It does not matter if the vendor is big or small, local or global, domain-centric or broad-based, custom-solutions developer or provides package implementation services, hardware products, or software licenses, or any kind of service provider. They all want you to believe that they all are worthy of being anointed as a preferred and trusted partner to your IT and business initiatives. Everyone without exception believes that they imbibe behaviors that qualify them for this elevated position.
Emergence of a new culture
I am not sure when the transition happened but sometime in the recent decade the term partner replaced the vendor or provider. I think people went back to basics in the early part of the millennium driven by the slowdown, started focusing on leveraging existing ones and building new relationships. Business was tough to come and choices plenty which is where people made the difference. This subtle transition eased into our way of working and no one objected to the new reality.
Today we have partners providing total outsourcing, specialized domain specific or business process outsourcing, desk side support, apart from the various categories listed above. Many of these who have put in their heart and blood into delivering products/ services, irrespective of the contract or commercial arrangement, are truly partners to a CIO and the enterprise; my respects to them. We also have partners providing toner cartridges, USB sticks, printing paper where price is typically the determinant factor!
An opportunity wasted
Recently a CIO friend narrated a story where she met a new vendor where the discussion started with the intent that we would like to be your partners in success and not keep it transactional. The CEO and the team downward demonstrated high passion and commitment at the discussion table. They got engaged in a few projects as a precursor to what could be bigger things and achieve the status of a trusted partner. With many vying for the same business, it was seen as a prestigious win.
The slip between intent and execution has many horror stories spread across the industry. Senior teams from vendors attempt to build relationships with the CIOs, the sales team works with the domain specialists and the next level, and the delivery team which typically has no connect with the process starts discussions with the project managers and the users of the proposed solutions. And that is what transpired here too; one project was delivered well enough, the other killed the relationship.
What appeared to be a dream run became a moon race with surprises all through the journey! The initial effort estimates did not fit the project reality; either the team who did the initial study did not understand the complexity and expectations or her inputs were ignored in the proposal. So there was an attempt to restrict scope to fit the resources allotted. That upset everyone involved; the CEO made a visit, so did others involved in the initial discussion. Much water had flowed and a dam was essential.
Restoring some sanity to the project with the vendor CEO approving the additional investment and some hit on the CIO’s side too, the project looked like being back on track; but that was a false positive. The lack of trust made success elusive; the potential partnership gained adversarial tones with each pinning the blame on the other. It took some effort to bring everyone to a common understanding and move ahead.
What do you say, partner?
Partnership is built over a period of time and is a function of delivering to promise consistently across the layers. It takes effort to sustain it and requires investments and transparency from everyone. Everyone hates escalations which result due to lack of communication and assumptions. In my experience I have found partnerships that have stood the travails of time when there is no gap in expectations on both sides. Sales transactions do not build partnership, they only address tactical need.
People with goals succeed because they know where they are going. This has never been so true in the current economic uncertainty; companies struggling for growth put their employees in peculiar situations. They are expected to deliver monthly and quarterly targets whereas the discussions are expected to be strategic and long term. This is challenging for the CIO and the IT team where typically projects do not last beyond a quarter (with agile exceptions) and investments require a 3-5 year horizon.
Mismatch in expectations
When I met with the management team of a large enterprise vendor selling applications and technology solutions, there was a paradoxical discussion on my long-term needs and their short-term requirements. They wanted me to present the Business and IT roadmap for the next 3 years and initiatives where technology was a critical component, which I did leading to discussions on technologies and partner solutions that would become projects in the future. They had their team and many partners listen in.
The sales team and some of the leaders from partner companies wanted to know who they should connect with in my team and when they can come over for a detailed discussion. They came in different avatars, confident, cocky, arrogant, tentative, all types made up the discussions on the possibilities. I intuitively liked some, was intrigued by a few and did not see value in the rest keeping in mind my priorities. Their interest was to strike at the opportunity and if they can meet their monthly or quarterly targets.
I don’t mind helping when I can, however, the gap between the talk and the walk was evident. How can a discussion at two different planes be aligned and create value? My timeline was not aligned to their urgency to sell. So I advised them, which some took in the right spirit while a few found it difficult to accept that I did not want their solution / technology. They espoused the efficiency, potential saving, the best in class nature of their wares showing incredulous surprise that I was rejecting their pitch.
