The politics of moving from order taker to partner

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The bad news first: Being a senior IT executive is stressful, no matter how you slice it. The good news: The stress can be fun stress, not the bad stress you're used to.

This was the message that Gartner analyst Tina Nunno offered in her presentation, "The Politics of Partnership," at the firm's Symposium ITXPO last week in Orlando. It was, without a doubt, the most constructive and inspiring presentation I've sat in on in more than 15 years of covering IT events.

Nunno's purpose was to teach IT executives in the room how to shift their status from order takers to partners, a journey that involves navigating a sticky labyrinth of corporate politics. CIOs need to know not only how to act as partners but also how to get their colleagues in the business units to act as partners. This journey is not without stresses of its own, she warned, but it is almost certainly necessary if you want to succeed in any large-scale IT implementation.

"I'm just a very big believer in `pick your poison.' I think you should actually have some control over the type of stress and the quality of stress that you take on," she said. "Your ability to [build partnerships] as a leader is one of the single biggest determinants as to whether or not you will be successful in large, complicated projects, which involve many stakeholders."

Nunno offered some fascinating perspectives on why there seem to be so many obstacles for IT in partnering effectively with the rest of the organization. Chances are, she said, some of your IT team members found their way into the job because they like binary code. That's a great quality for someone who writes software, but not so great for someone who needs to partner with the marketing department.

"In binary code, what's between zero and one?" she asked. "Nothing. It's clear. It's right or wrong. It works or it doesn't, right? There's a lot of clarity in that ... In real life, what's between zero and one? An infinite number of fractions."

Too often, IT departments try to manage their relationships with the rest of the business as binary relationships, delineating formal, rigid boundaries of responsibility and control. But drawing boundaries in business often means drawing battle lines, and those do not encourage partnering.

A major component of being viewed as a partner is learning how to give off signals of strength, Nunno advised. You do not want to give the impression that the IT team enjoys lower power or status than the business units. This is a tricky transformation for many IT groups, and in all likelihood, you will get pushback from the business units. After all, they're quite happy with the status quo, in which IT is merely an order taker.

The best part of Nunno's presentation, to me, was when she spelled out some concrete techniques for avoiding the impression of weakness. First, she advised, be sure your communication does not convey low status. Instead of using words like "yes" and "customers," use words like "no/maybe" or "colleagues." If you're working with customers, she pointed out, then they're the ones who are always right.

"'No' is a healthy, entertaining word to use," she said, eliciting laughter from the IT execs in the ballroom at the Walt Disney World Dolphin hotel. "If you don't ever say no, people will assume that it's because you don't have the power to. They won't assume you're just being helpful or just being nice."

Second, make sure that your colleagues in the business units give as well as take. IT has to be very conscious of reciprocity, she insisted. You need to focus on your own value propositions and figure out what your business colleagues have--time, money--that you want. If they aren't willing to provide what is needed, refuse their project.

"If you're going to play this game ... you actually have to be willing to dole out the consequences," she said, conceding that this is risky business. "This is not an easy or fun thing to do. But I will encourage you to think about this: You only need to do it once, and they learn. You don't necessarily need to do it all the time." 

Next, if your department is rated on internal customer satisfaction, you must rate the rest of the organization on how well it works with IT. This sends a strong message about reciprocity and the inter-dependency required by large IT implementations. Finally, spell out the inter-dependencies--everything that is needed from the rest of the organization--in your IT strategy.

Although Nunno pointed out that her techniques entail risk and that IT leaders must carefully consider their current power level before applying them, I couldn't help wondering how many of you IT executives have a good chance of winning if you play their game. Being unempowered in a job is terribly stressful, true, but it's usually not as stressful as being without a job.

After all, it was a short time ago that IT was designed as a service organization, and that status remains deeply engrained in the culture at many organizations. Getting away with saying no, refusing projects or rating one's colleagues may require nothing short of a sea change in some organizations, and the ability to affect such sweeping change usually demands, at the outset, high power and status.

As we were all filing out of the ballroom after Nunno's presentation, I asked the first two IT executives I encountered about the likelihood that her approach could succeed for them. Could they take these words back to the office and apply them?

It turns out, Steve Manthei, CIO at the Pentagon's Defense Security Cooperation Agency, had already started applying them. He incorporated Nunno's advice in a few emails he sent out during the presentation. It's true that her approach entails real risk, he said, but having proximity to power can go a long way in making it work.

"If you have a seat at the big table, you can help with the cultural change throughout the business," he told me. "What I was pleased to learn today is that we're actually doing a pretty good job at this already." - Caron

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