If you’ve ever been to an air show in a major city, chances are that you’ve seen the Blue Angels perform. The Blue Angels are a flying aerobatic team. They fly six F/A-18 Hornet aircraft and perform maneuvers such as formation loops and barrel rolls. It amazes me that six jet airplanes can fly in formation in straight lines at the speeds that they fly, let alone the acrobats they do up in the air.
Imagine if one of those pilots didn’t know what direction they were they were supposed to be going. Or if one didn’t know the next maneuver. It would, at a minimum show them going in very different directions. At worst, it could result in a terrible accident.
But that’s how many businesses and their information technology departments work together. Or rather, how they don’t.
The Blue Angels work in near perfect alignment. How do they do it, while major corporations with smart leaders fail at it so often?
Why it happens – A failure to communicate
When a business organization asks their IT department to perform a project, they will hand over the requirements of that project in various ways. They may meet for long sessions of requirements gathering. They may simply hand over previously existing documentation.
For more information see Stakeholder Management for Project Managers
Regardless of how the team gets requirements for the project, they often do not discuss them further until much later in the project. Throughout the project, the information technology team will make assumptions based on little knowledge of the business or why they wanted the project.
Components of business alignment:
A common, and well-communicated vision
Let’s consider a case study. Ann is a great baker and starts her own business as a sole proprietor. She has a specific strategic vision in mind for her business. She knows exactly what she wants to accomplish. Everything she does for her bakery is focused on that strategic vision.
She gets up early every morning and bakes all of her goods for sale that day. She works the counter all morning selling her goods. Then she spends the afternoon and evenings planning new recipes, advertising and taking care of other business activities.
After a couple of months, it’s just too much for her to do everything on her own. She hires someone to help out working the counter. She communicates her strategic vision to her on her first day, gives her a little training, and sets her on her way.
The business continues to grow. Within a year, Ann decides to take on a partner and open another store in a nearby town. Ann explains her strategic vision to her new partner, helps her get started in the new location, and goes back to work at her original store.
Over the next few months, she sees that profits from both stores are down. She talks to customers from her original store and finds that the worker behind the counter is rude and provides poor customer service. She is confused because part of her strategic vision that she communicated to her employee on the first day was to provide excellent customer service.
When she talks to patrons from her new store, she finds out that the quality of the food is poor. When Ann talks to her partner about it, she learns that she has been using cheaper ingredients in order to save money.
Ann is puzzled about this because part of the strategy she communicated to her on the first day was to provide the highest quality possible.
This is how many corporations treat their strategic vision. They spend a lot of money to develop the vision. They print it out on some plaques and posters to hang in the lobby. They announce it to every employee on the first day of employment. Then it gets nudged aside in order to deal with the urgent calls of daily business.
A corporation who spends the time to develop a strategic vision should communicate it on a regular basis. They should announce it early and often so that it is top of mind for every employee. It should drive how every employee does his or her job.
The strategic vision should be explained to every manager. Every manager should know what it means in order for them to do their job. Every manager should be able to explain the same to every one of their direct reports. It should be cascaded down each level.
A project manager starting a project should understand the company’s strategic vision and how the project’s purpose fits into that vision.
Understand how the company makes money
McDonalds Corporation is not in the business of selling hamburgers – or fries, shakes, or salads for that matter. McDonalds Corporation is in the real estate business. McDonalds Corporation owns the land and buildings of all of their stores. Franchisees lease the land and building from corporate. They then make and sell the food that allows them to pay rent to the corporation.
Certainly the corporate parent has a vested interest in their lessees selling hamburgers profitably. But that is driven by their desire to improve their rent revenues.
An employee at the corporate level who does not understand that source of revenue risks making incorrect assumptions and decisions.
A project manager starting a project for a company should have the same knowledge of that company’s source of income. Just like in the McDonalds scenario, things aren’t always as they seem. In order to manage a project that is truly aligned with the business, how the company generates revenue is an important need for sound decision making.
Understand how the project helps the company achieve that strategic vision
Once the organization’s strategy and how they make money are understood, the project manager should understand how the project is a puzzle piece that fits into the big picture.
If there is any question about how the project helps the organization accomplish their strategic vision, that should be a red flag. Has the strategy changed? Does this accomplish it in an indirect way that isn’t immediately clear? Or, is this project not aligned with the strategy?
If the project is indeed aligned with the business strategy, the project manager is responsible for understanding how, in order to make the right decisions along the way.
Score card to validate progress
Regardless of how much the business is involved with the project once it is initiated, the project manager should develop a score card that appropriately communicates status.
Like any status, it should communicate what has been completed in relation to what was planned. But it should also explain how the accomplishments relate to the big picture of the project. The score card should also make it clear how those accomplishments also align with the overall strategy.
If a project manager reports that Task XYZ was accomplished, she should be able to explain why that helps the project be successful. She should further be able to explain how completing that task makes the organization more successful.
Information technology has long been looked at as a support function for the company. Management comes up with an approach to take orders, process orders, or track orders better. They go to IT and tell them what they want. The expectation is that IT will listen to what they want, build it, hand it over, and it will work.
Instead, IT should be looked upon as a partner. The more each individual in the IT department understands the business, the more they can provide value.
Information technology is no longer an appendage of an organization that is called in “when we need a system.” Information technology should stop being an order taker and become a partner with the business.
When there is actual integration between business and information technology, business alignment will become an obsolete term. IT needs to be integrated like one of the jets in the Blue Angels rather than just another plane that is called upon when they are needed.
How much is information technology integrated with your business?
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Image courtesy of Serge Bertasius Photography at FreeDigitalPhotos.net