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Ask The Secret CIO

This week, Herb comments on the dynamics of Web development and responds to several questions about why users have a habit of discounting what they're told by the IT staff.
Dear Herbert:
In your conclusion of the column "Ready, Fire, Aim," I believe you may have missed a way to resolve the problem. Consider that marketing people aren't used to planning the level of detail necessary to help lead a development project. Before the Web, they didn't need to. Their discomfort leads to avoidance, particularly since it's most likely that the Web-development team will shoulder the burden of any failure and blame.

I have spent 10 years as an application programmer, ranging from electronic data interchange software to 3-D simulation and virtual reality. I, too, have been frustrated by the dearth of planning in Web development. However, I also firmly believe in the necessity and benefit of rapid development cycles for competitiveness and of prototypes as a form of release for immediate feedback. But my source of frustration is not with the level of planning as compared to traditional software development

Rather, it's with the level to which planning is being bypassed in the interest of "time savings" even for the degree of functionality that is absolutely known to be required! My experience has been that the degree of flailing caused by this overwhelms the time it would have taken to hash it out up front.

The convergence of marketing initiatives with development activities is bringing together teams, disciplines, and personalities that rarely mixed in most companies as recently as five years ago. I believe that we're seeing avoidance and anger reactions to a largely unrecognized culture clash. There is no panacea, but recognizing the issue and addressing it for what it is opens the door for constructive and productive solutions.

Stephen

Dear Stephen:
I agree with you that we are seeing a clash of cultures. The clash is occurring because the old way of doing business in the IT shop is no longer valid for most projects. In fact, the approach of "Ready, Fire, Aim" (or as we like to call it with a nicer name--Rapid Prototyping) is a perfectly valid and preferable way of doing business today. It has the advantage of making sure that the final product is what the user wants. The downside, of course, is that what the user is satisfied with as a finished product may look nothing like what the user asked for originally.

While you are correct that there is often a lack of planning for those areas of a project where there should be planning, the more the user and IT collaborate, the more likely a satisfactory accommodation will result.

Your suggestion of hashing it out up front to avoid the flailing about caused by the lack of planning is sometimes the right answer. Other times, neither the IT people nor the users will ever be able to convince each other of the validity of their points, so it's better to agree to disagree and move on without wasting time and hardening positions. In this situation, it makes more sense to let the boss break the deadlock (or to flip a coin) and learn from the results.


Why Do They Ignore My Recommendations?
Mr. Secret CIO,
Your column "Why Don't They Believe Us?" is completely on target. The question you raise in the title is half of the reason that I left my last job--Internet manager for a $12 billion company, reporting to the CIO.

I have edited two books in my field and have been building and managing corporate Web sites for about five years. I couldn't understand why the company paid me, but wouldn't listen to recommendations from my really top-notch staff or me.

The worst single example was after we had made recommendations and assembled a cost-benefit analysis, as well as a competitive analysis of strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats on a problem. Then management brought in an external firm (for $400,000) to clumsily paraphrase our work.

Over and over again, I saw my staff's and my own ideas "incorporated" into and validated by external white papers, studies, initiatives, and projects. I had a long talk with one author of a few Internet-marketing-related books, while trying to bring him in to do an external look-see. After discussing our difficulties and possible solutions, he quoted a daily rate for consulting and said, "Oh, you need a rubber stamp?"

I suggest that it may be extremely beneficial for a CEO or CIO to explain to his or her subordinates why an external review is necessary. If the reasons are not explained, employees may feel severely underappreciated--or, as in my case, think that their opinions carry no weight. That sort of feeling can hurt retention.

If a company is bringing in someone because insiders are biased or because the outsider is better or because techies can't communicate ... well, that's fine. Tell that to the techies. Don't let good people assume that their opinions and work have no value unless seconded externally. If their opinions really don't count, it may be that your company should employ different techies.

This "Why Don't They Believe Me?" question can really burn the morale of people who take pride in their pursuit of technical excellence. To help a company to retain those people, communication can be a magic elixir.

Best Regards,
J.

