5 ways IT can think like the business

Posted by Jeff Schnurr on November 20, 2013 · 6 min read

“What will it take to get you into this new ERP software”? As an IT industry, we sell what we know. From the perspective of the business, we sound like used car salesman.

For years the industry has aspired to the status of ‘business partner’. We want the CIO at the boardroom table, enabling transformative business models. We want to be consulted on issues of strategy, and to use our creative problem solving skills in a broader business context. We believe we’re capable, and maybe even entitled; after all, it’s a digital world.

So how do we get there?

We need to change the way we engage the business.

We need to change the way we engage the business. Call it what you like - requirements analysis, business architecture, project scoping - it’s that initial translation, that very front edge - where a business problem is articulated and consumed by an IT organization - that’s our point of intervention. If we can get that right, we rise to the status of business partner, and we have a much better chance of hitting the mark.

High Expectations

Here’s what the business expects, and how you can step up to be the business partner you want to be.

  1. Do what I mean, not what I say.

    It’s a practical reality that most people are not experts at the logical decomposition of their needs into specifics that they can articulate clearly. It’s much more likely that you get a stream of consciousness from a busy mind preoccupied with unrelated matters.

    As part journalist, part detective, your job is to probe for the underlying story, to assign meaning and value to the words, to form a mental model of the universe this person lives in. You adopt their perspective, and wisely place their words in context, knowing when to seek clarification or push back when the words and their universe don’t align.

  2. Use reasonable judgement to fill in the gaps

    Everybody carries around their own view of what should be “obvious”, based on their own background. As the business partner we claim we are, we add value by researching gaps that are likely to be considered obvious by the business, and pencil in planning assumptions for validation later.

    It’s aggravating for the business to spend time articulating “the obvious”, but they will happily nod in agreement when it’s played back to them for confirmation.

  3. You can solve this with people, process or technology

    Despite the fact we’re IT, a true business partner would be open to a non-technology outcome to a business problem. Sometimes, the best solution can be found in manual handling by staff, outsourcing, or developing a business process that integrates some combination of people, process and technology.

    Show you understand what drives the business by proposing options ranked by ROI, or suggest implementation in stages that get fast value with manual processing, followed by less expensive automation later.

  4. Show me, don’t tell me

    There is a reason why landscapers use 3D software to demonstrate what your future yard could look like, or why architects build scale models of buildings before construction. People respond to visual stimuli differently than words, and it’s often the concrete example that draws out the fine-grained requirements or bad assumptions.

    Use wireframes, screen mock-ups, prototypes, demos, workflows, videos - whatever is appropriate to the project - to create simple, compelling and visual representations of the solution. No industry jargon or domain-specific artifacts - keep it simple and aimed at the average person.

    Enterprise architecture models such as TOGAF offer executive-level artifacts that may be suitable for this purpose, but please avoid the architecture jargon if you want the business to see you in a suit, and not a Star Trek uniform.

  5. Market forces apply to you too

    The business moves fast. Competitors get to vote, and the planning assumptions don’t always pan out. For IT and our notoriously long cycle times, that can mean a long and painful cycle of “change requests”, and an ever-increasing perspective by the business that we’re too slow and rigid.

    Instead, design the rate of change into the plan from the outset, and expect it will happen. Stay incremental, modular, interchangeable, flexible. Build a solution design that can turn on a dime, and respond enthusiastically when the business comes knocking. This isn’t “missed requirements” or “change”, it’s the business operating in a demanding market and responding to forces in real time.

    If IT can’t roll with that - like the rest of the business has to - we’re irrelevant.

Becoming a Business Partner

You’re probably thinking - the business is kind of needy, don’t they understand us? We have cycle times, constraints, risk management, integrations, customization, it’s all so difficult! Sorry buttercup, you need to suck it up. Sales deals with actively hostile opponents all day; manufacturing either has product or it doesn’t; marketing generates demand or they don’t.

We don’t get to live in a comfy grey zone because our job is hard. We earn respect as a valued business partner with crisp, responsive behavior, and genuine empathy for how challenging it is to compete in the open market.

Take the Next Step

Increase your investment in that very front edge - where business meetings IT - and get serious about partnership. We know how to do everything after that, assuming we get the first bit right. It’s the highest leverage intervention you have in a complex system where we want to be a player that truly does drive the business forward.