Why IT And Biz Heads Always Think The Other Wants Them To Fail

Franchisee Columnist Todd Michaud has spent the last 16 years trying to fight IT issues, with the last six years focused on franchisee IT issues. He is currently responsible for IT at Focus Brands (Cinnabon, Carvel, Schlotzsky’s and Moe’s Southwestern Grill).

In setting after setting, IT execs and biz heads quickly run into conflict, with each side certain that the other side is secretly hoping they'll fail. The root cause of this irrational conflict? The way retailers today set IT priorities.

Late one night I found myself, in a caffeine-induced haze, pondering this part of the "IT Condition" and I was struck with a powerful vision. I am on the bridge of a spaceship. OK, actually it turns out to be a Hollywood studio made of cardboard and Erector Set parts, but I digress. Lights are flashing, sirens are blaring and everyone is looking at me. The guy who is obviously in charge of the situation yells at me, "Todd, we need more power!" I yell back, strangely in a Scottish brogue, "Captain, I'm giving you all she's got! She can't take much more of this!"

Then, this "Captain" steps aside and another one takes his place. We repeat the same dialogue. Horrified, I notice that there is a line of hundreds of "Captains" waiting to take their turn. There are hundreds of people who have expectations of me, and I never seem to have enough resources to meet the critical business needs of the moment. I have come to personify Scotty on Star Trek.

I was on a conference call with a group of franchisees recently, providing a status update on several projects. When asked about the status of one particular project, I informed the group that it had not yet been started, primarily due to a lack of IT resources. This project is important, one that is expected to deliver significant savings to the franchisees' community. I wasn't surprised when they were unhappy with my answer.

I tried to explain that my project list has dozens of projects of various sizes, supporting four brands and a corporate office. As with many IT shops, close to 70 percent of my resources are allocated to "Keeping The Lights On" activities (supporting our existing systems and technologies). With only 30 percent of resources being applied to new projects, that leaves very few slots to fill.

Let's face it, franchisees don't really care if I need to upgrade our corporate E-mail server, roll out Office 2007 to the user community or roll out a new technology to one of the other brands in our portfolio. They want to know what I am doing for them. I don't blame our franchisees. If I were in their shoes, I would feel the same way.

I have yet to meet an IT leader who doesn't feel that they need more resources (people and money) to meet the demand. Why is that? How is it that this imbalance of supply and demand is so pervasive? And why doesn't it eventually balance itself out?

I just read a great book by Susan Cramm, 8 Things We Hate About I.T., and it is the best I have seen on the topic of business-IT relationships. I highly recommend it for both IT leaders and business leaders. I have dog-eared almost every other page.

I want to share with you something from the book about how businesses manage the prioritization of IT-enabled projects as it relates to the needs of the enterprise: "With every company, there are IT leaders struggling to make business leaders love them while pushing the bitter pills of enterprise interests. An IT leader doesn't want to make your job harder. He understands that pushing you through governance processes, such as demand management, means pushing you away. But he doesn't have any other choice."One of the biggest hurdles is a disconnect between who is setting the priorities and who is asking for the work. In my experience, either an IT Steering Committee or an Executive Committee typically sets IT priorities. There may or may not be business cases presented; there may or may not be some form of voting.

The requests, however, typically come from either a functional or a department head. These folks are the ones who live in the details of the day-to-day business and understand what they want the IT system to deliver.

A typical conversation between the two leaders goes something like this:

Department Head: "I need to engage you on this project to implement technology widgets in our stores."
IT Leader: "Sounds like a great idea. Best thing to do is let your executive know to bring it to the next IT Steering Committee for review."
Department Head: "I already did. He told me that I am all set. It's going to be approved, and I should start moving forward."
IT Leader: "Well, it hasn't been brought to me as a priority yet. Until it is, unfortunately, I can't work on it."

And here's how the same conversation sounds from the other perspective:

Business Executive at the Steering Committee: "I need to add this widget to the project list."
IT Leader: "We are currently operating at 110 percent of capacity. I'd be happy to add the widget to the list, but something else will have to come off the list."
Business Executive: "Well, nothing else can come off. Can't you just make this work?"

OK, so that might be a little dramatic, but you get the point.

In my past life, what would normally happen is that one project would be dropped off the list to accommodate a new project. A month later, at the next Steering committee meeting, the business owner who lost last time would fight to get the previously dropped project back on the list and something else would get dropped off. The next month, THAT business leader would then fight to get her project back on the list, and so on. You end up doing 11 projects on a 10-project list. And you wonder why I'm not a fan of IT governance?

The other potential result is that the department head or business executive then starts looking for ways to get their widget without IT.

So what can be done to make the situation better? I don't think there is a silver bullet here. I think it really comes down to open and honest dialogue with all parties involved. Here are a few small tips that may help:

  • In some cases, it may make sense for the department or functional leader to present his case to the IT Steering Committee.
  • IT leaders should spend time talking to their business counterparts outside of the emotion and passion of a specific project to build a relationship on trust and respect.
  • Business leaders should understand that "I cannot do it right now" means that the IT leader's hands are tied. Don't shoot the messenger.
  • Consider a flexible IT organization that can grow and shrink based upon the demand at any given time.
  • Try a $0-based budget where IT resources are allocated based upon the business’ capability to purchase them.
  • Stop drinking Red Bull and watching Star Trek at 1:00 in the morning.

What do you think? Love it or hate it, I'd love to gain some additional perspectives. Leave a comment, or E-mail me at [email protected].