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Get IT Involved Early

Tuesday, September 22nd, 2009

Here’s a quick one-question quiz that will indicate how effective your company is at rolling out projects with a technology component. And these days, are there really any others?

A. We know what we want. We brainstorm in our department and with other business units. Then we write up a plan and schedule a meeting with IT to turn it over to them to build.

B. We make sure to cc: the CIO (or CTO, lead developer, etc.) as we develop our new products. That way we keep him in the loop so we know IT is represented in the process.

If you answered “A” your company works like a lot of others. Projects get done. (You’d be out of business if they didn’t, right?) But many projects take longer than they should and I’m sure you’re frustrated by the process. If it’s any consolation, the folks in IT are just as frustrated.

If your answer was “B” you’re in better shape, but really only marginally.

The best approach (sorry, I know there was no “C” above, that’s the nature of trick questions) is to have someone from IT – in fact, someone from every stakeholder group – involved from the start.

Projects always go more smoothly and have a better chance of success when all voices are heard. There’s lots of research out there supporting this. And people who are engaged in the process bring greater creativity to bear on finding answers. If you start by assuming that everyone wants the company to succeed, then why not open up the brainstorming and planning to more people. In this case, especially IT.

“But IT always just picks holes in our plan. They tell us it won’t work or it’ll take too long to build. And they don’t understand the business the way we do.”

Bridging the IT-Business Divide

This is part of the not-uncommon disconnect between IT and other departments – often Marketing and Sales, who tend to drive product development. It’s something a good CIO can help to overcome – by making it a point to stay on top of what’s being planned, by involvement in developing corporate strategy, and by helping other departments know what IT’s doing. There may be other projects under way that could dovetail with yours – an opportunity to enhance both.

Trust me, IT doesn’t enjoy saying “no” any more than you enjoy hearing it. No one likes to say “no” all the time, to rain on everyone’s parade. But you may have left them no choice. You’ve put together a plan for the next great web site feature. But what if it’s not technically feasible? What can IT do except point that out? It’s all downhill from there. On the other hand, if the tech folks are invited to participate early, they’ll be more likely to point out creative solutions. Again, that should be a broad invitation: Don’t forget Finance, Customer Service – even customers can provide valuable and creative ideas.

The next time you’re sitting down to start whiteboarding, invite IT – and everyone else with something to add.

Prisoners of Where We’ve Been

Tuesday, September 30th, 2008

 

While reading one of the many articles about the upheaval in the financial system, I was struck by how Lehman Brothers went bankrupt and Merrill Lynch survived to be acquired, and how a key distinction was the CEOs’ perspectives as a long-time insider (Lehman) vs. a new outsider (Merrill).

 

Albert Einstein is often quoted as saying, “The significant problems we have cannot be solved at the same level of thinking with which we create them.” There are many issues at play in the financial crisis, however the examples of Lehman Brothers and Merrill Lynch illustrate that the “same level of thinking” also can not only keep you from solving the problem, it can keep you from seeing its significance.

 

It’s important for leaders to look outside their own experience and their companies’ own experience, by seeking the input and ideas of their stakeholders – employees, customers, shareholders, etc.

 

Richard Fuld Jr., the CEO of Lehman Brothers, started at the firm as an intern in 1966 and has run it since 1994. The New York Times (Sept. 20) describes him as “a classic Wall Street trader — taking big risks, reaping huge rewards, exuding intensity and demanding loyalty.” Fuld’s “defiance and independence” and view of business as usual, said the Times, led him to misjudge the severity of the crisis and delay seeking a capital infusion.

 

John Thain took the helm of Merrill Lynch last October after the company’s former CEO was forced out. Thain spent his career at Goldman Sachs and the New York Stock Exchange before he was brought in to help Merrill sort itself out after reporting billions in losses, the first step of which was to raise money. He also made a point of reassuring investors, according to the Times, that “We’ve got fresh eyes on these problems, and we’re not wedded to believing this company has done everything right for years.”

 

“We are all prisoners of where we have been. The longer you are attached to a place, the harder it is to see it without rose-colored glasses,” says James D. Cox, professor at Duke University School of Law.

 

So how can we avoid the rose-colored glasses?

 

Create a culture of communication and accountability.

 

Start by making sure everyone in the organization has a clear understanding of its strategy, give them a clear vision of success and clear goals, and give them the skills they need. Then set them loose to find ways to get there, and be open to anyone in the company who raises a flag when things change. How? Reshape the organization if necessary and give them incentives based on the company’s performance.

 

For that matter, be open to those outside the company.  Stakeholders need to have a place at the table, or at least have input. Include customers in planning large initiatives that could affect them.

 

Here are a couple phrases you should be alert to. If you hear them in your organization, an alarm should go off telling you that the organization’s radar is malfunctioning: 

  • “We’ve always done it this way.”
  • “We know better than anyone else.”
  • “We don’t need anybody’s help.”
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