4 relationships IT leaders can't overlook

Want to take your IT team's value to the next level? Commit to strengthening your relationships with these stakeholders
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Technology is at the core of how businesses deliver value and excel in markets today. But to provide and maintain valuable technology solutions at pace, you must ensure that IT is integrated into the heart of your organization. 

As an IT leader, there are a myriad of important relationships you already invest in: aligning with the CEO on organizational vision, collaborating with HR to hire and retain talented people who align with your principles, and connecting with your managers to enable the vision and get feedback. That's not to mention your relationships with marketing, sales, quality, and accounting.

[ Culture change is the hardest part of digital transformation. Get the digital transformation eBook: Teaching an elephant to dance. ]

Beyond these, I believe there are commonly overlooked relationships that IT teams and leaders should prioritize. Put these four on your radar if they are not there already. 

Relationship 1: Your technology users

What value are you providing to your users?

The value of IT solutions is defined by users. Until these tools are in their hands, IT is only theorizing about what’s valuable. It’s no longer enough to simply write requirements or trust internal voices that say IT is doing the most valuable things — you need to be connected to the people who use the technology solutions.

There will be in multiple vectors – internal to IT, inside the company, and outside the company – and all are important.

[ For more on effective IT leadership in challenging times, read 5 IT leadership resolutions for 2020. ]

Connect with – and learn from – the users themselves. The closer your team is to the user, the better you will understand the user’s world, and the more you will be able to empathize with their needs and deliver the best solutions. By constantly soliciting feedback during the development process, you reduce the risk of getting it wrong. Tap into the user experience experts in your organization – they have the expertise, perspective, and tools to enable powerful connections for your users and can be a strong internal connection for IT.

If your users are too busy to engage with you deeply, start with a few willing individuals and make the experience so valuable that others can’t help but join in.

If your users are too busy to engage with you deeply, start with a few willing individuals and make the experience so valuable that others can’t help but join in. One group I worked with created a regular cadence of product reviews, optimizing it for a couple of key users. They held the meeting conveniently close to the users, provided food, and asked for feedback and input frequently. They then acted on the feedback and brought the results to the next session. They even asked those users how to make the product reviews more valuable and acted on that feedback as well. When other users saw how much more clarity and value the involved users received, they came running.

Relationship 2: Your partners

Do you have the right partner strategy to deliver value?

You rely on vendors to provide products and services that enable you to deliver value, so your team’s value depends in part on your vendor’s ability to provide what you need.

Traditionally, companies have managed the risk of working with vendors by creating contracts defining specific outputs, timelines, and costs. If a vendor failed to deliver, the contract included repercussions.

However, in today’s uncertain world, many problems defy such clear-cut definitions, and these mismatches can create painful losses for both sides.

When a vendor fails, it’s usually due to one (or both) of the following situations:

  • You weren’t perfect in articulating specific outputs, so the vendor delivered an imperfect solution.
  • By the time the vendor delivers what was specified, it’s no longer highly valuable to users as their needs have shifted.

A more successful approach is to seek partnerships with vendors who share your goals.

When both parties are aligned on common outcomes (instead of just outsourcing outputs), everyone is incentivized to find the best way to get through changing situations. Just as you need to build a relationship with your users in order to deliver high-value solutions, you should invite and expect your vendors to do the same with you, their users.

Working with vendors, of course, can involve a substantial investment. You should trust that they care about your outcomes, have the breadth of services and expertise to deliver on them, and are vendor-agnostic – not tied to selling one type of product from one technology vendor – in order to impartially advocate for the best solution for your organization.

Relationship 3: Risk and compliance

Is risk and compliance your friend or your enemy?

The relationship between the CISO and the risk and compliance team and the rest of the organization, including IT, is often acrimonious. After all, the most secure server is the one that’s unplugged and locked away in a closet – and the easiest way to deliver solutions can create the highest risk. Delivering valuable, sustainable solutions requires taking acceptable risks.

Both groups’ needs are important and must be balanced for the organization to be successful. While risk and compliance may never be your bestie, you can build bridges, respect perspectives, seek understanding, and establish trust. You will need this relationship for the long-term challenges you’ll tackle together.

Consider using powerful questions to explore new strategies. Here are a few examples:

  • How can we take advantage of mobile technologies to increase the connection with our users while we maintain compliance with government regulations?
  • What is the best possible outcome in this situation?
  • What will happen if we do nothing?
  • What’s the smallest thing we can do to explore the riskiest thing here?

Using facilitation techniques like Wicked Questions or 15% Solutions, teams can explore new possibilities and discover valuable strategies that address seemingly opposing needs.

Additionally, you can reduce the fear of a large failure by setting up small, transparent experiments. For example, instead of attempting to determine a new authentication scheme for all applications, implement it with a feature toggle in an application that doesn’t contain sensitive data.

Likewise, instead of eliminating a compliance stage gate, identify one team that will have a compliance guide whose goal is to increase their compliance knowledge and decision-making.

In either case, you will need to create a hypothesis for the experiment, identify the desired outcomes and measures that you will be observing, and agree on a short time period in which to run the experiment. At that point, review the observations, identify learning points, and decide on your next steps – will you abandon it, adjust it, or expand it?

In many cases, the magic lies in how the risks are mitigated and the solutions pass compliance checks. What is the spirit and intent of the rules, apart from the ways you have implemented or verified in the past?

Relationship 4: Yourself

Have you built a solid relationship with yourself?

Emotional intelligence and self-awareness are non-negotiable for leaders across functions.

As an IT leader, you cannot lead effectively if you don’t know your own strengths, weaknesses, biases, needs, and motivations. Emotional intelligence and self-awareness are non-negotiable for leaders across functions. In fact, when you’re blind to these things, you will inevitably make poor decisions, unintentionally hurt teammates and partners, and impede the growth of your organization and the relationships you seek to build.

To build a stronger relationship with yourself, ask yourself these questions:

  • What are my strengths, weaknesses, biases, needs, and motivations?
  • Are there passions I can tap into to better bridge gaps?
  • Am I creating roadblocks that stand in my team’s way?
  • Have I implemented 360-degree reviews and gathered employee engagement data?
  • Do I have coaching tools and support that help me see myself and my organization in new ways and encourage my team to deliver awesome solutions?

From improving operations to delivering innovations to improve customer value, technology has become truly integrated with business. Building strong relationships can boost your success rate.

[ How can automation free up more staff time for innovation? Get the free eBook: Managing IT with Automation. ] 

Mark is the national lead for Agile Enablement Services on Insight Enterprises’ Digital Innovation team.

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