Fixing IT – Taming the (Customer) Beast

Detente

In my previous post, I outlined the source of the dysfunctional nature of the relationship many IT departments have with their customers. This post will be about fixing that relationship. Having taken part in just such a venture, I can state that it is possible.

When I first became involved with corporate IT, I worked for a group that was developing a core line of business application for the company. Our process worked (well, “worked”) like this:

  1. The users would produce voluminous “specs” minutely detailing the new features they wanted in terms of behavior and presentation. These were delivered to product managers.
  2. The product managers would take the users’ “specs” and file them away for reference in their trash cans. The product managers would then generate their own “specs” minutely detailing the behavior and presentation of the features in accordance with the way they knew it really should have be.
  3. The new “specs” were presented to the remainder of the team for estimation, and the final project plan was created.
  4. Product managers, developers, testers, technical writers, trainers, etc. would all gather with their management and everyone would sign a “contract” to deliver what was specified by the due date.
  5. Developers would then proceed to implement the features as best they could, substituting their own ideas for those parts that were ambiguous or unrealistic. When everything was completed (or when the “code freeze” date was reached, whichever came first) the features were delivered to the testers.
  6. Testers would then generate bug tickets for anything that did not work the way they thought it should (regardless of whether it matched the documentation or not). Bug tickets were sent to the developers.
  7. Developers would remedy the defects according to the instructions in the ticket and batches of bug fixes would be released to the testers.
  8. Testers would pass the the tickets and forward them to the product managers.
  9. The product managers would re-open the tickets and direct that the features be coded according to the original specification (or not, if they had had a new idea in the interim). These tickets would then be returned to the developers.
  10. Developers would remedy the defects according to the new instructions in the ticket and batches of bug fixes would be released to the testers.
  11. Steps 6 through 10 would repeat until either the tester or product manager relented, typically due to exhaustion. When this point was reached for all features, user acceptance testing was began by the user representatives who had composed the original “specs”. The original go-live date was, of course, long since passed by.
  12. User acceptance testing consisted of repeated rounds of find-fix-push. The goal of the user representatives was to bend the meaning of “bug” such that something resembling the original requests would emerge. Really good ones could manage to get entirely new enhancements implemented as “fixes”. At the end of this process, a release to production was scheduled.
  13. After the deployment (and all the downtime due to remediation of the release management issues), the end users could then contemplate how they were going to work around the software to earn their paycheck.

Needless to say, this process led to our having a warm relationship with our customers. They frequently assured us that should we burst into flames, they wouldn’t hesitate to stomp the fire out. Several even routinely produced books of matches and offered to demonstrate.

In all seriousness, the process we worked under at that time seriously impaired our relationship with our customers, both on an organizational and an individual basis. It destroyed our customer’s trust in us as it all but guaranteed that we would be lying to them about what they would be getting and when they would get it. The fact that they would not find this out until the very last second only added insult to injury. When the product was declared dead and the majority of the group laid off, it came as no surprise to anyone.

What did come as a surprise was that a small cross-functional group from the team was retained and tasked with teaching a new process to the remainder of the IT group. The nine months prior to the demise of the product had been spent re-engineering the process by which it was developed. While the effort wasn’t sufficient to save the product, it did get the attention of those looking to transform the IT function.

Reduced to its essence, that shift in process was nothing more than a recognition that our job was to make it easier for others to do their job. It wasn’t about technology or software development, it was about providing value to our customers and meeting their expectations. Value was understood to be more than just taking orders, but actually working with customers to define their needs and jointly determine a solution that met those needs. Meeting expectations was understood to be involving customers in the planning and keeping them in the loop as it evolved, not committing to a date with insufficient information and then hiding the changing circumstances until it could be denied no longer.

Service Cycle

The result of this communication and collaboration was, slowly, step by step, the building of trust. As Tom Graves noted in “Product, service and trust”, “Trust is at the centre of everything in any enterprise – every product, every service”. In that same post, Tom used the image on the right to illustrate the cyclical nature of trust built via mutual respect, attention to needs, and delivery of results. Each success enhances the trust of the customer and the reputation of the provider. These successes can also form a virtuous circle where customer satisfaction increases the motivation of the team serving them.

It is important to understand that this is a process, rather than an event. As Seth Godin stated in “Gradually and then suddenly”:

It didn’t happen suddenly, you just noticed it suddenly.

The flipside works the same way. Trust is earned, value is delivered, concepts are learned. Day by day we improve and build an asset, but none of it seems to be paying off. Until one day, quite suddenly, we become the ten-year overnight success.

The reason this is so important should be clear. Business is dependent on technology more and more with each passing day. However, being dependent on technology and being dependent on a particular provider are two different things. When it is responsive and trustworthy, in-house IT can provide tremendous value to an enterprise. When it is not, the value proposition for outside providers becomes clearer.

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12 thoughts on “Fixing IT – Taming the (Customer) Beast

  1. “our job was to make it easier for others to do their job.” <- Often espoused, seldom accomplished. I'm glad you pulled it off. My experience has been that those who are tasked with that mission end up making it more difficult for others to do their jobs.

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  2. In my mind the goal is to find a path to be a valued partner. Partners typically have complex relationships that go beyond customer / provider roles. The problem is that most methodologies, even today, approach it like a business rather than a partnership. In some cases it is better and in cases it is still back in the days of I will tell you what you want.

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    • Indeed, “partnership” is a word you’ll find I use frequently in this context, particularly in the next two posts in the series. Successful relationships can’t be imposed on either party.

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