explore opportunities and propose the solution to what business may desire and then deliver a solution. He summed up with “know your customer and the industry and get deep into the business.”
I do not disagree with him on knowing the business or proposing a solution; I disagree with the statement that business does not know what they want. Often they presume that lack of technology knowledge creates a gap in how they need to define the business problem. They do need help in articulating the problem statement such that it clearly states the market, the process and the outcomes. It is imperative that the ownership stays with the business stakeholders lest it become an IT project.
A friend and CEO of a mid-sized company joined the discussion on what should be the terms of reference and engagement between IT and business. He is known to be “IT friendly” and good customer who uses IT effectively. He acknowledged his inability to provide a well-defined problem statement that can be translated into a system. So I probed further to give an example of what he implied. He warmed up and started talking about his current situation and his information needs.
The company was entering a new market and with commencement of commercial operations needed systems to enable the business. Local regulations being tough and demanding, the competition fierce, the CEO needed end to end visibility across the supply chain and customers while addressing the needs of the regulators. He defined the need, the growth, and the ecosystem going on to say that he had no clue what IT systems will solve the problem while throwing some available options from experience.
To me the problem definition was quite clear and so was his information needs. The point is that the questions you ask will determine what you get. We did not discuss any technology options; neither did we get into details of hosted, cloud, or solution options. Clarifying some of the finer nuances it was clear that he was at ease on my overall understanding of the need. I then turned to the CIO and signaled that despite the starting point where the CEO stated he did not know what he wanted, he actually did.
When you meet business leaders, what is the approach? Do you probe based on your knowledge of the situation or do you expect the business to come up with a formal requirement document? Is it a discussion or is it a template given to the business to fill and define what they want? What kind of engagement model do you practice? For any discussion to be fruitful, involved stakeholders have to have a common ground and assumptions to make sense. I don’t know what I don’t know, let’s collaborate.
The answers you get is a function of the questions you ask; if you start with “What reports you want”, that’s what you will get without the background context. If you ask only about the process, you will hear that; take a detached and a connected view simultaneously to get the information required. You will be surprised at the insights you can garner. I believe that CIOs and the IT teams need to be trained on how to ask the right questions; and that is also a function of how well you know the business.