CXO

Managing digital people in an analog world

Bringing together your technical staff with the business side of the house can be problematic. Here are some steps you can take to make the process easier.

Bringing together technical and business people in a meeting can be a disastrous mix. Technical staff members often regard business leaders as unbearably vague and unwilling to commit. The business side of the house generally sees IT as arrogant, pushy, and unwilling to compromise to create a joint solution. Both are, within their own contexts, correct. As IT leaders and managers, we must bring these two sides together to create business solutions that meet everyone's needs.

Digital people
In their heart of hearts, most IT professionals cherish the idea that the universe exists in a string of ones and zeroes. They look at things in terms of feature sets, immediate vs. long-term costs, and practical risks. Every day they deal with issues caused by people either using their computers incorrectly or just outright abusing them. They also deal with the complexity of IT problem solving, constantly questing for the single bit to flip in order to cause the problem to go away.

Most IT pros naturally extend this digital approach to their interactions with people outside of IT. They want to know what a person "really wants.” When interacting with business clients, they assume that they’re dealing with the person who has the right to make a specific decision. Many become deeply frustrated when what they thought was a vital technical decision about server hardware recedes under a long discussion about approved desktop wallpapers.

This tendency towards digital thinking manifests itself in a variety of interesting ways. Some are subtle, some less so. Learning how to spot digital thinking and accept it for what it is can drive even the best manager to distraction.

For example, one team I worked with spent several days doing risk assessment and preparing risk mitigation strategies on a decent size upgrade project (about 10,000 nodes). They did a wonderful job of assessing the political, budgetary, and technical risks they could encounter. I provided them with some additional insight on their risk mitigation plans, but everything seemed in order. After signing off on the plan I moved on. Six months later I received a panicked voicemail on my cell phone. The team had pushed forward with their deployment, following the risk mitigation plan just like they would any other project plan. Unfortunately, roughly half the risks they "mitigated" materialized. I scheduled some time to talk with the team the next day.

During our discussions it became clear to me what happened. The team followed the mitigation plan perfectly, but assumed that by doing so they actually removed the risk. The idea that a risk continued to exist after being mitigated floored them. In their minds, once a problem was resolved it went away. Either the problem existed or it was resolved—a dual state proved incompatible with the way they thought. Since they did not monitor mitigated risks, the risks eventually worked their way back into the project.

Analog world
Unfortunately, the world of business allows things to exist in a wide variety of states. Things only rarely fall into neatly demarked categories. Budgets, political situations, and the needs of the business seem to change from moment to moment, sometimes forcing us to make decisions that are not always "the best" but are instead "good enough."

There are a lot of reasons that decisions in business cannot be "either/or" but instead must often be both or all. Businesses have many power centers, and many people are affected by every change and decision. Since IT touches the direct working activity of everyone in the organization, every time something changes, the effects ripple outward. Sometimes the IT department can charge blithely forward. Other times the decision-making authority to cause changes in the business environment dwells in other departments. Instead of being able to ramrod changes though, IT must then convince others not just of the rightness of their cause, but also how this change really will make their lives better.

Since many IT decisions involve budgets and capital expenditures, any decision typically comes under intense scrutiny from many angles. Questions of fairness in resource allocation, available resources, business plans over a five- and sometimes 10-year period all come into play. More subtle factors come into play as well. Does the IT team have a good reputation? Can you call in a favor to get something pushed though, or is Finance in the middle of a company-wide audit? As these factors come into play, the actual decision, whatever it is, becomes just one more bargaining chip in the larger corporate game.

This becomes particularly frustrating for IT people when they are dealing with what they consider to be time-critical issues. Perhaps a new technology is coming out and they want to implement it quickly. Leases may be coming due, creating a window of opportunity for a radical shift in OS and productivity software. They see an immediate need to act. The various business stakeholders and decision makers, focused by necessity on other aspects of the business, may not.

Making it work
Conflicts between the digital works inherent in the job of IT and the more nebulous world of business cannot be avoided. Instead of asking, "How do we stop the conflict?" however, we should really ask, "How do we help our people through it?"

This effort comes down to three separate activities:
  1. Explain in layers: Remember that your team members (no matter what level they are in the organization) do not have the same view as you. Rather than trying to introduce it to them in full, explain the process as you see it, layer by layer. Start with the decisions closest to them and how those decisions become influenced by outside factors. By showing the person that there’s more than one factor involved, you can sometimes defuse the tension associated with delays or the outright rejection of the "correct" course.
  2. Keep revisiting risks: Political and social risks, unlike technical ones, rarely just vanish. They are more likely to become dormant, waiting for the right moment to leap out. Every time a project or continuing operations task comes up for a new iteration, key back in on the risks that the team might have previously mitigated but that may have recurred.
  3. Work though contingency plans: Do not allow the team to present only one possible "best" option for anything. Instead ask and, if necessary, pester them for many options. If they seem to have trouble coming up with them, pose significant "what if" style questions. Don’t go overboard with this approach, but don’t stop until you have several options. This forces the team out of the purely digital mode.
  4. When presented with a comparison, question the parameters: IT people seem to be addicted to charts comparing features and price. After you present them with this kind of chart, ask them to flag the features by whether or not the users requested them.

Whatever techniques you choose to use, remember that there will be times when your IT people become frustrated. They "clearly" see that they are right and the rest of us simply cannot grasp their wisdom. Instead of becoming upset about it, just remember that they really are digital people in an analog world. Some things just do not make any sense to them.
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