Stressful Meeting

Face time with the senior leaders of “the business”: the holy grail of IT. It’s a chance to find out what IT can do to make a contribution and to demonstrate its value. When things go well at these meetings, it can mean extra budget and opportunity for IT. When they don’t…well, you know what happens then.

I was recently part of such a meeting. The CIO was holding a leadership team meeting for his senior IT managers and he invited two VPs to come and speak to the group over lunch. The two VPs who came, are together, responsible for 85% of the company’s bottom line. It was a big opportunity and the IT folks were thrilled.

The meeting got started in the typical way. Some introductions, some objectives, a hand-off to the business VPs who genuinely expressed their appreciation for everything IT was doing. Harmony prevailed.

As the meeting progressed, the business folks conveyed a lot of very interesting information about the business: Where things were headed for the company, strategic issues and drivers of the business. And that was great. For a while.

As we came closer to our end time, I couldn’t just sit there and let these business folks leave without engaging them a bit in the dialogue that IT most needed to hear: the key challenges and opportunities where IT can play a role.

So, I turned to one of the VPs and explained that “it would be really helpful for the IT leadership team to hear directly from you on some of the areas where they can have a major impact.” I followed up with a request to ask a few pointed questions. They graciously agreed, although I could tell that a few of the IT managers were worried about what I was going to say. (I’m used to that already.)

My first (actually my only) question was simply this: “What are the three biggest information or technology related problems your group is experiencing right now?”

The answer that came back was something along the lines of “It would be really great if we could have a more comprehensive view of our customer.” I politely acknowledged the answer and said, “I’m sure that would be helpful, but could you please share with us the specific and tangible pain you are experiencing?” This time the answer came back as “We need a system that gives us a strategic view of our market activities and their impact.” Again, I acknowledged the answer but followed up with “that sounds like a wonderful idea, but can we first start with articulating a clear problem and issue before getting to the system solution?”

This went on for another two rounds of back and forth. By this point I knew that this VP had a serious case of the the Solution Seekers Syndrome and I needed to give him a bit of help. So instead of pressing the issue any further, I shared with him a story from another client in the industry and pointed to a very specific challenge of managing customer discounts. I then asked him if he had the same issue. He jumped at the opportunity to hold on to something specific and off he went. He described in clear detail exactly the problems he and his team are facing in this area.

I could go on and share more of the specifics of the conversation and where they went after that, but that’s not the key point of this story. What this interaction demonstrated to all the IT folks in the room is how difficult it can be for business folks, even the most senior VPs, to express a clear problem.

I see this all the time. In fact, I’ve seen it so much, I named it: The Solution-Seeker Trap in my book, The 11 Secrets of Highly Influential IT Leaders (shameless plug!).

In short, The Solution-Seeker Trap is the trap of identifying a “solution” without fully understanding what the problem is. Both business and IT are guilty of falling into this trap. Constantly. A great solution applied to the wrong problem is no solution at all. A great hammer is no good for driving a screw. This sets up all concerned for a waste of time and money because you’ll be chasing the wrong solution. Even worse, it may end up being seen as an IT failure, even if it was just IT implementing the “solution” they were told to…and we definitely don’t want that now do we?

By persisting in asking the important question, “What is your specific problem?” and helping our colleagues dig under their previous pattern of thinking about solutions, not problems, we were able to shift the conversation. Even more excitingly, I heard later from participants, that this change persisted after the meeting. I was told that both IT and business started defining problems first, rather than jumping to solutions. And to have more productive conversations and solutions because of it.

Business appreciates having a confident IT partner, that challenges and engages them…really, they do. And the business side needs IT’s expertise, informed by knowledge of the business, to help them perform at their best.

So, next time you’re in one of those meetings ask, with the greatest respect and sense of partnership…

“What is really hurting you?” And keep asking it.

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