How to align visions
How do we align expectations that all stakeholders have the same shared vision of the future and the direction being taken? What should CIOs do to set the groundwork? It is a difficult discussion in many cases with hierarchical selling that puts pressure on the CIO while s/he has to balance the set of internal priorities and needs. Balancing tactical with the strategic is a fine skill that very few are adept at. To have a bird’s eye view with ability to pick the target like an eagle separates the good from the best.
The best option
I have found that in most cases plain speak is the best option; be upfront with what are your priorities, what you need, how you will evaluate the options across different vendors; essentially what is the decision making criteria and the timeline, who will be involved etc. you get the point. Most vendors find this transparency a great starting point and they are willing to work with you. There will be exceptions when they try despite the open communication; they need to be managed with a firm hand.
So coming back to the discussion that transpired; it took some effort to not get upset with the blatant disregard for the stated intent and objectives. I could finally prevail upon the recalcitrant vendors to align to my priorities and reality. Over a drink later in the evening there was camaraderie between us and everyone acknowledged the candidness though they had found it difficult. Does it mean that CIOs do not always do this or vendors need to learn how to listen better?
Year after year enterprises engage in an exercise that is like a well-orchestrated dance of corporate executives, each playing their best role and they have to collectively also look good to the audience. Interestingly the audience is the executives themselves, the Orchestra Master (CEO) and Board of Directors who ask for changes to the storyline or approve the end result. At a broader level successful execution played to the stock market and analysts acknowledges work well done.
Like in an orchestra an ill tuned instrument can strike a discordant note, the collective sum of efforts needs complete alignment for an enterprise to work at as close as possible to its optimal level. This applies to the planning process as much as to the execution. Undercurrents during the planning process if ignored will come back to haunt the team during execution. All this is common sense, nothing new here, but we still continue to self-impose challenges and then find complicated solutions.
The silly season
Every year, give or take a few weeks, this is the time when the next year’s budgets are approved for most companies. The process begins many months earlier and after multiple rounds of discussions and negotiations, the final budget is presented by either the entire management team or select few (read CEO, CFO and maybe the CMO) to the Board. As boards have to “add value” they challenge the collective wisdom and either inflate the top-line or bottom-line or both or cut costs leaving the team perplexed or so it seems.
We all learn the game fast and keep buffers in the budgets for such eventualities. We offer the token protest and accept the fait accompli moving on with life. It is funny that this repeats itself in every department, company and everyone goes through the charade almost unthinkingly. The process leading into the D-day and thereafter is notable. But there are many who are challenged; let me reveal a few scenarios based on some direct, incidental and anecdotal data.
Budget planning is typically a function of planned capital investments and operating expenses. Most companies are CAPEX unfriendly and there is always pressure to reduce operating expense. For the CIO the two edged sword draws blood by moving hardware and licensing to operating expense and then the CFO wants to cut OPEX. Finance and/or business friendly CIOs know how to manage this, others struggle to keep their heads above water until one of the powerful CXOs throws them a lifeline.
Post “rationalization” by the Board, the situation gets even more interesting. Now that everyone has been given a say 15% operating budget cut, the un-buffered and bewildered CIO struggles to stay afloat. A frustrated CIO once commented, where do I cut without impacting service levels? I cannot go short on licenses, nor on bandwidth, and service providers want inflationary increase, AMC needs to be paid, travel and training are already down; do I go to the CEO, or CFO, or better the Board with a begging bowl?
In jest or otherwise the remark portrays the helplessness felt by many and not just the CIO. Is there a way out? There is if everyone went back to basics and stopped predicting the future based on the past and making unrealistic projections on what the business will be next year. It would help if all functions worked the budget together acknowledging dependencies for success rather than in silos. It is then up to the CEO to play the galleries or stand firm ground with the Board when s/he represents the team’s collective effort.
