When we left this story a few weeks ago, our protagonist, the senior IT manager, and her team were reviewing a portfolio of IT projects. Their objective was to recommend, in light of mandatory budget cuts, which projects should be funded and which should be deferred. She had recognized that the conversation about these projects was overly focused on the impact to the IT organization and the impact to the customer was not being considered. The solution we helped her form was quite simple: hack the existing portfolio dashboard to explicitly identify the customer and describe the mission impact to that customer.
In the time between status meetings, the IT manager spoke to or visited all of the impacted customers. During these meetings, she listened to the mission and business requirements and did not focus on any specific piece of broken equipment. As anticipated, the results surprised her – some customers’ issues truly impacted their ability to carry out their objective. Others were similarly impacted, but had identified redundant capability or alternatives that provided a temporary solution. Based on the customer outreach effort, this collective insight could now be factored into the IT portfolio decision.
A week later, the IT manager held her weekly status meeting with the executive leaders of the IT organization, this time using the improved dashboard prototype and sharing the customer insights. First, the IT manager described the recommended changes to the dashboard and her logic for restructuring it. Before she even dove into the projects themselves, the switch to customer focus had turned to “on” for the most senior executive in the room. By seeing the impact described in the language of his customers, he was immediately reminded of why these decisions mattered.
“the executive officers from each of our customers are going to come over here and hug you for this”
Keep in mind, this team generally considers themselves to be customer-oriented. However, like many of us when we are faced with a challenge, their natural inclination was to create fixes rather than step back and re-frame the challenge around their customers’ needs. This had been the phantom-like problem plaguing the IT manager and her team in their initial round of meetings.
Implied in the executive’s response is that the dashboard itself is now something he would proudly share with his customers. This immediate reaction towards transparency was not something we had anticipated in this experiment, but it is a great outcome. It promotes an honest relationship with their customers and enables the IT manager’s team to further clarify and validate these impact statements with the customers. Furthermore, sharing the dashboard sends a strong message to the customer that their mission support team understands their challenges, understands their equities, and has to make some tough decisions for the good of the service.
The resolution to this situation has been generally positive; in light of some tough mission decisions, the IT manager and her team was able to position the issues transparently and make recommendations that have a measurable impact to the mission outcomes that her customers care about. It is important to remember that the original context of these conversations were about making difficult recommendations to the CIO about which projects to fund and which to defer.
Putting the decisions in customer terms can make the actual decision-making much harder, but weighing the mission impact to the customer as a key driver of the decision enables leaders to enter into the decision with their eyes open to the consequence of their decisions.
In the end, our simple change in this situation has sparked a change in the right direction allowing this service-oriented team to integrate customer impact and customer insight into decision-making. It also set the initial groundwork for more open and transparent conversations in the future.