This article was originally published on informationweek.com
Achieving business outcomes depends on fostering a new level of cross-departmental intimacy, not alignment.
I sat on the couch, looking across at the therapist. My partner was regaling her with all of the things that I was doing or not doing that were throwing our relationship into disarray. My partner finished with those devastating words: “I think it may be time for us to go our separate ways.”
I was shocked, in a state of complete disbelief. How could this have happened? I had been trying so hard.
So I turned to my partner and said: “I think you’re being completely unfair. You know how hard I’ve been trying. I’ve been working so hard to align my IT with your business. Hasn’t that been enough for you?”
I hope I never again hear another IT executive or industry pundit utter that term, the most insidious one ever concocted in the world of IT. The term is wrong on so many levels. It implies that IT and “the business” are somehow separate. It projects an image of two independent entities, each doing its own thing but trying to “stay aligned.” Like two people racing down the freeway in traffic at 100 mph but trying to keep their cars touching. You can see that it isn’t going to end well.
[If perception is reality, you’d better start worrying. What The Business Really Thinks Of IT: 3 Hard Truths.]
While I hate this term for all of those reasons, I also understand that it’s borne of good intentions. It has been IT leaders’ clumsy attempt to communicate that we want to understand more fully what’s going on in “the business” and to ensure that we’re not operating in a vacuum.
Although this intention was right, the approach pre-supposed that we simply needed to ask our business colleagues what they want so we could align our strategies to their desires and plans. But there are two problems with this approach.
First, it assumes that it’s as simple as asking the question and getting an answer. But just as it is in a real-life therapist session, we don’t always know what’s bothering us or why what was perfectly fine yesterday now drives us crazy about our partner. Relationships are complex and constantly changing. Believing that the reason for a big gap is that you simply haven’t asked your partner what he or she wants is naive (although you should be doing that as well).
The bigger problem is more complex. For any true relationship to thrive, it demands something that most people will shudder at in a business context.
In our personal and business relationships, we desire those shared experiences, the comfort of understanding each other’s needs and habits, and the security of an abiding trust in each other.
This is where the concept of “IT-business alignment” falls short. It attempts to replace the intimacy that we crave with the poor substitute of requirements, service-level agreements, and alignment workshops.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with those things, but they don’t engender the kind of trusting relationships that most IT executives say they want — and almost every business executive now demands.
The missing ingredient
There’s only way to create true intimacy: mutual vulnerability. You must be willing to engage on a deeper level than just “tell me what you want and I’ll give it to you the best way I can.”
Mutual vulnerability requires that you say: “We’re in this together, and I’m willing to do whatever it takes to help you realize what you want and need.” It means putting your fate into the hands of your partners and accepting the responsibility of their fate in return.
This kind of vulnerability is scary. It’s why most organizations and their leaders aren’t willing to go there. It’s much safer to retain control. But without intimacy,
there’s no relationship, and you and your business partners will continue doing the dance, getting more dissatisfied with each passing day.
There’s another way, but developing an intimate IT-business relationship takes time and togetherness — two things that are hard to come by in our modern corporate cultures.
A different approach
One Fortune 500 organization is launching what it calls “end-to-end service teams.” These teams don’t focus on IT or even an IT service. They focus on a specific “business outcome,” and they include members of all the various functional organizations that are necessary to achieve that business outcome, including the IT organization.
The results thus far are promising, as these teams create an environment in which everyone is pursuing the same goal. These teams build empathy as they come to understand each other’s challenges, limitations, and capabilities. They also break down the silos within IT, as teams are forced to grapple with business challenges holistically and not from the perspective of their technical domains.
Most important, they build true, trusting, potentially intimate relationships.
Creating a business service team
There are three steps you can take to begin building your own “business service teams.”
- The first and most important step is to focus on business outcomes. I’m not talking about something squishy like “improve business flexibility.” The desired business outcome must be something that’s immediately tangible to almost everyone in the company and potentially to your organization’s customers. Although IT might require its own layer of metrics to monitor how IT is contributing to the business goal, the ultimate barometer of success will be the team’s ability to achieve a business outcome. That’s a galvanizing change to how things are normally done.
- Second, recognize that your business service teams will need to progress through three distinct stages.When you begin, focus on stability. What’s required to ensure that the process that produces the business outcome operates consistently and reliably? The main question for IT will be how it can help enhance stability in some way (perhaps by automating some manual part of the process).The team’s focus can then shift to optimization — how to make the process better and more efficient. Once stability and optimization are achieved, the business service team will be free to explore how it can achieve some form of differentiating innovation. The power of diversity will unlock this type of innovation. There’s a strong chance that technology will power most or all of the innovative breakthroughs developed during this stage, but it will be the combined perspectives and the trusted relationships that will fuel their development.
- The third and last step is a protective measure. For a trusted, intimate relationship to develop, all members of the team must believe that they’re viewed as equals. If the business unit or units think they will be dictating how things work because they own the process, or if the IT members think it’s the “business’s job” to define what’s required and their job is to develop and implement it, then the whole thing will break down.Once inside the business service team, each member must think and act like an equal party to the process of achieving the business outcome. They must see a failure as a failure of the entire team — same for a success. Every team member will still have her job to do — and must still be held accountable for delivering — but there must be a belief that it is one team pursuing one business outcome together.
IT-business alignment has been near the top of the executive priority list for years now. But something’s not working. Business service teams have the potential to transform the business-IT relationship from one of passivity and dysfunction to one of intimacy. It will require bold action and a willingness to step out on a limb, but the results could forever change how you operate and the impact you’re able to achieve.
And hopefully, we’ll never again utter the phrase “IT-business alignment.”