Where would you draw a line as the CIO/CEO? Will you accept the cuts? How will you ensure that realistically the company has enough cushion to react to market and competitive moves or the black swans that seem to be common now? Will you put your neck out for the team? I have always gone into a meeting with the maxim that budget is an intent to spend; we collectively determine the spend and own it up irrespective of which head or bucket it sits in. There are limits to cutting cost, let’s focus on the customer and how we can increase revenue. That is a better discussion!
I had heard this term a long time back and then forgot about it; in those days my team was small and the activity largely technical. I wore professional pride on my sleeve proclaiming that I could solve any technical problem, well, almost any problem, within the many technology domains that I specialized in. So whenever the team threw a crooked one at me, I would get my hands dirty and triumphantly bring out the solution. Many CIOs would refer to that era as ‘the good old days’, in reflection, I wonder.
As teams got bigger and the focus shifted towards learning the business ropes across functions, the technology prowess diminished and I started farming the problems to either my team mates who were passionate about technology or vendors who were always happy to help; however, partaking in their success still gave me highs. Time pressures ensured that these moments became far and fewer until I realized how easily I was goaded into taking on a challenge to find a solution, faster, cheaper, better!
Whose problem is it?
I became wary of opening conversation lines, “We have a problem …” We? But you just walked into my cubicle/ cabin and we still have not exchanged pleasantries, so where did I fit into the equation? You have a problem and you want my help in solving it would probably describe the situation aptly. You believe that my superior knowledge or problem solving ability or network of contacts could help resolve the sticky situation in which you find yourself. Such conversations were not always pleasant; my ego, however, needed the massaging.
And then about a decade back or so it hit me that I was the perfect dummy being subject to upward delegation. My entertaining the protagonists gave them an opportunity with a few words to transfer the responsibility squarely onto my shoulders. With me telling them that I will get back to them, they did not have to work upon it. If deadlines were missed, it was my problem; if the problem was escalated, it was back to my table where the buck lay and I had no way of passing it back to the originator.
Reading through Ken Blanchard’s One Minute Manager Meets The Monkey had my life run before my eyes. That and learning from another management guru gave me the mantra that finally extracted me out of the self-created abyss. I tried practicing the techniques I had learnt from these wonderful texts and guess what? They worked very well indeed. They have now become a part of my working style and I guess that will continue to keep monkeys at bay.
The new approach
It would appear simplistic if I said that the dialogue now starts with, “You have a problem … and what do you propose as a solution? If you are at a dead end, here are the resources that should help you find solutions. Come back within the agreed timeline and we can discuss your recommendations on how to solve the problem”. I am not oversimplifying the issue, this works almost all the time; yes, there are exceptions or tricky ones which need a different and more direct approach.
“It does not require two (or more, if the issue is brought by a team) of us to solve a problem or get something done. Either you (find a way to) do it or give up the task and let me find someone more qualified to get the work done. I have not had anyone take up the latter offer as yet. They typically do find a way to solve the problem. It is not necessarily incompetence that gets them to this situation, occasionally it is laziness and many times their risk-averse nature (fear of failure or ridicule).
Upward delegation is easy for everyone when their manager/ function head lives in professional pride and arrogance. The true CIO leaders would do well to abstain and learn the art of monkey management. Be aware and careful in your retaining the problem with you, lest it consume you and a large portion of your time. Even if it gave you a kick or a high, it would be a very expensive way to solve something trivial for the company.
This is the third part of the series on improper selling-tactics adopted by vendors while engaging with the CIO. Read the second part, How to accept a ‘No’ and the first part: Stop Selling. Also read: ‘How should vendors engage with CIOs?’
The number of people who associated with the behaviors I wrote about in ‘Stop Selling‘ brought home the realization that the nemesis is a lot more widespread than I thought. Even more interesting part is the longevity of the issue; a few readers reminisced their younger days ranging from a few years to a few decades when they behaved like that. It would appear that learning on selling IT has not evolved in the last few decades while the roles of the buyers have.
Every encounter in recent times across multiple vendors selling diverse range of products and services demonstrates consistency. In a competitive industry where decisions are not just based on price but also on quality of service or product, the difficulty faced by the decision makers and the CIO is to give a clear and unambiguous decision. Vendors need to learn to accept clear communication and respect the decisions conveyed to them. Eons back, having spent some time in sales, I know it is difficult to accept a loss of sale.
