Want business to understand IT? Tell a story

Want business to understand IT? Tell a story

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August 17, 2015
CIO Digital Training

When communications break down between business and tech leaders, often the reason is the terms in which we discuss technology. Features and functionality like data mining, SaaS, the Internet of Things, and even the cloud are important to the people working with them, but in the mind of a business leader these may just be vaguely understood concepts.

Turning a technology proposal or project into a narrative is a much more effective way to get your points across, according to Scott Brave, CTO of the contact management software company FullContact. In an interview with The Enterprisers Project, he explains how.

The Enterprisers Project (TEP): A good narrative has a beginning, middle, and end. How do you create that when it comes to IT?

Brave: IT projects naturally have a beginning, middle, and end. There's a beginning state — perhaps a crisis, lurking problem, or some unrealized potential. There's an end goal — get out of the woods, slay the dragon, evolve, reach some new land. And then there's the middle — the journey to get there, complete with twists and turns, subplots, moments of uncertainty and epiphany. Finally, there are the characters — system components perhaps in this case — each with a clearly defined personality and role in enabling the journey.

TEP: How do you get business leaders engaged in the story?

Brave: Humans are wired for narrative, and a good narrative will be deeply engaging at the emotional level as long as you speak to your audience. For business execs, the narrative will often need to be framed in terms of short or long term business impact, such as increased revenue, decreased cost, improved predictability, increased agility, or an altered risk profile. The dream of a beautiful/elegant/extensible system may be a goal in and of itself for technical folks (often for good downstream reasons). But it does not necessarily need to enter the business-level conversation.

This is not to say that you should come up with a contrived storybook-style tale to overlay on your project. While certain projects may lend themselves to that on occasion, you want the narrative to feel natural rather than forced. Telling a story does not always need to be a literal story. Consider your project in terms of themes, journeys, metaphors, and characters and I promise you your language will change, your diagrams will change, and you will start evoking emotion and engagement.

TEP: What are some of your tips for IT leaders who want to frame IT or an IT project as a narrative?

Brave: It may sound trite, but keeping the narrative simple is essential. Often it's quite hard to do. Just like editing a movie, it may even require leaving major aspects of the story out that may not be critical to the overall plot. But it's not just about understandability of the narrative; it's about memorability. Simplicity helps memorability, but so does using metaphors that speak to your audience. Even super-simple metaphors such as plumbing for data flow can help to paint a memorable picture.

Don't let the narrative overtake or influence the actual work — it's a tool that is subservient to the real work. It's a tool, however, that can really help others who are not in the weeds be on the journey with you empathize with your ups and downs and provide support.

TEP: What if your topic doesn't seem to lend itself to a narrative?

Brave: If you don't create the narrative one will be created for you. It may not always be a fully conscious or well-formed narrative, but it's almost certainly there. There's been a lot of research into narrative theory in the last decade or so, and a lot of evidence that narrative is core to cognition.

Complicated stories require multiple chapters. It's ok to have a long-term plot that you split into multiple subplots. Not every character need be involved in every chapter.

TEP: What are the biggest mistakes IT people make when telling business leaders about technology and technology projects?

Brave: Over-explaining, over-complicating, over-justifying, and forgetting your audience. When you make things overly technical your audience may be afraid to ask questions, pose challenges, or offer intuitive or insightful alternatives. It becomes much more of  one-way conversation. Your listeners know that you are smart and capable — the goal of the narrative is to help them understand and follow your journey while engaging with it.

TEP: What other advice would you offer CIOs and CTOs on how to talk about technology to business leadership?

Brave: Tech folks often spend too much time on the specific how versus the why. Take the time to frame the problem that you are solving, sometimes in multiple ways. Take the time explain alternatives that you aren't pursuing. Then jump into the how, but it should feel more like peeling an onion than reading an encyclopedia. Starting with the holistic view first is the narrative. The details then become the prose that gives it life.

Scott Brave is the Chief Technology Officer at FullContact, the most powerful fully-connected contact management platform for professionals and enterprises who need to master their contacts and be awesome with people. FullContact’s cross-platform suite of Apps and APIs enhance contacts with insights, while keeping them organized, synchronized, up to date and safe. Prior to FullContact Scott founded m.sound creations and was the founder and CTO of Baynote, Inc. Prior to Baynote, Scott was a postdoctoral scholar in the Department of Communication at Stanford University where he served as lab manager for the CHIMe (Communication between Humans and Interactive Media) Lab. Scott received his Ph.D in Human-Computer Interaction, and B.S. In Computer Systems Engineering from Stanford University and his M.S. From the MIT Media Lab. Scott is an inventor of numerous patents and the co-author of over 30 refereed publications in the areas of human-computer interaction and artificial intelligence.

Minda Zetlin is a business technology writer and columnist for Inc.com. She is co-author of "The Geek Gap: Why Business and Technology Professionals Don't Understand Each Other and Why They Need Each Other to Survive," as well as several other books. She lives in Snohomish, Washington. Find her at www.mindazetlin.com.  

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