The working relationship between IT and the business can be challenging, so this tech leader developed best practices based on trials and errors.

As an IT leader, creating and maintaining strong partnerships across the business is one of the toughest challenges we face. It permeates all aspects of our work, including DevOps (IT development) and RunOps (IT operations). After many years as a technology leader, I have found no silver bullet for solving the business partnering challenge, but I have learned from experience, and can share this advice and perspective.

1. Listen

I have learned to take the time to fully listen to our users, business partners and anyone who comes to our IT organization with a question, or in need of help. But listening can be hard, especially when we have heard the issue before and think we already know the answer. 

Several years ago I was in a meeting with a group of senior business leaders. The purpose of the meeting was to hear how my IT team was doing to support their business units. The group gave me quite a bit of ‘constructive feedback’, including many examples of what was not working. It is natural for me to react immediately and start problem-solving on the spot, but I tempered my reaction to actually listen and not offer solutions or explanations.

I needed to hear both sides of the story, so my next step was to round up my key leads to share what I heard, and give them an opportunity to vent a little and respond with their thoughts on how to solve our problems. Lastly, I contacted some external experts for their advice. Taking the time to collect all this different input helped immensely.

Later, I hosted two more meetings with the same group of business partners at which we identified a core set of actions and engaged our combined teams to execute on the plan. Truth be told, some of the solutions did not work at first, and we had to go back and adjust, but we did it as a team of IT and business professionals working together.

The relationship between IT and our business partners is now much stronger. We can be ‘brutally honest’ with each other when facing a challenge. The experience also taught our combined teams that ‘listening’ can be as powerful as the solution itself.

The truth is that I can often jump to a conclusion and think I have it figured out. If this describes you as well, try the following:

  • Seek an outside view. We go into every situation with our own assumptions, so seek out those who can bring a different point of view.

  • Ask a lot of questions.

  • Go back for more. Don’t try to arrive at the solution after a single discussion. Gather more information and perspective.


Related article:

Building Resilience Through Innovation

By Lookman Fazal


2. Innovate

A couple of years ago I was in a global lead role supporting the infrastructure services required to rollout the COVID vaccine for a global pharmacy store chain. This would require a lot of innovation to meet the requirements for distribution, scheduling, customer care while meeting legal and regulatory demands.

During a pandemic, as you can imagine, the demands were coming in quick and there was a ton of urgency. We had nothing set up to support this type of initiative and had no way to predict what the demands would be. Our only option was to innovate and improve our development process, but first, we needed a framework.

I started by identifying the key problems that needed to be addressed, setting the focus on three key areas that had to succeed. In this case, we had to:

  1. Enable the Covid vaccine rollout.

  2. Support very high demand.

  3. Move quickly.

This framework allowed us to stay focused on what was needed the most. To move quickly, I reached out for help on multiple levels. I contacted key players across the IT industry, vendors that I trusted and partners who had already called me to ask for or offer assistance. It was rough at the beginning, but we adjusted the process and continued to move forward.

For example, I stood up a daily early morning 15-minute meeting to drive action, maximize communications and allow people to take ownership. That 15-minute call turned into a powerful enabler of problem-solving, solution development, and team success on many levels.

When considering how to innovate with a business partner, some tips that I’ve used to solution and strengthen the business partnership include these examples:

  • Brainstorm ideas. Don’t reject anything right away.

  • Define success. Together with your business partner, draft a simple statement of what success looks like. It will become a reference point for all actions going forward.

  • Drill down. Take the time to examine each idea or option. Use the ‘5 Whys’ method or something similar to flesh out each option’s business impact, IT impact, cost, and resource requirements.

  • Ask for help. Contact vendors, experts and external partners for their input. A 15 or 30 minute call with the right person can save you hours of work. Trust your network to help you!

3. Learn from failure

At one point or another, we all face some sort of failure in our relationship with the business. Failed projects or poor results can weaken that relationship, but as a leader it is your responsibility to build it back.

A couple of years ago I was in a role I liked, I had a strong team and was hitting the delivery targets on several key initiatives. We had a clear vision, a multi-year roadmap was defined, and our projects were moving forward. But after two years of consistent delivery, we hit a wall. An extremely tough project failed to deliver results, and our team and business partners were frustrated on many levels. We were at the point of scrapping the initiative altogether. I had been panicked about this for weeks and needed to be honest with everyone about how bad things really were.

I came clean with everyone about the current situation and asked my business partners, vendors and trusted experts for advice to help decide whether we would abandon the project or try to salvage it. I discovered that there were several options, all of them tough but realistic. People were willing to make some tough decisions and step up to the challenge. We ended up sticking with the project and worked hard to fix our problems, which took more time and money. We also addressed the root causes that were preventing us from being successful. This strengthened our combined team.

Through this experience, learned that failure will happen, but making corrections and moving forward is still an option. And most importantly, seeking help and solutioning together at times of imminent failure is powerful.

Some common themes that I rely on when projects are at the risk of failing include:

  • Solution together. Don’t try to solve the problem on your own. Put together some ideas or recommendations and go back to your business partner. Involve them in the solutioning.

  • Start small and iterate. Look to pilot or do a proof of concept and learn from it. Come up with an approach that allows you to start small and learn from the experience, then iterate till the issue is solved.

  • Recognize when to stop. It is hard to halt a project, but in some instances, that is the best option. In some cases, all that can be done is an initial remediation until you can obtain additional funding or resources. When that is the case, draw the line, acknowledge how far you’ve solutioned, and pick it up again later when the timing is right.

  • Know when to push. Sometime a nudge is a good thing. If you feel the need to push on something and get your business partner in the boat with you, don’t be shy about it. Make your point clearly and quickly, get it out there for consideration and get an answer. A push can work, but be judicious about how and when to play that card.

Business partnering challenges will never go away. They are a part of the reality we face as IT Leaders. I consistently tweak my techniques depending on the particular challenge and the audience, remembering to listen carefully and pull these examples from my toolbox. Good luck building and strengthening your IT organization’s many important relationships across the company!

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