As business systems professionals, you should always aspire to provide efficient and robust solutions to teams across your company. 

While a world in which you could say “yes” to everything and prioritize every request that comes your way equally would make that an easy task, the reality is more likely one in which you are performing a balancing act between available resources and competing needs. 

This, understandably, can create tension between IT and the business stakeholders requesting support. 

This balancing act does not need to result in a contentious relationship between IT and the rest of the company, though. Justin Norris, Senior Director of Solutions Architecture at Perkuto, joined us at Biz Systems Magic 2021 to reconceptualize the relationship between IT and the company at large, providing a 5-pillar plan to ensure a more fertile and rewarding cross-team partnership.

Two inadequate models

Norris began by laying out two common IT/business dynamics that can lead to contention. 

The first positions IT and business systems (BizSys) teams as “order-takers” and business stakeholders as “clients,” where departments call the shots and BizSys teams execute. In this dynamic, BizSys teams have little agency, and client needs are met on a first come, first served basis, or are dealt with based on whichever team executive is exerting the most pressure. 

This system positions BizSys as a weak business partner that cannot adequately ideate and innovate solutions, but only respond to short-term demands—as Norris put it, “giving people what they ask for is not always the same as giving them what is best.” As a result of this short-term focus, no one department is incentivized to invest in long-term improvements, governance, and process, and BizSys teams are consistently overwhelmed which leads to issues with hiring and retention.

An inverse dynamic, however, can arise when BizSys teams are seen as gatekeepers. Norris calls this a “fortress mentality,” and it manifests in response to constant scarcity of resources and overwhelming volume of requests. 

In this dynamic, BizSys teams adopt exceedingly rigid governance and bureaucratic processes in order to slow down and even avoid work, which can lead to projects stalling out. The drawback here is that business opportunities are often left on the table uncompleted, leading to low satisfaction and retention among the teams that BizSys serves. This can lead the “client” to circumvent the company’s central support staff with consultants and shadow IT, eventually leading to BizSys being perceived as irrelevant.

Does any of this sound familiar? 

Reconceptualizing the relationship

Neither of these dynamics are ideal when it comes to operating a sustainable and scalable business. 

To help reconceptualize the relationship between BizSys and the departments they serve, Norris encouraged BizSys to understand their place in the hierarchy of priorities within a company. The highest priority projects are those related to corporate priorities, the overarching business goals set at the executive level. Next in line are functional priorities, which connect team-level goals for departments like Sales, Marketing, and HR, to the broad company-wide goals. Systems priorities then lie in the next level and center around understanding the needs of each team and helping them execute what they need. 

In understanding where BizSys fits within this hierarchy of priorities, it’s important to realize a few important base-level truths: First and foremost, you should treat the various departments within your company as customers, which means that then the applications and services you use and your specific implementations therein are your products. 

“Would our users buy our implementation if they had discretion and were not forced into a monopoly of one?” Norris encouraged BizSys professionals to ask themselves. “Do they love using our products and systems? Does it have the features they need?” 

This mindset leads to the final truth, which is that BizSys teams should operate as product managers, focusing on providing great products to customers—in this case, a company’s various internal departments. After recalibrating your BizSys dynamic to one focused on service, you can begin fine-tuning your approach through an understanding of the 5 pillars of the product management model.

5 Pillars of Product Management

Now that you’ve embraced your role as a product manager focused on serving elegant, well-architected software and implementations to the departments that make up your client base, you should consider the 5 pillars of product management to best put this recalibrated dynamic into practice. The 5 pillars are: products, customers, planning, communications, and KPIs.

When considering the product pillar, Norris recommended having a clear product manager who can understand what the customer needs, keep track of large-scale business goals, articulate what success looks like, and then support the team in reaching that level of success. By having the right person at the helm of implementing each product your BizSys team provides, you can ensure happiness and efficiency. 

For the customer pillar, Norris recommended creating a customer map to identify and keep track of your customers, including leaders and managers as well as users who are more hands-on with your products. Engaging across levels is a must in this pillar, and you should align with everyone from executives who can communicate clear corporate priorities to those who use your product everyday.

For the planning pillar, you should craft a product roadmap. This is not a collection of tasks and milestones, but a higher level vision that can be used to rally the teams around a shared set of priorities. 

The planning pillar is closely entwined with the customer pillar, and involves utilizing relationships with executives and daily users to translate corporate and functional priorities into system themes and initiatives, new products, and new features. Another important aspect of planning is prioritizing and negotiating—capitalizing on those close customer relationships you’ve built to mitigate frustration that might arise from limited resources. Norris recommends keeping business goals as a guiding principle, but also shifting vocabulary from one of negation, where you say “we can’t do that,” to one of negotiation, where you say “is x a greater priority than y.” 

For communication, Norris advised that you drill down on when, where, and what you communicate. 

Communicating early and often is important, so teams know what’s coming, who it will impact, and what the current status of each initiative is. There are also specific avenues of communication that work best for certain needs: For interviews and executive alignment, Norris recommends in-person 1-on-1 meetings, while other communications may be better handled by in-person or digital 1-to-many avenues. 

As far as what to communicate, focus on serviceable information, but also make sure to come across as human and real, establishing consistent messaging that users might find interesting. After setting these pillar-based plans in action, the final pillar to drill down on is KPI’s, which in this case means creating BizSys-based success metrics that ladder up to functional and corporate priorities.

With these concrete plans of execution in place, you can begin to reconfigure BizSys teams as service-oriented problem-solvers. To learn more about the process and the five pillars, you can watch the full session here.

Justin Kamp
About Justin Kamp

Justin is a freelance writer who primarily covers the intersection of art and technology.