This Simple Meeting Hack Helps a Problem-Solving Team Refocus on Their Customers
The big impact of a small change
At Technical Assent, we constantly emphasize the model of a service-oriented organization. One of the big reasons we focus on being “service oriented” is because these organizations are better attuned to the needs of their customers and aware of the value they deliver each day. With all of the pressures of running a program day-to-day, we tend to get lost trying to put out the daily fires and often lose sight of our work in the context of what’s in the best interest of our customers. This paradox is amplified when an urgent technical problem emerges and the responsible support team must quickly shift gears to address it. Fortunately, we have a simple hack that can really help the leadership team redirect meeting conversations and get the support team rightly focused on the customer.
Yesterday was a perfect example of this. I had the opportunity to talk to a senior IT manager who is part of a leadership team working through some tough issues in their project portfolio. As a result of funding cuts over the last few years, they have regularly reduced the level of service they provide as available funds have been redistributed to higher priority projects. Facing another round of cuts, her team is evaluating a portfolio of projects and making recommendations to several internal service providers and, ultimately, the chief information officer (CIO), about what should be funded and what will have to be deferred. To facilitate the conversation, the IT manager’s team developed a basic dashboard that outlines each project individually and provides leadership with a status and an impact. Very simply, the dashboard looks something like this.
We have all seen something like this projected on a conference room screen, right? It looks innocuous enough – a simple project description, followed by a red, yellow, green status indicator, and finally, the What’s In It for Me (WIIFM) impact statement.
When the IT manager presented this at the weekly status meeting, she found that the dashboard was driving the wrong conversation among the leadership team. Based on the information provided, the leaders in the room dove right into the merits of different trade-offs in schedule and discussion about which upgrades provided the fastest technology. The IT manager left the meeting frustrated because the focus seemed to be misplaced. Everything was weighed against the impact to the IT organization instead of against the impact on the IT organization’s real customers, who are the crewmembers operating ships performing public safety missions along the Pacific coast. As she explained…
“For example, the impact of the XYZ server not being implemented is not just an increased implementation timeline. It actually has an operational impact to a number of ships who are operating in our area of responsibility right now. Without these upgrades they are not able to check the weather, receive intelligence briefs, or communicate with other partners.”
Could you hack the meeting?
Faced with this scenario, how does one IT manager use her influence to change the tone of the conversation and focus on the service impact to the end customer?
I see this kind of dilemma often with our clients at Technical Assent, so I suggested a simple experiment. The first step was to hack the existing dashboard to be more explicit about who the customer is and how they are impacted by each project. Our minimally viable product (MVP) of the new dashboard looks something like this.
The changes to the spreadsheet are simple; our hypothesis is that by presenting new information to the executive leaders – Customer and Impact to the Customer – the tone of the conversation will change. At first, when presenting information in a new way, we expect there to be some disagreement among the executive leaders about who the real customer is and the source of the mission impact data. Then, we predict that as the executive leaders begin wrestling with the real issues at hand, they will start asking for data that further validates the customer impact. This will force the IT manager and her team to dig deeper – to communicate directly with their customers, to validate the mission impact to the organization, and to recommend alternatives.
We predict that after the first conversation with executive leaders, the shift in focus will take root and will drive the next status meeting. The IT manager’s team will then be focused on describing the outcome that their customers need, and not on a specific technology solution. The more service-oriented team will continue to integrate the customer impact into each of the executive leadership conversations, facilitate decisions about providing a certain level of capability based on the impact to customers, and defend their positions using customer narratives and stories.
But the proof is in the pudding, right? We will test our hypothesis over the next few meetings with executive leaders, track the discussion, note what questions are asked, and observe how responses are framed in order to see if our simple change is indeed causing a trend in the right direction.
Of course, this is just one way for teams to change the tone of meetings to have a focus on becoming more customer-driven. What are some other recommended starting points that you have seen and have worked well in your organization?