When you have spent a long time in the decision making role, relationships between CIOs and Tech Company CEOs are formed. These are leveraged on both sides in difficult times and also to pitch for a good deal or going beyond the contractual obligations. The alignment of objectives creates win-win situations and builds healthy respect between individuals and companies. Conflict arises when multiple relationships vie for the same business and their attempt to leverage this with the team and the CIO.
In Business-to-business engagements, hierarchical selling is practiced by every company. Engagements start with Account Managers talking to IT teams defining the solution, the discussion progresses to involve layers upward until the CIO and someone senior (VP, SVP, BU Head, CEO) agree and sign off endorsing the deal. Companies that do not get the deal make desperate and largely futile attempts to influence the outcome. I am not against this, however, when a company overdoes it not willing to accept the verdict, they get the CIO’s irritation and look like bad losers.
More than 5 years back a company had me talk to their sales team on “What CIOs want” or “Selling to the CIO”. I repeated this discussion with many large and small companies over the years with good results acknowledged by the attendees. Recently I had multiple meetings with leaders from the same company who could not accept that the decision had gone in favor of a competitor. Somewhere along the way with attrition the learning withered away. Or is it pressure of difficult times?
I believe that for things to change collectively we all have to work together; the CIO will have to be consistent in the way they give the message of success or lack of it. Transparency in evaluation, engagement and stating decision making criteria upfront will create a better platform for everyone. Complementing this, the vendors need to not rue over one transaction that did not go their way and work towards bouncing back such that relationships do not feel the strain.
Let me share an anecdote: An Account Manager desirous of his CEO meet the CIO tries to schedule a meeting based on his CEO’s calendar. Attempting to influence the CIO’s Assistant he brushes aside protests on the CIOs unavailability on the proposed time. He pushes her to reschedule other appointments to accommodate his CEO. When that does not work, he calls the CIO to meet the CEO while the CIO is in the general area where the vendor office is located. Even when the CIO declines, he insists and goes ahead. When the CIO does not turn up, he chides the CIO to say he cut a sorry figure with his CEO. No guesses on where this relationship will end up!
Research Analysts from the industry keep finding excuses to put the CIO down; I have no idea which set of CIOs are on their panel or the ones they interview or poll for various reports that they publish. The data is not available to the audience who may want to challenge the conclusions. These reports almost always end up portraying the CIO in negative light. The effect that these “respected” industry analysts have on me is similar to the red flag in front of a bull and I end up taking the bait almost every time.
The CIO’s role is going to disappear; the CIO now has to depend on the CFO for approval of every spend or investment; the CMO is taking away a significant part of the IT budget; the future of the CIO is uncertain; the CIO has not evolved to becoming a business leader; the CIO cannot become the CEO; the CIO rarely gets a place on the management table; the CIO is being relegated to the back office; the CIO needs to give up being a hardware hugging IT manager. You get the point, I got high blood pressure!
In a recent conversation with one such analyst, he joked with the gathered CIOs that they seem to be getting themselves a new meaning to the acronym; he started describing his recent encounter where the CIOs were mortally afraid of letting go their infrastructure (hardware hugging CIOs to use his words). Maybe he made it up, maybe it was true, we couldn’t fathom, a few CIOs surrounding him were red and pink, waiting for someone to challenge him. Questioning did not reveal their location, industry or size of company.
Rechristening the CIO as Chief Insecure Officer, he stated that the CIO in the changing environment should be worried about his/her existence in the future. With the cloud becoming pervasive, the purchase power stands diminished; the licensing is being discussed with business teams he postulated. The CIO has to keep things running he concluded. My reality being different also echoed by most that I know, there was a clear disconnect to his qualified remarks.
What causes this situation? I believe that it is due to the fact that many CIOs are unable to discuss specifics of the initiatives they are driving for confidentiality reasons. That would be giving away the strategies driving business or profitability growth which would be counterproductive with competitive advantage being lost. It is also that most companies have stringent norms on who speaks to press and the level of disclosure allowed. Whatever the reason, the analysts infer what is convenient for them and what makes headlines.
