The grim reality is that there's a caste system in corporate America today. At the top sits "the business" and below it, IT and operations. Most C-level types have learned to talk the talk of partnership, but at the end of the day, when the business says jump, IT has little choice but to ask how high.
The good news is that we in IT can improve our lots in life and our companies' bottom lines with empathy. And not the kind that forces us all to link hands and sing kumbaya; rather, the kind that Wired magazine called "a revolutionary force for change."
Here are five sequential steps that enlist empathy to crush the corporate caste system:
1. Question the value of disintermediation.
If you're in IT, your business stakeholders are middlemen, between you and the customer. And you're lucky if it's one degree of separation. Many functions in large IT shops need to play six degrees of Kevin Bacon to get to the customer.
So the first question to ask: What do business stakeholders bring to your game? If your answer is "requirements," then you might just be doe-eyed enough to think there are rich, thoughtful layers behind them. A solid business strategy, perhaps. Real customer voice. The next big idea. Or at least the next 20 little ones that pave the way.
You'd be wrong. On the strategy question, most of what's paraded out in large orgs is so bereft of real data and so vanilla at the industry-level that it comically frames playing defense against your competitors as competitive advantage. On idea generation, three words come to mind: ideas are plentiful. And those are the pleasant three. The not-so-pleasant three are "absolutely," the f-bomb and "worthless."
In most of the orgs I've worked in, the main role that your stakeholders play is governance -- bureaucratic controls over budget and funding that more often than not simply reaffirm the status quo.
Now here's your first opportunity for empathy, a chance to practice the first rule of Roman Krznaric's Six Habits of Highly Empathetic People: Cultivate curiosity about strangers.
Put yourself in the business's shoes. What can they deliver without you? Or more precisely, at your price point? (Because we all know that if they need something fast or unconventional, they'll pay a premium to engage a vendor, because vendors staff their shops with elves. Elves!)
Given that we're in the information age, here's the answer: nothing. In this economy, IT is execution. And ideas without execution are like bikes without seats -- and just as comfortable. So whether or not you realize it, you have leverage. And empathy can help you understand that fact.
The first step to exercising that leverage is to learn everything you can about your business. Don't think MBA -- it's a money trap. Pick up a few books, a +5 cloak of darkness and ...
2. Shadow the business.
The Achilles heel of most nerdlings is that they don't (usually) understand the business that they're asked to serve. That's partly from years of disinterest and partly from years of buying the line that everyone should focus on the one thing they do best. It's a line because you can do more than one thing well, especially when the stakes are this high.
Fill the business knowledge void, and quickly. No need to crash any parties. You'll be surprised by how cheap invitations to business conference calls are. Participate if you like, but if nothing else be a fly on that wall.
Here's what I've learned again and again by exercising habits two and three of highly empathetic people (discovering commonalities and trying another person's life) as well as by shadowing stakeholders: We in IT are living parallel lives with our business stakeholders. We can't write code or deploy infrastructure because we keep going from meeting to meeting to meeting. And they can't form a business strategy to save their lives. Period.
No wait. It's actually stranger than that. It almost seems as though some Wharton professor with keen business sense and serious influence -- someone who I imagine wears a mask and calls himself Dr. Inertia -- decided that attending meeting after meeting after meeting is how stakeholders should develop a business strategy. And here's the weird part: You could win the global presidency of all businesses in a landslide by running on a single campaign promise: End all meetings. If the business world has a frenemy, it's meetings.