Anyone who’s been in IT for more than five minutes knows that IT teams are constantly being tasked with doing more faster and cheaper with resources that are already stretched thin. There’s no denying that it can be daunting for in-house IT departments and their leaders to take on even more responsibility these days.
But let’s look at this situation from a different point of view. What, at first, may seem like a request to do more as in, take on more work—could actually be a call for IT to make a greater impact on how an organization does business and achieves results. And that’s where a seemingly insurmountable challenge becomes an actual opportunity. One that empowers IT to expand its footprint within the larger organization, actively influence important business decisions, and apply technical solutions to positively affect a company’s bottom line. In short, to deliver actual business value.
So how can IT professionals transition from being viewed as overworked (and ironically underutilized) order-takers that apply quick fixes to whatever the problem of the day is, to being more appropriately recognized as valuable business partners and effective change-makers? By stopping the cycle of constantly trying to solve for X and instead focusing on solving for why. Or, more specifically, refraining from simply agreeing to provide a solution or tool that’s requested without fully understanding the business reason behind it: the why.
Understand the Power of Why
Those familiar with Simon Sinek’s popular TED Talk “How Great Leaders Inspire Action” will understand his concept of the Golden Circle. It identifies three rings of business operation, specifically what, how, and why. According to Sinek, too many businesses operate from the outside-in, focusing first on what they do, then how they do it, and finally why they do it. In contrast, Sinek contends that some of the most successful businesses operate in the opposite direction: They first strive to understand and articulate why they do something, then move forward to how they do it, and, finally, what they will produce as a result.
This concept makes a lot of sense and has already taken hold in many organizations, changing the way that functional departments operate for the better. At Callaway Golf, the global sporting goods company where I work as senior director of IT for global Business Solutions, we have embraced this mindset change.
Changing the Mindset
At many companies today, the traditional business-IT exchange still goes something like this: The business approaches the IT department with a singular need (often a very specific request for a tool or new functionality), and the IT department scrambles to deliver what is requested of it, often without fully understanding how the product it is delivering fits within the larger picture. The relationship is strictly transactional.
What if you flipped that paradigm? Instead of focusing on one isolated need at a time, what if IT departments actually partnered with their businesses? What if they focused on evaluating functionality in order to provide long-term solutions instead of constantly applying bandages and performing triage on things that are broken?
To illustrate this point, let’s consider a couple of different scenarios.
The sales team for a footwear business approaches its IT department regarding implementing a new order-capturing tool that it believes will improve its current process. The company’s IT department simply provides the requested solution without much discovery or evaluation and sends the sales team on its way. Then, six months down the road, the business approaches IT again, this time requesting a new method for checking credit. Once again, IT delivers the requested solution, only to be approached again a month later with a request for a new inventory software solution. And so the cycle continues.
In this scenario, the business had to come to the IT department three separate times for three individual IT requests—and likely implemented multiple procedure changes and employee training methods to make sure that everyone was informed of the solutions that the IT department was providing. Although the sales team’s order process improved over time, the interaction with IT was likely frustrating and time-consuming.
The same sales team approaches IT about implementing a new way to capture orders. The IT department consults with sales to understand why it feels it needs a new way to capture orders. During that discussion, IT learns that the order process is running very slow and that there are many dissatisfied customers. As a result, IT performs an analysis on the order process and discovers that its methods for checking credit and processing inventory are outdated. Based on this information, IT develops a single, more comprehensive solution that solves the root problem.
In this scenario, IT decided that instead of just providing the requested tool, it would try to gain a clearer understanding of why it was being requested in the first place. It focused on the actual destination the business was aiming toward, rather than simply solving for each individual step along the path to get there. As a result, it was able to provide a superior solution, more efficiently, and with limited disruption to the business.
When IT departments provide this level of service, their business partners learn that they can trust IT to provide them with real answers to their problems. And it all starts with changing the relationships between IT and business.
We Need More Relationship-Builders
To create meaningful partnerships with business peers, employees and directors of IT departments must first build relationships with the different departments of the business they serve. In order to be viewed as a true partner, IT teams need to invest time in learning more about the people and business functions they are supporting—how their peers like to work and, most importantly, what business challenges are keeping them up at night. By doing this, an IT department will gain a big-picture view of the business and how the solutions it offers can play a part in providing long-term, positive, and sustainable results.
In addition to building relationships with the multiple department heads, IT professionals must also engage with every level of employee at the businesses it serves. It’s important to note that IT professionals should use these interactions as opportunities to ask questions as opposed to simply offering answers—leading with curiosity rather than authority. By doing so, they will develop a deeper understanding of the day-to-day operations and achieve a level of mutual respect that will make it easier to implement change.
Embrace the Chaos
Project management receives a considerable amount of attention in the IT world, and for good reason. It’s imperative to keep key projects on track and be able to provide progress reports at a moment’s notice. Generally, the most significant projects get pushed to the top of the list, followed by projects that are smaller and less time-consuming. The projects that fall last in line are the projects that are deemed to be the least important and are often more “cosmetic” in nature. Still, the goal with every one of these projects is to push them toward completion, regardless of their priority ranking on the list.
While this methodology makes sense on the surface, it’s important to know that priorities change and that business opportunities come and go. With that in mind, it’s imperative that IT organizations keep the lines of communication with their business partners open so that they are solving for what is truly needed today and tomorrow.
Some projects may lose importance midstream and be dropped in favor of something else. That’s OK and should be expected. What’s the point of pushing an unnecessary project to completion, anyway? Maintaining flexibility is crucial in order to keep up with the changing nature of business.
Be a Problem Solver
By setting out to provide real solutions to real problems that businesses face—instead of just offering solutions to IT challenges—IT departments can provide more meaningful value to the organizations they serve.
After all, the fundamental role of technology in any company is to empower, elevate, and expedite business success. It’s time for IT professionals and the businesses they support to remember that.
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