Is it time to unshackle the CIO to provide a better understanding of their contributions and their leadership? The marquee-CIOs have been empowered by their enterprises and they are making headlines with case studies and speaking in various forums. That does not necessarily imply that the rest are not contributing albeit silently. Either way it is time to stand up and not be cowered by the statistical data thrown at us by the industry analysts.
There may be regional and industry-imposed differences across geographies on the role of the CIO; those pale on the face of the fact that almost every company today draws its operational and strategic advantage on the foundation of IT. The critics will attempt to undermine the borderline cases and sometimes also cast aspersions on the better ones; the CIO has a choice to take them as distractions or be influenced by them. Go ahead and make your choices and carry on the great work that only you can.
Jalebi is an Indian sweet (dessert) extremely popular in the northern part of the country though now available internationally in Indian restaurants. It has a complex circular structure; these photos represent what a Jalebi can look like. In recent times, Jalebi was made famous by a Bollywood actress with the character named Jalebi bai. I have always been fond of Jalebi though in recent times have reduced my indulgence.
The CIO had great expectations when meeting the team from the most popular tablet vendor in the world who were pitching for an innovative solution. The large team comprising tab vendor, sales partner, and solution provider looked brazenly confident and rightly so considering the aspirational value of their product. Rarely were they in situations where they had to discuss the merits and advantages of their device; everyone justified internally why they wanted their solution and they just made truckloads of money.
The internal customers were already sold on the device not the solution despite its shortcomings for the specific business need which required significant internal change. The business head had been aligned to the device (not the solution) and the meeting was expected to be a cakewalk. Despite the iconic nature of the device, the technical team was wary going into the meeting; not many enterprises had deployed on the scale that was envisaged and in challenging environmental conditions.
The meeting started well with a summary of the proposed solution, similar deployment in developed markets though on a smaller scale and how they can change the way business is done. The technical lead started asking a few questions which the vendor team tried to brush aside. He persisted as the support burden would fall upon him and he had to be sure. With amazing clarity of thought he laid down the questions that would determine the fate of the project in the long-term.
The vendor sales head started to justify the value proposition by talking about how the device has gained popularity globally and caught the imagination of the consumer. Their dominant market share is a validation of how well their device works. The number of solutions available on the device outnumbers all other competitors put together. They have been continuously innovating on making a better device. He went on and on, on the merits of the hardware sidestepping the pointed questions.
The discussion was going nowhere so the CIO intervened and sought specific answers to the specific questions. He clarified that the decision was contingent on the ability of the overall solution including the device to work as expected. If there are no workarounds or ready solutions, then they will have to explore alternatives. The long stories cut no ice; come straight to the point and stop going round in circles. After moments of silence, the meeting proceeded to its logical conclusion quickly.
In the post meeting debrief, many in the room almost in unison associated the past hour spent to the vendor making Jalebi. He avoided giving straight answers to most questions, instead, preferred to remain vague in his responses. Any love for the vendor by association to the device soon evaporated leaving everyone impatient to get over with the charade. Business does not and cannot accept the nebulous and imprecise when working to solve a determinate problem.
With tolerance levels reducing and options increasing to solve real business problems, vendors have their task cut out for them; the business and the IT teams are working collaboratively to arrive at solutions. The discussion is focused on what matters, the scenario is the same internally too; no more beating around the bush or running around trees. The Jalebi is great to eat not considering the calories it adds; go on a diet, keep it away from the meeting room.
This is the second part of the series of articles on the improper selling-tactics adopted by IT vendors while engaging with the CIOs. Read the first part, ‘Stop Selling!’. Also read: ‘How should vendors engage with CIOs?‘
The solution expert across the table looked crestfallen; his manager besides him attempted to calm his frayed nerves while the account manager to his right did not know where to look. The CIO had advised them that the solution was not relevant to his future needs and the discussion was over. Breaking the uncomfortable silence, the manager sought to find a silver lining in the cloud, a sliver of hope that there may be a faint opportunity in the future? Firmly declined the CIO; then things started going out of hand!
