Digital Strategy happens close to the customer. And before we go to far, when I say customer I am not talking about your IT customer. I am talking about the Customer, capital C. The one that spends their time and money with your business. Business units that are close to these people have the best idea of what the customer needs and how they are changing. To keep your organization competitive and profitable you need to be driving the customer experience.

Unfortunately, for most technologists IT is about as far removed from the customer as a group can be. In many environments, business units interact with customers, come up with strategies (and I use that term lightly), submit requests for projects and features to their IT representative, they work with the PMO to schedule features, and the IT team then implements them. This situation leads to many of the problems between technologists and other business units. What’s worse even in the instances where IT is connecting with business using Agile techniques, business analysis, etc, the individuals are not properly skilled capable to help understand the real WHYs of the business unit or group. Enter the Iasa architect or digital transformation specialist. Skilled in business and deep technical skills and fueled with innovation and measurable business outcomes.

The only question is how do we get these people connected with business people in the first place. The PMO often controls much of the relationship with business partners and the politics around even setting up a meeting with a business person can be horrible. So how can we systematically move to a direct leadership position with business strategy to be able to inject digital innovation, transformation and measures?

Use the following guide to take a team of architects and get them focused on strategy to delivery ahead of the PMO…

  1. Find out how projects are started: Many of the corporate members I visit will sit down with me to discuss how they can get better at business relationships. One of my first questions is always, when and how do projects get started? Is there a business case? A meeting? What time of year? What does the list of project ideas look like? Who discusses it? Who has power to decide? Is it done by business unit, by vertical, by product, by region? If I wanted to start a technology project, who would I talk to and what do I have to submit? In many of those cases I get blank stares and confused expressions. The number one step to getting contact with business is find out how business contacts technologists. Understand the project ‘ideation’ phase. Focus on new types of projects. The point of this is to identify the people, the process and the tools involved in driving new ideas. Pay very close attention to the measurements and terms they use. For example someone might say, “Oh you submit a business case to the PPC and it has to include the Optimize for the Customer measures with a bunch of TCO, ROI and stuff.” What is the PPC? I made it up to stand for Portfolio and Program Coordinator. Plenty of those made up titles out there (apologies to any PPCs reading this). What is Optimize for the Customer? Turns out it is a CEO phrase for the current strategy of increasing customer satisfaction, measured by an in store or after purchase survey as well as other contributing factors (Return on Investment, Total Cost of Ownership). These items will be important in a later step. So now you have a map of stakeholders and strategy and innovation. Yep all you had to do was trace the project source… now you know where the real investment happens.
  2. Understand and get involved in the stages of projects/programs: Strategy without delivery is mental masturbation. We are going to avoid that by getting to know the whole pmo lifecycle. Three reasons, strategy always starts out with an idea of what value we are going to create by taking some set of actions, their is much more to delivery of strategy than just your project management process, and very few companies actually review whether or not they achieved the change and the value they proposed in the strategy. This arms us with information about the quality of project/program success with real numbers and real financial and customer outcomes. You want to look for the PMOs ability to deliver on expectations and how much of that is actual vs opinion based. Both are important and valuable measures of success. Again, who are the stakeholders in delivery and how are they measured? What are common complaints and issues? How does delivery success measure up to success of your other business units (I believe fully that IT has a higher success rate than marketing, though I still need more objective analysis). The goal of this step is to truly understand the full lifecycle from idea, to strategy, to execution, to measured change, to outcome.
  3. Get to know the BRM (Business Relationship Manager) or equivalent: other business units talk to IT all the time and the people who own that communication control IT. Seriously, they control the projects, the stakeholders with budget and the amount and speed of work flowing into the group. They also influence every single important stakeholder your team needs to reach. Make a list of them and start finding ways to meet them and get a feel for their priorities, their motivations and their abilities. There are a LOT of highly competent business to IT liaisons and managers in the world, there are also a lot of them that do not have the skillset, the background in both business and technology or the disposition to act as a strategic advisor. These are people your team need to build a relationship with. There are a number of Human Dynamics techniques you can use.
