Project Management Institute

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Getting Business and IT to Speak the Same Language Requires Persistence

By Lenka Pincot, PMI-ACP, PMI-PBA, PMP

How many times have you heard IT staffers complain about unrealistic requirements from business teams? And how often have you listened to colleagues from the business side gripe that new tech tools didn't meet their needs? Misunderstandings between business and IT can have a devastating impact on your projects, but project managers and agile product owners can bring both sides together to ensure project success.

Say you're managing a project to redesign a customer relationship management system. The sales team won't use the current system for certain functions, arguing that its historical data is inaccurate and the program is inflexible and hard to use. However, the IT team complains that salespeople are unwilling to follow the proper process and are sloppy in their data handling. Frustration on both sides is high, people are wasting time doing tasks manually, and organizational planning is limited by the inaccurate data.

How can the project team start to plan a new system amid such distrust and division? Having IT experts do a deep dive into business issues while salespeople learn to code probably isn't realistic—and, frankly, likely wouldn't help. Instead, try these tips to bridge the gaps in understanding between business and IT.

FOCUS ON WHAT AND WHY, NOT HOW

Establishing common language between groups of experts who have different experiences and priorities means identifying what connects them. While in this case it might seem that they are bound by the particular software, the business process is the true connecting element. A business process represents a set of steps that transform inputs into outputs used to create business value. The customer relationship management system is just a tool that helps to execute the process. The project manager must focus on what the business team wants to achieve with the redesign and why it is important in order to get both teams on the same page and determine the merit of the requests.

But if the business representatives get specific about how the change should be delivered, rather than what it should accomplish, IT might push back. They might feel they're being dictated to by someone without enough understanding of the requests' complexity.

COMMUNICATE IN USER STORIES

Talking in general language about the desired goal and letting experts figure out the technical solutions is also the principle behind user stories, a way of describing requirements in agile delivery approaches. A user story is a simple sentence such as: I, as a forecasting specialist, want to be able to see summarized sales forecasts by geographical regions as well as by global customers.

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When project managers employ user stories as part of communication, they provide IT teams with enough space to use their expertise and propose feasible solutions. At the same time, the simplicity of the user story construction provides a good base for a mutual understanding of expectations.

CHOOSE WORDS CAREFULLY

It's hard to bridge gaps between teams when someone says, “Let's fix this IT problem” or “Business's problem is….” Team members might say these things with the best of intentions, to create a sense of urgency and to get a handle on challenges. But using the word “problem” immediately indicates that someone made a mistake and often leads to an emotional response. Such blaming can cost the project manager a lot of time and effort to reestablish a willingness to collaborate.

Instead, project managers should urge team members to communicate in neutral language, using fact-based arguments and avoiding finger-pointing. Encourage cooperation and lead by example. Start by describing the situation and then explain the consequences if it remains as is.

MANAGE THE STRATEGIC LEVEL

Unresolved communication and lack of mutual understanding between business and IT teams become even more significant at the enterprise strategic level. An organization cannot improve its strategic capabilities if business and IT strategy are not aligned. On the strategic level, some organizations have seen success by introducing a new role: a business relationship manager, who is more focused on strategic alignment than daily project-related issues.

SHARE SPACE

Other practices that help business and IT teams to align are building cross-functional teams and co-locating them for the duration of the project. Face-to-face communication and the opportunity to be part of daily conversations help establish common understanding of the difficulties that all team members are facing and what they want to achieve.

Mutual understanding between business and IT is challenging but necessary for today's organizations. It can be achieved by emphasizing the expertise of each side and, most of all, by sharing the same vision. PM

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Lenka Pincot, PMI-ACP, PMI-PBA, PMP, is an agile transformation product owner at Česká spořitelna, Prague, Czech Republic.

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