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A Seat at the Table

A Manifesto



One of the services I provide is IT assessments; looking at an IT department, big or small, and trying to determine how they might be able to provide better service levels and value to their company. And to form those recommendations, I’ll look at IT across a wide variety of topics: staffing levels and capabilities, technology stack and architecture, operating policies and practices, project delivery, and perception by the wider organization, among other things.

…often, a company's leadership can be a significant part of the reason why IT might be struggling.

But if you’re a C-level leader, I’ll also spend time with you and your team to learn more about where you see IT fitting within your organization and your engagement with IT. Don’t be surprised if in my final assessment findings, I cover potential changes you might need to make personally to help make IT better. Because often, a company’s leadership can be a significant part of the reason why IT might be struggling.


It’s important to ask yourself how you think of IT. Do you consider them a utility – their job is to keep the lights on at the lowest possible cost? Or maybe like a glorified help desk – mostly around to fix things when they break? Maybe because it’s a little intimidating to interact with them because you don’t understand some of their lingo very well so you and your team tend to avoid them.


Or maybe, if you’re being honest, you just don’t really think about IT much at all, or at least not where they fit in as a part of your organization (I mean, you’re reading this blog on my site, so you are thinking about this at some level). With so much else on your plate just managing operations, marketing, investors, hitting the numbers, and all that you have to deal with, maybe you just don’t have the cycles left to think about IT and how it fits in as a key part of your company’s growth and success.


You may not really a have a good feel for exactly how you think of IT and their place and role in your company, but I do. Or better said, I’d wager that your IT department knows exactly how they’re thought of by you, your team, and the rest of the organization. And during an assessment, I’ll have a pretty good idea within a few days of meeting with them just what they think that is. And the key thing that will let me know if they’re not valued and not engaged will come down to one word:


Discouragement.


When I’m interviewing IT team members, discouragement will be easy to detect. They’ll say things like:


  • “Someone went out and purchased a new software solution and didn’t think to invite us to the evaluations, or to let us know what their needs were in the first place. We were an afterthought even though this is literally our area of expertise.”

  • “We tend to find out about large changes to business processes at the last minute and since we need time to plan and design solutions, it makes it look like we’re delaying the project.”

  • “The workload is overwhelming because the company is growing so fast. And it seems like every other function gets to hire to keep up with the growth, but our requests to add IT staff never seem to get approved.”

  • “Everyone has an opinion about what IT’s priorities should be, but when they’re discussing it, we’re not even a part of those meetings. They just tell us later without any of our input.”

  • “We can never invest in better technologies that would really help our company. It seems like they just want cheap IT solutions, not ones that are measured by business value.”

  • “I only hear from my leadership when there’s a problem. We’ve completed successful projects and heard next to nothing from our leaders.”


You get the picture. Not one of those statements had the word “discouraged” in it, but those are the marks of a very discouraged team. And although having the right technology stack is important, and while having a solid IT strategy and roadmap is important, and having project management and technical skills are both very important, they are not the most important things to building high functioning IT teams. As with all teams, it’s things like respect, motivation, engagement, empowerment, and a feeling of belonging that really make teams perform at peak levels.


…give me an IT team with average technologies to work with, but who feels motivated, valued, and engaged, and we will do some great things.

Or said another way, give me an IT team with average technologies to work with, but who feels motivated, valued, and engaged, and we will do some great things for a company. But give me an IT team with all the best technologies and skills, but who is frustrated and discouraged and feels out of the loop on key business conversations, and who doesn’t feel valued, and they will struggle. And just as importantly, the company will also struggle with systems and processes that add hidden (or concrete) costs, reduce efficiency, and maybe even increase risk to ongoing operations.


So, what causes IT discouragement? From my experience, the primary reason is this simple:


They don’t have a seat at the table.


Here’s what that means: your IT team is tasked with supporting all your business functions and with delivering solutions that align with the needs and directions of all processes across your company. And yet, they may be rarely engaged in key conversations that would help them do a much better job at delivering the solutions they’re tasked with. If IT is engaged on key decisions and projects at all, it is often late, leaving them scrambling to respond. And this impacts their ability to succeed at delivering solutions which hit the mark and align with goals and timelines. In short, they’re often not even thought of as being a part of a team that engages in conversations about future projects, directions, and pain points. They’re just considered the doers, not the thinkers. They aren't invited to the table when key conversations that they can contribute to are taking place.


Here are some specific “tables” that I think are important for IT to be invited to on a regular basis:


A seat at the planning table: If you’re considering altering your supply chain, adding a sales channel or a product line, moving to a new office building, acquiring another business, divesting a business, or just about any other significant strategic or tactical change to your business, there will be an impact on IT and the systems they manage. Invite IT to sit in on some of these important conversations so they can start designing changes and solutions upfront. You may not know which projects will require a significant IT effort or even impact IT and systems, but they will. Don’t guess - give them a seat and let them inform you where the IT touchpoints will be.


A seat at the technology acquisition table: These days, it’s easy for anyone in your company to go find a cloud-based technology solution, sign up for it with their credit card, and begin using it in their daily processes. And that might be the right decision, or it could be a terrible mistake (usually, the latter in my experience). IT should be engaged to hear about what problem needs to be solved before a solution has been selected, or frankly, even shopped for. Often, IT might already have solutions within their stack that the business just isn’t aware of. And letting your company’s data and documents just start drifting into [sweeping gesture] whatever system someone likes that’s not managed by IT, is never a great idea.


A seat at the business process design table: Your IT department probably has more functional knowledge than you realize, across a wide variety of business departments. When a given business process needs to change or be improved, IT can often provide good insight into what’s possible from a systems perspective. Designing a new process in isolation, then tasking IT to implement it without engaging them at the beginning almost never yields good results. Engaging them early in business process design almost always does.


A seat at the leadership table: Your company probably has series of key leadership meetings, from the executive team down into key functional staff meetings. IT doesn’t need to attend all of these, but it’s counterproductive for them to never attend any of them. Find a cadence where your IT leader can join some of these key meetings and participate in two-way dialogue – informing leadership of key active projects and listening to leadership conversations so they can determine if there may need to be technology or process changes to what leaders may see only as a pure business problems.


A seat at the hiring table: As a growing company, you’re probably always adding staff to continue to expand. But if you’re reluctant to allow IT to also grow its headcount to keep up with growing demands, ask yourself why. Do you not understand the IT positions being requested or are unsure of the value they bring? Do you trust your IT leader’s judgment about staffing needs even if you don’t understand the technical details of the role? Allow your IT leader to have a forum with other key leaders to explain and justify the value to the company of their proposed hires. But only if that’s the same process you use for approving hiring for all other functions. Don’t have a higher bar for IT staff additions than you do for any other function.


There are probably other seats at other tables that I could mention, but you get the picture.


Let’s go back to what you and your team of leaders think about where IT fits into the company and how they add the most value. Utility? Cost center? Help desk? Or a vital part of how your business will succeed, adapt, and manage growth. What do you want from IT? I’ll tell you what I’ve seen at companies that are leveraging technology to improve processes, reduce costs, manage growth, and accelerate change: they see IT as a strategic partner, vital to the success of their company. And welcome at the table when vital conversations are taking place.

…inviting IT to some key conversations at the right time couldn't be easier.

Here’s the good news. If an assessment determines that you have cracks in your systems or architecture, that’s going to take time and money to fix. Same for fixing large gaps in cyber security. Or building out better policies and processes. But inviting IT to some key conversations at the right time couldn’t be easier. You can start today, and it will cost you nothing. All you need to do is..


Give them a seat at the table.

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