  4. Submit business cases and have ideas: Here is the central theme. Most teams are prepared to react to ideas. Most teams are waiting to be told what to do. Some are asking why. But very few technology focused teams and individuals are prepared to have ideas and submit them. It is a hard mental shift, but if it doesn’t happen you will never be a part of strategic discussions. This is where we talk about ‘skin in the game’, responsibility, ownership and sharing in the rewards. There is no such thing as a digital transformation team who cannot submit ideas, in the form of business cases, into the transformation process. Read this post of mine to understand the steps: Becoming Digital Transformers. 
  5. Modify how resources are assigned: One of the most critical steps in working with a PMO is to get the transformation team in charge of who works on what and when. This is a lot harder than it sounds. First there is hierarchical pressure to keep people doing whatever their manager says even if they would be much better used on something else. Second there is a serious lack of understanding of the skills and capabilities of architects and digital transformers. Third, in many cases doing it requires some advice I got from my grandma, “Do the job you have and the job you want until you have the job you want.” That is unfortunate but real change often comes slowly and isn’t easy. Fortunately, the PMO as an organizational capability doesn’t care who is assigned to what, and yet as people, they do. This gives two avenues to begin influencing who gets put on what project. First, you can review new projects for ‘architectural roadmap optimization’ and then recommend the right people (organizational method). In addition, review your current PMO stakeholders and your relationships with them. Who are the super stars and who do they like to work with? Personal influence may be a way to start changing things around. We will have to get around to How you assign people in a future post.
  6. Look up and out: Most architects and digital transformers cultivate relationships during their projects. Are you dealing with a business unit on your current project? Users, stakeholders, sponsors? These people are the key to unlocking the business to transformer relationship. A great architect is always looking ‘up and out’ of their current project and current stakeholder community to find opportunities, issues and relationships. Ask your current stakeholders how they as a business unit prioritize and select projects. See if you can come up with an idea for their business unit, write a business case and give it to them (on your own time). Try to get a meeting with the project sponsor to better understand their business goals for the project and what other projects they have. Look at what concurrent projects they are sponsoring. No matter how high a level you are currently involved in, always look up and out to understand and influence. It only takes one big win with a business executive before you become their most trusted resource.
  7. Follow the Money: Decision makers are aligned around the money. Budgets, revenue, customers. Do a business model canvas or a strategy scorecard or both for your current project, program and business partner. Where is the money coming in and how much? Who spends with us and why? Following the money also means you know the values and measures of success for business. Don’t know your current market cap? Have no idea about revenue and costs across capabilities and processes? Finance is the language of business. Be able to speak it well.
  8. Capture their hearts: Technologists tend to believe that capability (skill level and knowledge) is more important than trust in relationships. We measure ourselves in knowledge and skill in technical areas. But research shows that trust is established through much more human activities. Integrity, honesty, self-confidence, ambition, comfort level, risk taking, humor, and likeability are deeply important to building the relationships of trust that strategists need to be able to work at even medium levels of executive capability. You must build your ’emotional quotient’ first. Remember that annoying vendor programmer or DBA you worked with who was capable and knowledgeable but had serious attitude problems. How likely are you to want to work with them again. Do NOT let yourself become a ‘brain on a stick’ who gets called in any time the executives need to solve a hard problem. They are humans, show them you are too.
  9. Find a brand: I stress this with all transformation teams. Find your brand. If you want to get ahead of the PMO there has to be a reason you get invited. Treat your team like a startup. What is your value? Why should I hire your or use your services? It needs to be catchy, easy to remember, and clearly beneficial to business partners (I avoid calling internal staff customers as they are NOT my customer, my customer shops at our stores, online, etc). A great brand will set your team apart. I’d give examples but I don’t want to limit you and brands are very tied to the maturity and the culture of your internal group. If it doesn’t fit on a t-shirt it isn’t a brand.
  10. Keep at it: This is going to be a 6-18 mo cycle. Keep going. Keep your head down early and your ears up. Do not get discouraged by policy or management changes. Think of yourselves as a rebellion against the empire. Whatever it takes. Think BIG, start small and move fast.