How building trust and empathy can increase speed in IT 

Zimmer Biomet CIO Zeeshan Tariq shares how his team has embedded IT professionals  into all levels of the organization - creating trust that's proving invaluable during COVID-19
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Digital transformation 2021

[ Editor's Note: Zimmer Biomet CIO Zeeshan Tariq was a finalist for the 2020 MIT Sloan CIO Leadership Award. To hear more from Tariq, join the MIT Sloan CIO Digital Leadership Learning Series Episode #5 on Oct. 14, where he and other leading CIOs will discuss topics including digital transformation. ]

I read a quote some time ago that said, “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care about them.” I think “trust” is interchangeable with “care” here: People don’t care how much you know until they can trust you. Trust is the key ingredient. 

When I joined Zimmer Biomet four years ago, IT was not part of the executive leadership team.  That changed two years later when I was asked to join because members of the leadership team felt they were missing perspectives and opportunities that IT could bring to the table. 

This became an exercise in trust: Members of the leadership team had their own perceptions and understanding of IT, and as the newcomers, it was our job to demonstrate and communicate our value. 

[ Get answers to key digital transformation questions and lessons from top CIOs: Download our digital transformation cheat sheet. ]

How we embedded IT in all levels of the organization

During the past two years, we’ve ascribed to a new organizational structure that aligned our IT team members with our functional partners. This provides our team members an intimate understanding of the processes in the functions they’re supporting, as well as gives our functional partners a dedicated point of contact for their organization. 

While our team members have always understood the capabilities that technology can bring, what some have lacked is an intimate understanding of the business functions and how they operate — whether it be supply chain, operations or sales. Unless you’re involved in the day-to-day discussions, it’s difficult to understand the broader perspectives of other functions, what the true challenges are, and why they have the priorities they do. Building this element — empathy — is key to our success.

Today, there isn’t a single individual who doesn’t have IT staff at their level; IT team members are as much a part of the business function team as they are part of the global IT organization.

To build that expertise, we embedded IT team members into all levels of the organization. We paired them with the executive leaders, their direct reports, and so on. Today, there isn’t a single individual who doesn’t have IT staff at their level; IT team members are as much a part of the business function team as they are part of the global IT organization.

As part of this model, we ask our team members to spend a certain percentage of their time on the manufacturing floor if they’re assigned to manufacturing or in the field if they support commercial organization, for example. This helps them understand that function’s needs. This builds intimacy, empathy, and trust — and ultimately it results in high satisfaction with the way solutions are being recommended, co-developed, produced, and delivered.

When Steve Jobs was building the first iPhone, he didn’t do what was expected in the industry, which was asking prospective customers about the features they wanted. If you asked them, he said, they would have given you more of the same, with just more bells and whistles, and ultimately the same paradigm because that’s what people were used to.

Sometimes our functional partners aren’t able to articulate what technology they need or why they need it.  Having an IT partner helps to “add the value beyond the core,” as we say. The functional partner has the expertise in their domain and we bring the technology piece to the table. This partnership is what makes the model work.

Tracking our progress

To ensure the partnership runs smoothly, it’s important for us to align, collectively set objectives and agree upon how team members will be measured. 

Every quarter we set formal touchpoint meetings with the executive leader, the leadership team, the IT Leader/point person who supports them, and myself to assess and regroup if we need to course correct. 

A regular question I ask is, “What have you done to move the needle in the right direction and what have you done to go above and beyond?” 

During this meeting, the IT Leader covers what they’ve accomplished to date and what their plan is in the coming months. A regular question I ask is, “What have you done to move the needle in the right direction and what have you done to go above and beyond?” 

These questions get them thinking about how they can apply their technology expertise to solve a problem that perhaps has not been discussed, which is important because we don’t want to provide the bare minimum, we want to provide the highest level of service. 

Finally, to keep us all accountable, we address any new issues and come up with a game plan for how to collectively address them.

Adapting through the pandemic

If we hadn’t  positioned ourselves the way we did, with an IT team member embedded in all functional teams throughout the organization, we would not have been as effective as we were in helping to pivot in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Because we had a level of intimacy and empathy with our functional partners, and because our team had deep knowledge of the entire organization, we were able to move quickly, give guidance, and create capabilities that enabled the company to scale up or down and make the right calculated bets to stay solvent. 

For example, as Zimmer Biomet is a medical device company, a key part of what we do is educating healthcare professionals on new therapies and surgical techniques. Because we can’t currently conduct those conferences and medical education events, we quickly pivoted to online and virtual training that healthcare professionals can access live or on demand. We wouldn’t have been able to do this so quickly if we hadn’t had our current structure in place.

This structure – pairing IT with our functional partners – and the speed with which we’ve been able to adapt could not have happened without trust. Our IT team had to trust that this new way to organize was the right move to make, and our functional partners had to trust that we would be able to deliver.

Collectively, that trust and empathy were able to guide us through some very tough times, undoubtedly making us stronger. 

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

Zeeshan Tariq was appointed Vice President and Chief Information Officer of Zimmer Biomet in July 2016 and is a member of the executive leadership team. He is responsible for all aspects of the global digital strategy and business transformation through technology. Prior to joining Zimmer Biomet, Mr.