Monday, December 24, 2012

Building a partnership

It does not matter if the vendor is big or small, local or global, domain centric or broad based, custom solutions developer or provides package implementation services, hardware products or software licences, or any kind of service provider; they all want you to believe that they all are worthy of being anointed as a preferred and trusted partner to your IT and business initiatives. Everyone without exception believes that they imbibe behaviours that qualify them for this elevated position.

I am not sure when the transition happened but sometime in the recent decade the term partner replaced the vendor or provider. I think people went back to basics in the early part of the millennium driven by the slowdown, started focusing on leveraging existing ones and building new relationships. Business was tough to come and choices plenty which is where people made the difference. This subtle transition eased into our way of working and no one objected to the new reality.

Today we have partners providing total outsourcing, specialized domain specific or business process outsourcing, desk side support, apart from the various categories listed above. Many of these who have put in their heart and blood into delivering products/services irrespective of the contract or commercial arrangement are truly partners to a CIO and the enterprise; my respects to them. We also have partners providing toner cartridges, USB sticks, printing paper where price is typically the determinant factor !

Recently a CIO friend narrated a story where she met a new vendor where the discussion started with the intent that we would like to be your partners in success and not keep it transactional. The CEO and the team downward demonstrated high passion and commitment at the discussion table. They got engaged in a few projects as a precursor to what could be bigger things and achieve the status of a trusted partner. With many vying for the same business, it was seen as a prestigious win.

The slip between intent and execution has many horror stories spread across the industry. Senior teams from vendors attempt to build relationships with the CIOs, the sales team works with the domain specialists and the next level, and the delivery team which typically has no connect with the process starts discussions with the project managers and the users of the proposed solutions. And that is what transpired here too; one project was delivered well enough, the other killed the relationship.

What appeared to be a dream run became a moon race with surprises all through the journey ! The initial effort estimates did not fit the project reality; either the team who did the initial study did not understand the complexity and expectations or her inputs were ignored in the proposal. So there was an attempt to restrict scope to fit the resources allotted. That upset everyone involved; the CEO made a visit, so did others involved in the initial discussion. Much water had flowed and a dam was essential.

Restoring some sanity to the project with the vendor CEO approving the additional investment and some hit on the CIOs side too, the project looked like being back on track; but that was a false positive. The lack of trust made success elusive; the potential partnership gained adversarial tones with each pinning the blame on the other. It took some effort to bring everyone to a common understanding and move ahead.

Partnership is built over a period of time and is a function of delivering to promise consistently across the layers. It takes effort to sustain it and requires investments and transparency from everyone. Everyone hates escalations which result due to lack of communication and assumptions. In my experience I have found partnerships that have stood the travails of time when there is no gap in expectations on both sides. Sales transactions do not build partnership, they only address tactical need.

Monday, December 17, 2012

The long and short of IT

People with goals succeed because they know where they are going. This has never been so true in the current economic uncertainty; companies struggling for growth put their employees in peculiar situations. They are expected to deliver monthly and quarterly targets whereas the discussions are expected to be strategic and long term. This is challenging for the CIO and the IT team where typically projects do last beyond a quarter (with agile exceptions) and investments require a 3-5 year horizon.

When I met with the management team of a large enterprise vendor selling applications and technology solutions, there was a paradoxical discussion on my long-term needs and their short-term requirements. They wanted me to present the Business and IT roadmap for the next 3 years and initiatives where technology was a critical component, which I did leading to discussions on technologies and partner solutions that would become projects in the future. They had their team and many partners listen in.

The sales team and some of the leaders from partner companies wanted to know who they should connect with in my team and when they can come over for a detailed discussion. They came in different avatars, confident, cocky, arrogant, tentative, all types made up the discussions on the possibilities. I intuitively liked some, was intrigued by a few and did not see value in the rest keeping in mind my priorities.  Their interest was to strike at the opportunity and if they can meet their monthly or quarterly targets.

I don’t mind helping when I can, however the gap between the talk and the walk was evident. How can a discussion at two different planes be aligned and create value ? My timeline was not aligned to their urgency to sell. So I advised them which some took in the right spirit while a few found it difficult to accept that I did not want their solution/technology. They espoused the efficiency, potential saving, the best in class nature of their wares showing incredulous surprise that I was rejecting their pitch.

How do we align expectations that all stakeholders have the same shared vision of the future and the direction being taken ? What should CIOs do to set the groundwork ? It is a difficult discussion in many cases with hierarchical selling that puts pressure on the CIO while s/he has to balance the set of internal priorities and needs. Balancing tactical with the strategic is a fine skill that very few are adept at. To have a bird’s eye view with ability to pick the target like an eagle separates the good from the best.

I have found that in most cases plain speak is the best option; be upfront with what are your priorities, what you need, how you will evaluate the options across different vendors; essentially what is the decision making criteria and the timeline, who will be involved etc. you get the point. Most vendors find this transparency a great starting point and they are willing to work with you. There will be exceptions when they try despite the open communication; they need to be managed with a firm hand.

So coming back to the discussion that transpired; it took some effort to not get upset with the blatant disregard for the stated intent and objectives. I could finally prevail upon the recalcitrant vendors to align to my priorities and reality. Over a drink later in the evening there was camaraderie between us and everyone acknowledged the candidness though they had found it difficult. Does it mean that CIOs do not always do this or vendors need to learn how to listen better ?

Monday, December 10, 2012

Budget Begging Bowl

Year after year enterprises engage in an exercise that is like a well-orchestrated dance of corporate executives, each playing their best role and they have to collectively also look good to the audience. Interestingly the audience is the executives themselves, the Orchestra Master (CEO) and Board of Directors who asks for changes to the story line or approves the end result. At a broader level successful execution played to the stock market and analysts acknowledges work well done.

