Three Tips to Help IT Become a Strategic Partner to the Business
Bill Hoberecht - This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
Why do so many business leaders complain about IT?  Business Units leaders and Product Managers seem to have no shortage of legitimate criticisms of IT.  Those projects that do finish take too long and cost too much, some projects never even get started and serious business needs sometimes take months for IT to address.  IT leaders, Scrum Masters, Product Owners and Project Managers: here are three tips that can get your teams focused on the customer, deliver what is needed, and strengthen your partnership with the business.
Shortly after assuming responsibilities as Senior Director of software development, I scheduled introductory meetings with my primary customers (business units within the company).  The very first meeting illuminated a frustration that I suspect many IT customers feel.  Immediately following the amiable pre-meeting introductions, one business leader took the floor with some intense feedback on my software team - they were disappointed in lengthy project durations and the growing backlog of projects.  IT delivery performance was having a negative impact on business operations.
It was clear that the basics of managing of program management (e.g., a suitable intake process, regular status reporting, a published portfolio of active projects) could use some improvement, but that probably wouldn't have been enough.
Here are three tips that we implemented, with excellent effect.

Deliver Frequently on a Set Cadence

Frequent deliveries of value-added capabilities can help IT build credibility with the business on its ability to delivery.  Having just a few deliveries a year might seem better and less disruptive to business operations, but this strategy relies on flawless IT execution each time.  There aren't many opportunities to recover the credibility lost with one botched delivery.  It also counts on customers having a positive recollection of your deliveries in the distant past.
With frequent deliveries the risk of delivery failure is diminished, and you have many opportunities to build (or recover) credibility.  Imagine that IT has successfully delivered 10 monthly releases into production.  Then comes a release that has problems.  Chances are that the business has confidence, built up over the past 10 months, in IT.  And once this troubled release is resolved, IT has a chance to shine again in just a few weeks.  Business leaders likely wouldn't be as confident in IT if releases came out only a few times a year, and their disappointment would live for many months until the next release arrives.
A fixed delivery cadence can help avoid disrupting business operations.  Ad hoc release dates can be disruptive to a business that wasn't expecting a change in their systems.  With a fixed schedule of releases, IT and the business units can implement effective communication, training and support processes that are known to everyone impacted by new releases.

Focus on the Business in Substantive Interactions

For many IT leaders, the sole reason for meeting with their counterparts is to review IT projects.  While this agenda is important, this limited scope of interaction serves to constrain IT's potential for helping the business.
Far more valuable are discussions on the business unit's strategy, goals, initiatives, operational pain points and more.  With this breadth and depth of insights into the business, IT has valuable information it can use in effectively co-managing (with the business) a project portfolio.
Taking IT and business leader interaction to the next level, IT can become an effective a partner by participating in business-focused meetings (e.g., business leadership meetings, operational reviews and strategy planning).

Experience the Business

I'm a proponent of job shadowing front line staff that uses IT systems - these activities always deepen IT's understanding of the operational environment and how their system is being used.  Shadowing almost always surface important tactical suggestions about IT systems and provides a chance to look for automation opportunities.
Because this shadowing isn't a common activity, it should be set up to eliminate fear ("Why are you shadowing me, am I in trouble?") and manage expectations ("If I tell you a complaint, when will you fix it?").
Within IT I've set this up with a goal on the total number of quarterly shadowing activities for the department, a requirement for sharing insights in a departmental Blog Post and a method of getting ideas into the intake pipeline.

Closing Thoughts and Next Steps

IT leaders and PMO leaders all want to be considered strategic partners of their business counterparts.  Trouble is, much of the IT/Business dialogue is still centered on IT projects, rather than on business strategy, operations and pain points.  Perhaps the three tips in this article seem beneficial for you.  Here's how to get started:

  • Moving to frequent releases on a set scheduled is a major change for an organization.  Fortunately, there is an abundance of sound information about methods that accomplish this goal - here's information about Scrum, my preferred method.
  • Becoming more tightly integrated with business leadership can be a huge task.  I recommend starting small, by expanding the agenda of meetings (that you are already having about IT projects) to also include a business segment.
  • If your business counterpart is opening to shadowing activities, then I recommend serving as an example by conducting the first one or two job shadowing activities including publishing a short write up with your gained insights.

I wish you the best in building a stronger partnership between IT and business leaders.  If you have other tips or experiences in building a strong IT/Business partnership, I hope you'll let me know.