The starting point of the meeting was the aspiration of the incumbent solution provider to retain the customer who had decided to move to a competing solution. Over the years that the company had been using the solution, the relationship was managed by vendors’ partners with the principle staying hands off. Challenges with the implementation and support were largely managed by the partner. As the company started feeling the pinch of a suboptimal deployment and support, they sought alternatives.
The alternative solution was not really an alternative but an industry leader with now a dominant local and global market share. After multiple futile attempts to reach across the teams of the incumbent provider, the CIO gave up and started working with layers of his enterprise to gain their support for a disruptive transformation and go with the market leading solution. As the news reached the incumbent, their leaders started arriving in droves to rescue the situation; this was one such meeting.
Unwilling to accepting “No” to his plea, the expert started challenging the decision, making criteria stating his solution was as good if not better than the competing product which had a higher TCO (Total Cost of Ownership). While the number of customers today may be lower, the new upcoming product would compete head on. All other things being equal, why did the CIO not get this? Why was he insistent on going with the other expensive solution with significantly higher license and implementation costs?
The exasperated CIO raised his voice a notch and stated that ROI and TCO were not the primary factors for the decision; the company had lost faith in the incumbent solution and the vendors’ ability to support the new business requirements. The company needed a better and globally accepted solution. Their solution has not found favor within the industry after so many years and neither has the vendor engaged with the company in a way that induces confidence; so no point continuing the discussion.
Desperation defying logic, the red in the face expert could not face the ignominy and wanted to know what he or his company could do to retain the business. How can he prevent the entry of the competing product and solution? He was now clutching invisible straws. The account manager wished the earth would swallow him, while the boss-man tried to pacify the agitated expert. The amused CIO simply said, “I don’t have to answer your questions; this meeting is over” and walked out of the room.
Selling is an art as much as a science. Peter Drucker postulated: “A customer never buys what we sell”. The transaction completes when the need to sell is aligned to a need to buy. In the absence of a balanced equation, the relationship sits on a weak foundation; then the possibility of successful execution is reduced leaving everyone vulnerable. Unfortunately an open dialogue is rarely understood or appreciated today in our target pressures driven by monthly, quarterly, or annual budgets.
I believe that vendors should learn to accept “No” as much as they like to hear good news. Every time every one cannot get a favorable deal; someone will be deprived of success. Don’t push beyond the break point, lest you end up compromising relationships. The CIO too should not be swayed by these tactics, pressure from other CXOs, or end-of-season sale kind of deals. The relationship is based on demand and supply as much as on trust and respect. Any change in the equation will have an impact.
Last week I was at a panel discussion organized by one of the large global IT conference producers, the subject of the debate, “Creating Leaders”; the panelists some CIOs and some aspiring ones. It was a great interaction between the panelists and the audience; everyone had questions and everyone also had answers based on their experiences. The best parts of the session were the stories as illustrations and examples of what works; stories are always memorable (See: The Story Teller CIO).
Everyone has their definition and opinion on what constitutes leadership and its development; the CIOs talked about the skills they look for in their teams to pick high potential performers. The key tenets were collaboration, empathy, articulation, communication, relationship building, partnering, business savvy, domain expertise, and attitude. No one talked about technology, educational qualifications or certifications; no longer critical once you are in the reckoning for the top job, these are a given.
On the other hand, the aspirers wanted feedback, coaching, freedom to take decisions, allowing them to fail, engage with business independently. They wanted to work with the CIO and on represent the CIO in business meetings. In essence, they wanted to get to the chair quicker than the CIOs believed they can. A healthy competitive spirit with young blood that makes you feel good; of course, with practiced restraint where required; failing fast is not equal to failing frequently said one wise CIO.
The surprise came from the audience when one of the CIOs who had evolved from the business made a point to the speakers on the dais and the audience. He talked about the professional expertise that came in the way of good going to great. The dialogue between the young turks and the business folks takes shades of impatience and arrogance; “you don’t understand, let me tell you how, here’s the solution and it’s so obvious …” it creates polarization separating IT, business, and vendors.
