Executive Blind Spots
On many unified communications projects there is a gap in understanding between the senior leaders and the IT staff who are making technical decisions. This can result in a large “blind spot” that dooms projects to fail or deliver underwhelming benefits.
2 : an area in which one fails to exercise judgment or discrimination
Unified Communications (UC) was always supposed to be about combining disparate communication systems in order to improve business efficiency. It was never about “mashing up” everything just because we could. The industry started using “UC&C,” referring to unified communications and collaboration, the “collaboration” tacked on at the end perhaps to remind us that we expected some level of business process improvement from UC. And then Microsoft last year decided to rebrand “UC” as universal communications. Now into 2015 it seems like “persistent conversations” may be the buzzword du jour, being led by the Cisco Project Squared and Unify Circuit products.
Whatever we choose to call our improved technology solution, blind spots develop because executives believe that the people they have entrusted to decide on and implement these solutions have a clear understanding of the key business objectives for the project and this is often not the case.
Many IT professionals get trapped debating technical nuances, counting and comparing features, upgrading versions “just because” or implementing redundant redundancy. They do this not because they lack skill or dedication but rather because clear measurable business objectives have not been defined.
Executives spend most of their days focused on and being accountable for managing business outcomes (sales, revenue, gross profit, cost of goods sold, etc.) and expect that this knowledge and focus will “trickle down” and become instilled in the technical staff. Most executives share business objectives in quarterly or more frequent “town halls” or other update sessions. Despite all of the good intentions, most technical projects operate “in the trenches” without clear, documented measurable business objectives. The executives assume the technical staff are making decisions in order to maximize business results; the technical staff are often not clear on what is expected.
Eliminating the Blind Spots
I once did work for a brewery and they had an annoying but useful habit of asking “how will this help us sell more beer?” The IT manager asked this with respect to unified communications. How will UC help us sell more beer? It is a good question and one that can take a fair amount of work to answer properly. This is exactly the type of question that needs to be asked about each technical solution choice: how will a particular technical solution improve our business?
The best way I have found to develop consensus around the measurable objectives for a project is to hold a “vision session” at the start of any major initiative.
The structure and name of the session can vary; however, a number of attributes for the session are important:
You need to involve both business leaders and technical team members in a room at the same time. Allow at least half a day; for larger projects you may need to allocate a full day.
You need someone to facilitate the meeting. The facilitator needs to be able to impart structure on the session, solicit ideas from everyone, move things along if the discussion gets bogged down, and most importantly encourage, cajole and/or force the group to document key project elements.
During the session you need to develop a documented consensus related to:
a. What are you trying to achieve?
b. What business problem are you trying to solve?
c. How will you know if you have been successful?
The facilitator needs to keep the team focused on the “what” (the desired outcomes) and not the “how” (the technical solution). Because technology people like to solution, this can take some skill. Technical jargon should be completely absent from a successful vision session.
Generating documented, measurable and agreed upon success criteria is the single most important outcome from the session. This information can then be used to evaluate different technical options and to make appropriate technical decisions during the course of the project. Having everyone on the team understand how success will be measured can eliminate most blind spots. Allowing the executives to directly discuss, prioritize and document the desired project outcomes greatly increases the chance that the technical team will deliver a worthwhile result.
As we rush into 2015, raise a glass and toast the New Year and then ask yourself, “How will UC help me sell more beer?”