Dear J.
Your comments are very valuable. As I pointed out in the article, there many reasons to bring in outsiders. Sometimes, it's to validate an insider's opinion or because internal expertise is lacking; other times, it's because an outsider can say things that an employee who has to continue working at the place cannot. However, it's very important that the CIO (and, where appropriate, the CEO) communicate the reasons for employing consultants.

It is absolutely debilitating for people to feel that their work is always being second-guessed. I have never understood why supposedly competent managers do not share with members of their staff the reasons for having outsiders work on high-impact, critical projects and evaluations.

It's really odd that some firms have the attitude that consultants are so much more knowledgeable than their own employees. Probably the funniest situation I ever saw was that of a person who left our company and became a consultant. Immediately, his value in the mind of our management increased significantly--even to the point where one of the executives recommended that I hire him to come in for a few days to review some of our projects. This suggestion came from a person who, while that former employee was working for us, would never have trusted him with the analysis that he now wanted to pay for with real dollars. Go figure it.


One Ph.D. Is Worth More Than Four Master's Degrees
Dear Herbert:
I have one other item to add to your list of reasons for being ignored ("Why Don't They Believe Us?"). My reason is that four master's degrees do not equal one Ph.D.

I am fighting a consulting report from a Ph.D. who spent six hours on our campus and produced a paper saying to change everything--even our main administration system, which she never saw or asked about. She didn't even know its name for the report.

My academic counterpart and I (we have four master's degrees between us) just about fell over at all of the things we were to change. Yet, the VP who brought her in is wondering why we weren't ecstatic about the report. He didn't appreciate it when I told him that much of it didn't make sense (can you tell I report to another VP?).

After that, the meeting followed your earlier rules of meetings ("The First Law Of Meetings"): six hours to decide that we needed another committee to "examine" the report.

Brian

Dear Brian:
Welcome to the world of consulting infallibility. No consultant worth his or her notebook computer could possibly walk into a situation and say everything is fine, unless, of course, the people who wrote the engagement letter were looking for someone to agree with everything they had done.

You and your colleague have a long and arduous path to overturn the consultant's report. First of all, anything you say will be construed as being biased since you disagree with the conclusions and because the recommendations will cause you extra work. Second, you're faced with the fact that it's very difficult for an executive (whether a VP or a dean) to pay someone money for an outside report and then trash it. My guess is that someone important in the college commissioned the study, and if it turns out to be useless, then that bigwig's judgment is being called into question.

However, take heart. There is a possible solution to your dilemma. The only hope that you have is to take a twofold approach. First, if you can, you have to get someone of stature to question whether the conclusions are valid. Second, you and your associate need to embark upon the "I agree with you, but let's redefine what your words mean" strategy.

The latter process is a time-tested method that has worked wonders in international and national politics. In your particular case, it goes something like this: You say, "The report is right on in saying that our administrative system is totally inadequate for our needs. I propose that we set up a study group of a large number of our faculty and administrative people to review our needs."

The result is that you take advantage of the phenomena that I wrote about so long ago in "The First Law Of Meetings" and one of its follow-ups, "If It Isn't Vital, Let's Talk About It": (1) The length of a meeting is directly proportional to the square of the number of attendees, and, (2) the less important the subject, the more time it gets. The way I see it, by the time you're ready to retire and sit on that rocking chair on the porch, the committee may just be getting near to making a decision. In the meantime, life reverts back to being good.


Your letters to my print column and this E-mail forum raise some serious issues about managing information technology in today's world. Since today's world is essentially absurd, my serious responses may sometimes sound a little whimsical, and my occasional whimsical one, serious. In any case, if you want to participate, or comment, write to me at [email protected]. I reserve the right to edit for size and content. Just sign your E-mail the way you want it to appear online.

As I've mentioned, I am planning to put my InformationWeek columns together into a book with a little bit of additional commentary around the events and people about whom I write. If you would like to be notified of such an event, please drop me an E-mail and I'll build a mailing list to let you know about it. Just use the word BOOK as the subject line.