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An Unconventional Solution to a Big IT Problem

By Marc J. Schiller
IT stakeholders

An Unconventional Solution to a Big IT Problem

Doesn’t this cartoon illustrate the truth? So often, the user community

  •  doesn’t know what it wants
  • can’t tell IT what it wants and
  • isn’t available to review IT's specifications and plans—even when they are written out for the users.

No matter how you slice it, the user community believes that we will somehow divine the perfect system for them. And as much as we wish this unrealistic expectation would go away—or that we could just go ahead and write the systems without our users’ involvement—we all know that’s not possible. (At least, not if we want to have a hope of actually delivering on their real needs.)

So what’s an IT professional to do when faced with the ever-present burden of unavailable stakeholders? Here’s a real-life story that may cause you to not only think a little differently, but to act a little differently in the coming year.

A Big System With a Big Engagement Problem

Yvonne Scott, CIO of Crowe Horwath, an accounting and professional services firm, was tasked with building a new platform to support the core audit business. The audit business was in the process of replacing its current system with a new service delivery platform that would enable auditors to manage their business from a single place.

The new system was set to offer a suite of new features, including collaboration capabilities, internal and external portals, and a host of reporting options. Most important, it was critical to the user community. The current technology was essentially obsolete and needed to be replaced ASAP.

All the preplanning and architectural visioning was done. The business case was complete. The vendors, the tools—all of the pure IT work involved in project setup—had been completed. In fact, Scott’s team had finished developing a full set of functional requirements.

The problem: It was time for business leadership to get involved, and to take steps to ensure the long-term involvement of their team. In particular, Scott needed the business leadership to

  • approve the final functional requirements
  • demonstrate excitement for the project and
  • communicate the importance of the project throughout the business to ensure continued buy-in and participation.

Scott scheduled numerous meetings with the key stakeholder, who had communicated with her several times about the importance of the project and his desire to support it. However, the logistics of their business (the need to travel a great deal) made it impossible for her to get any meaningful face-to-face time with the key stakeholder to address the issues. The key stakeholder wasn't turning down her meetings. He was just on the road all the time.

Scott considered using some classic distance-based communication tools— online meetings, conference calls, etc.—that we all know and love (hah!). But, since she managed a large, geographically diverse team with many remote users, Scott knew that long-distance communication wouldn’t produce the deep level of engagement required to drive this project forward. She needed to be in the same room as the key stakeholder, and neither of their offices was an option.

In the audit and professional services business, delaying a project until travel schedules calm down is not an option.

A simple, but unconventional, solution came to Scott during a team meeting: “Instead of waiting for our stakeholder to come to the office, let’s send some of our key people to travel with him.”

An Unconventional Solution to a Big IT Problem

Yvonne Scott’s Team Hits the Road

Over the next six weeks, Crowe Horwath’s enterprise architect traveled the country with the key stakeholder. Wherever the stakeholder went, the architect was with him. Whenever the stakeholder had a free moment, they worked together. To prepare for the meetings, the architect worked overtime to make sure the next time their stakeholder looked over the project materials, they were fully up to date.

Their hard work paid off: Six weeks later, Yvonne Scott had an approved architecture for the new audit platform.

The Added Benefits of Face-to-Face Meetings

This deep engagement with their key stakeholder yielded a number of additional benefits beyond the approval of the architecture. They included:

· The key stakeholder brought eight business peers into key project roles.

· He actively supported selling this project to the firm’s executive committee.

· He provided insights that helped IT identify commonalities with other projects designed for other business units.

“It became an accelerator for all our service delivery platforms across the organization,” Scott said.

Hit the Road or Hit Your Head Against the Wall

We all know that getting signoff and approval and stakeholder engagement is a must for every project. But there isn’t a business in the world that isn’t becoming more mobile.

In this highly mobile, fast-changing business world of ours—where meetings are canceled on a moment’s notice, and services like GoToMeeting and WebEx are meant to replace face-to-face interaction—we are tempted to believe that remote interactions are the only way to work, and that compromises have to be made in order to get through the project deliverables.

Fight that temptation!

By steadfastly sticking to the need to engage one-on-one and face-to-face with key stakeholders—even if that means getting on the road with them—you dramatically increase your chances of success with the project. In addition, you set yourself up for a whole series of knock-on benefits such as those enjoyed by Scott and her team.

So don’t compromise on face-to-face stakeholder engagement—no matter what it takes.

I want to thank Yvonne Scott for showing us the way.

Marc J. Schiller has spent more than two decades teaching IT strategy and leadership to the world’s top companies. Through online courses, speaking engagements and corporate consulting, his company, Rain Partners, nurtures, educates and develops IT pros at all levels on how to be more effective, influential and successful in their IT careers. Click here for a free digital copy of his acclaimed book—The 11 Secrets of Highly Influential Leaders.

This article was originally published on 11-20-2014