IT transaction success begins with setting expectations

IT transaction success begins with setting and maintaining good expectations, from the very earliest discussions about an initiative, through to its ultimate completion.

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The current IT transaction paradigm is replete with challenges and, as is too often the case, outright failures. Why do so many IT integration initiatives fail? Why are so many projects late and over budget, without delivering the expected promises? Our tools are better, faster and more sophisticated; why haven’t our project successes matched our ever-increasing technological abilities?

Peering into the abyss: The peril of a simple question with a not-so-simple answer

In my prior role as CIO at a middle-market oil and gas company, I was in a meeting with the CEO and all of his direct reports, my peers. He was leading a discussion about a potential corporate acquisition, which would double the size of the company once we signed the deal. In the course of the meeting, he asked me this critical question, “How long will it take to complete the overall IT transition and system integration, and how much will it cost?” 

What a simple question, yet filled with so much risk! We did not yet understand the target company’s infrastructure or application portfolio. We did not know anything about their governance procedures, standard business processes, or their team. Our due diligence was still in its initial phases and we had yet to fully explore the plethora of integration considerations we would need to take into account. But our CEO wanted to know how long it would take.

Sound familiar? As a CIO, it is an all-too-frequent scenario, where we are expected to have the answers before we have even done any actual analysis. In this scenario, it is very difficult to give an effective, precise answer, because there is no way to accurately assess the scope of what is needed. And if you do commit to an answer, even with caveats, you run the risk of being held accountable to that estimate by other stakeholders.

This common scenario highlights a fundamental issue we often face when considering an acquisition or divestiture: the desire to set expectations before any analysis has been completed. While the example presented above was a formal meeting, there are also countless daily interactions where expectations are set and reset. As the project or initiative progresses, those initial expectations become the standard by which success or failure is measured.

CIOs, in general, like to focus on technology and tools, yet often overlook simple fundamentals such as to how to set good expectations at the very outset of an integration.

How do we break the paradigm?

In order to break this paradigm, IT leaders need to recognize that transaction expectations are set quickly, and are often nearly impossible to adjust. Avoid answering a seemingly simple question with a simple answer that ties your team to an unrealistic goal.

These initial discussions about transaction integration expectations are among the most critical of the entire merger integration and/or carve-out, because they will ultimately define the benchmarks that measure success or failure.

Next, keep in mind that everyone makes their own assessment of the situation. Expect resistance and have data to back up your assessments. Having data will help you be viewed as a fair-minded leader, rather than someone who is simply afraid to commit to an ambitious objective.   

In addition, expand your thinking beyond a technical construct. Your solutions need to be considered within the context of the overall business drivers for the transaction as well as overall objectives.   You need to understand the commitments the business made in order to deliver IT solutions that will address them.

Every company and leader is different, but here are some additional options when you are pushed for initial estimates:

  • Defer commitment until analysis can be performed. Depending on the transaction timing, this may be difficult. However, if you are able to wait for proper due diligence to be completed, this is almost always the best approach. Once the analysis is done, you will have the proper data to support your assertions, and will be better prepared to discuss challenges to your view.
  • Ask questions back to the leadership team, which will help illustrate how many unknowns will impact your ability to set an accurate timeline.   
  • Once you are ready to make commitments, ensure they are well-defined, realistic and meaningful. While we always want to push our teams to work quickly, we need to ensure that goals can be met.
  • Train your team in communicating reasonable expectations, helping to avoid commitments that cannot be met and ensuring that promises made are in line with your best judgment.
  • Accurately track and report progress across all levels and organizational units, communicating effectively so key stakeholders stay informed on the process.

At a time when technology can dominate discussions, and many non-technical business leaders must make decisions about topics on which they may not be fully versed, a CIO must actively focus on fundamentals while maintaining their technical prowess. With the success of a transaction at play, the wise CIO will be strategic about what commitments are made, either by them or their team. 

It is great to talk about ground-breaking concepts like DNA-level data storage, and how Big Data will impact your business. In the end, however, you will need to deliver practical tools and technologies that meet the needs of the business, and that starts with setting good expectations. 

Summary

Expectation setting, particularly in a strategic transaction, is fundamental to the definition of success or failure of your IT integration. Beyond the CIO, the entire IT team must dedicate themselves to ensuring that expectations are properly established at the outset.

If you are able to establish expectations properly, you have much better odds of meeting or exceeding the goals of your transaction. In so doing, you will increase the odds of a far more positive outcome for yourself, your team and your company.

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