He berated the I-factor driven by T with the IT teams and stated that the when IT teams talk about them versus the rest, it creates an invisible rift between the stakeholders. He mooted the idea that IT should stop working with the “I” (me and myself) and start thinking in “we” terms which improves the possibility of success with shared goals and objectives. Each person on the table represents different skills and dimensions of the problem and solution; it is not possible to work without any and achieve the same success.
Everyone was numbed into silence for a moment and then spontaneously the room burst into applause; I do not do justice to his eloquence or story telling here, it touched a part of everyone in the room. Reciting from ancient scriptures and connecting to the current IT context, he implored the collective to shed ego and success will follow. Having created magic in minutes he took his seat and the conversation continued from where it had left off strongly influenced by the sentiment suspended in the air.
The power of success weaved into a story always creates positive energy; the message clear and crisp, the actions unambiguous, the leadership lesson complete, the panel concluded. As I left the stage only to be surrounded by some to seek personal advice, the thought at the back of the mind lingered on; what can I do to transform my team to We(T). We Team is better than I Team or IT; I need to tell this story to my team on what we will do differently. Quick, you too do that before the moment is lost!
A sparse gathering of smart people in a small room were discussing an important business hoping to change the outcome in their respective circles of influence. These were seasoned players in industries big and small across diverse geographies and line of business. It was crowdsourcing at its best and that gave rise to the expectation that the problem will indeed find itself vanquished. No, I was not the fly on the wall or a passive listener; I was called in to moderate the discussion.
When I joined the group, they had already listed down the facts and figures about the rate of success that they had captured from published research as well as search engines. Anecdotal references were discarded focusing on empirical data and reference case studies. They had also listed down challenges and issues based on their real life experiences. The consistent and clearly emerging message was how to get Business back into BI, while the “I” actually stands for Intelligence and not Ignorance.
How buy-in happens
One of the discussion threads went something like this: the CEO needed quick reports and analysis of business with the ability to drill down; he also expected the ability to slice-dice the data. The business head wanted control over her team and did not want the CEO poking his big nose. IT simply wanted to buy the best tools since they did not have control over the environmental and political factors. The CEO in a social meeting was sold on the merits of a frightfully expensive platform and that was that.
The tool was bought, the wish-list generated across different stakeholders top down, the scope defined and captured by the principal vendor, and the execution outsourced. The requirements were skewed in favor of reports and very few dashboards or analytical cubes and that was deemed okay; everyone agreed that the phase two will cover the rest. So with a lot of fanfare the project got started and everyone believed that the future holds a lot of promise.
The impact on the stakeholders?
Through the discussion no one challenged the ask, no one sought to understand the impact of the multitude of reports on the stakeholders, no one challenged as to why the operational staff was not in the room to define what they wanted. The executives in the room blissfully proposed the metrics and data that others should be seeing, reality being far removed from the proposals. The few dashboards that were to be consumed by the CXOs changed shape based on assumptions of what they would like.
Running through the discussion I realized that this specific case had all the ingredients across the various representatives, so the solution could be broad-based to apply across. Good news is that it was not a technology project considering initial active participation from the business, however, they had disappeared post initial discussions leaving the baby with the vendor and the IT team. With the sketchy picture the solution was unwieldy and unusable across the layers of management and operational staff.
Back to basics
My submission to the team was to go back to basics and start asking some tough questions and not to proceed if the answers were not up to the mark. Their lack of enthusiasm depicted their unwillingness and inability; with some persuasion they agreed to plunge ahead. As we discussed the questions and the approach their eyes gained the missing spark; the conclusions were agreeable to all present as the best way forward. Here’s a synopsis; report is used as a representation, it could be a dashboard or cube too.
1. Why do you want this report?
2. How do you get this information today?
3. Who else could benefit from it?
4. What will change for you after you get it?
5. Which personal, group or company KPI (e.g. customer, employee, revenue, profitability) does it relate to? How?
As we closed the meeting, I realized that earlier some of these questions had got me into trouble from which I could extricate myself from with some effort. The project was however declared a great success and a case study by the company, vendor and the industry.
I believe that it is a better place to be; ignorance to intelligence is a difficult journey. Educate the business; don’t get bullied into accepting inane requests for reports that can be fulfilled by transactional systems. Someone has to drive it, why not you?