Like in an orchestra an ill tuned instrument can strike a discordant note, the collective sum of efforts needs complete alignment for an enterprise to work at as close as possible to its optimal level. This applies to the planning process as much as to the execution. Undercurrents during the planning process if ignored will come back to haunt the team during execution. All this is common sense, nothing new here, but we still continue to self-impose challenges and then find complicated solutions.

Every year give or take a few weeks this is the time when for most companies budgets are approved for the next year. The process begins many months earlier and after multiple rounds of discussions and negotiations, the final budget is presented by either the entire management team or select few (read CEO, CFO and maybe the CMO) to the Board. As boards have to “add value” they challenge the collective wisdom and either inflate the top-line or bottom-line or both or cut costs leaving the team perplexed or so it seems.

We all learn the game fast and keep buffers in the budgets for such eventualities. We offer the token protest and accept the fait accompli moving on with life. It is funny that this repeats itself in every department, company and everyone goes through the charade almost unthinkingly. The process leading into the D-day and thereafter is notable. But there are many who are challenged; let me reveal a few scenarios based on some direct, incidental and anecdotal data.

Budget planning is typically a function of planned capital investments and operating expenses. Most companies are CAPEX unfriendly and there is always pressure to reduce operating expense. For the CIO the two edged sword draws blood by moving hardware and licensing to operating expense and then the CFO wants to cut OPEX. Finance and/or business friendly CIOs know how to manage this, others struggle to keep their head above water until one of the powerful CXOs throws them a lifeline.

Post “rationalization” by the Board, the situation gets even more interesting. Now that everyone has been given a say 15% operating budget cut, the un-buffered and bewildered CIO struggles to stay afloat. A frustrated CIO once commented, where do I cut without impacting service levels ? I cannot go short on licenses, nor on bandwidth, and service providers want inflationary increase, AMC needs to be paid, travel and training are already down; do I go to the CEO, or CFO, or better the Board with a begging bowl ?

In jest or otherwise the remark portrays the helplessness felt by many and not just the CIO. Is there a way out ? There is if everyone went back to basics and stopped predicting the future based on the past and making unrealistic projections on what the business will be next year. It would help if all functions worked the budget together acknowledging dependencies for success rather than in silos. It is then up to the CEO to play the galleries or stand firm ground with the Board when s/he represents the team’s collective effort.

Where would you draw a line as the CIO/CEO ? Will you accept the cuts ? How will you ensure that realistically the company has enough cushion to react to market and competitive moves or the black swans that seem to be common now ? Will you put your neck out for the team ? I have always gone into a meeting with the maxim that budget is an intent to spend; we collectively determine the spend and own it up irrespective of which head or bucket it sits in. There are limits to cutting cost, let’s focus on the customer and how we can increase revenue. That is a better discussion !

Monday, December 03, 2012

Upward delegation

I had heard this term a long time back and then forgot about it; in those days my team was small and activity largely technical. I wore professional pride on my sleeve proclaiming that I could solve any technical problem, well almost any problem within the many technology domains that I specialized in. So whenever the team threw a crooked one at me, I would get my hands dirty and triumphantly bring out the solution. Many CIOs would refer to that era as the good old days, in reflection I wonder.

As teams got bigger and the focus shifted towards learning the business ropes across functions, the technology prowess diminished and I started farming the problems to either my team mates who were passionate about technology or vendors who were always happy to help; however partaking in their success still gave me highs. Time pressures ensured that these moments became far and fewer until I realized how easily I was goaded into taking on a challenge to find a solution, faster, cheaper, better !

I became wary of opening conversation lines, “we have a problem …” We ? But you just walked into my cubicle/cabin and we still have not exchanged pleasantries, so where did I fit into the equation ? You have a problem and you want my help in solving it would probably describe the situation aptly. You believe that my superior knowledge or problem solving ability or network of contacts could help resolve the sticky situation in which you find yourself. Such conversations were not always pleasant; my ego however needed the massaging.

And then about a decade back or so it hit me that I was the perfect dummy being subject to upward delegation. My entertaining the protagonists gave them an opportunity with a few words to transfer the responsibility squarely onto my shoulders. With me telling them that I will get back to them, they did not have to work upon it. If deadlines were missed, it was my problem; if the problem was escalated, it was back to my table where the buck lay and I had no way of passing it back to the originator.

Reading through Ken Blanchard’s “One minute manager meets the monkey” had my life run before my eyes. That and learning from another management guru gave me the mantra that finally extracted me out of the self-created abyss. I tried practicing the techniques I had learnt from these wonderful texts and guess what ? They worked very well indeed. They have now become a part of my working style and I guess that will continue to keep monkeys at bay.

It would appear simplistic if I said that the dialogue now starts with “You have a problem … and what do you propose as a solution ? If you are at a dead end, here are the resources that should help you find solutions. Come back within the agreed timeline and we can discuss your recommendations on how to solve the problem”. I am not oversimplifying the issue, this works almost all the time; yes there are exceptions or tricky ones which need a different and more direct approach.

“It does not require two (or more if the issue is brought by a team) of us to solve a problem or get something done. Either you (find a way to) do it or give up the task and let me find someone more qualified to get the work done. I have not had anyone take up the latter offer as yet. They typically do find a way to solve the problem. It is not necessarily incompetence that gets them to this situation, occasionally it is laziness and many times their risk-averse nature (fear of failure or ridicule).

Upward delegation is easy for everyone when their manager/function head lives in professional pride and arrogance. The true CIO leaders would do well to abstain and learn the art of monkey management. Be aware and careful in your retaining the problem with you, lest it consume you and a large portion of your time. Even if it gave you a kick or a high, it would be a very expensive way to solve something trivial for the company.