These days more than ever, collaboration and co-creation with your business peers is key to digital success. Without a harmonious, productive business-IT relationship digital initiatives are more likely to derail. Legacy approaches and outlooks, not to mention ingrained frictions and differing styles, can present challenges for collaboration among business and IT colleagues.
Even when sharing the same organizational goals, you and your business colleagues may hold very different views on how to move projects forward. Perhaps a business peer is quick to blame others — including you — when things don’t work out, or frequently offers complaints and sharp criticism in meetings. How can you improve the relationship?
The solution may be more personal than technical, with a focus on developing trust, even with colleagues who don’t see eye to eye. Sometimes it takes time, stepping back and taking a different perspective, and probably altering your communication style so that they’re more open to your way of thinking.
Here are some common mistakes IT professionals and organizations make when collaborating with their business peers, along with pro tips on how to get better results when bridging the business-IT divide.
Identifying conflicts rather than operating in denial can help make your relationships more effective, says Ryan Lahti, founder and managing principal of OrgLeader.
“IT leaders could get more comfortable with one point: Conflict in and of itself is neither good nor bad. It’s neutral,” Lahti says. “How IT leaders and their peers handle it makes it good or bad.”
He argues for a measured approach, noting that a too aggressive stance can backfire. “Finesse is crucial when handling tricky situations like conflict with business colleagues. But acting like conflict does not exist or hoping it goes away is not a strategy for success.”
Failing to acknowledge differences
OrgLeader’s Lahti says he frequently sees a common mistake: Mistaking empathy for the assumption that your peer is just like you.
“Just because you’re logical and like a lot of data to help you understand does not mean your peers do,” he says. “They may prefer verbal bullet points with actionable suggestions to try. You may notice you have some similar preferences to your colleagues. Yet it’s just as important to recognize how you differ, to ensure you use an approach that keeps conflict in the productive range.”
Giving up early on communication
Shutting down communication with a peer because you don’t share the same priorities can have a ripple effect on productivity.
“What I’ve learned is that your team’s job becomes much more difficult when you don’t work well with a peer,” says Wayson Vannatta, CIO of WatchGuard Technologies. “Unresolved, this can create a culture lacking in collaboration and continuity. Decisions that are left unmade — or made without the other person’s input — cause your team to go in one direction while your peer is instructing their team to go in another.”
The result, Vannatta says, is duplicative work and low productivity. Worse, it is a cycle that becomes hard to break.
“It’s easier said than done,” he says, “but you need to invest in building and maintaining those problem relationships for the greater good of your team and the broader business.”
Vannatta recommends biweekly check-ins with peers. “I get an understanding of their needs from an IT perspective, and to keep in tune to what they’re working on and what their teams are doing. Hearing about what their focus areas are and what they’re excited about or struggling with on a regular basis allows me to better direct the broader IT team, set the appropriate priorities and be more effective.”
Not keeping everyone in the loop
Busy schedules, dispersed teams, and multiple modes of communication — the modern workplace is almost engineered to ensure somebody is left out of the loop.
Vannatta’s firm, for example, uses collaboration software to avoid this problem, in part by breaking out a summary of conversations between team members in various channels.
“For peer collaboration specifically, we create dedicated channels in which team members can stay informed about key initiatives and projects, or prep for future discussions,” Vannatta says. “As an example, we have a channel for [mergers and acquisitions] activity, where the executive responsible for leading these initiatives updates the rest of the executive staff on the status of all ongoing conversations.”
Travel schedules can be busy for Vannatta and his peers. Having a collaboration tool enables everyone to stay up to date and participate in all discussions, Vannatta says. “This way, whenever we have major meetings or decisions to make, everyone involved has the latest information so we spend less time getting folks up to speed and more time getting things done.”
Not developing liaison roles and skills
For some organizations, business-IT collaboration fails to gain traction thanks to strategies that merely bring together two groups without considering what new skills — or roles — might be necessary to make co-creation work.
Here, Hackett Group Senior Research Director Rick Pastore says he’s seeing a positive hiring trend in IT: the rise of the business relationship manager, a separate role designed to reduce friction and maintain relationships.
“They have the skill set and mandate to build and maintain effective working relationships with leaders of the business groups to which they’re assigned,” Pastore says. “Ten years ago, the responsibility of IT’s liaisons to business units and functions typically centered around an annual needs assessment and requirements gathering, ongoing administration of the project portfolio, and encouraging compliance with enterprise technology standards. Today, the role would be considered a failure if that’s all it accomplished.”
Pastore says the role needs what he calls consultative skills, which focus on communicating and listening, with an ability to influence and guide peers around creating business value through technology.
“IT needs relationship-building skills,” he says. “The main components of this skill set are the ability to establish trust — through honesty and humility and willingness to own mistakes and problems, credibility — by delivering on promises and by demonstrating business acumen and a solid understanding of the business constituent’s goals and pain points. With these capabilities, the business relationship managers can establish a rapport with their business peer or even the top business executive of the group. Only then can consulting skills be applied.”
Missing out on post-mortems
Ryan Scott, chief learning officer at DNA Behavior International, has picked up some tips from peers who’ve joined the firm from back office and consulting roles at other companies.
“One thing that I’ve learned from them is the need for the after-action review after a big project. One mistake is not having a third-party, non-biased moderator lead the session,” he says. “It’s important to routinely — and calmly — discuss projects after they are completed and any learning lessons you have before moving on to the next thing. This pays great dividends for business peers in IT and across an organization.”
Sticking with one mode of communication
Not everyone prefers the same channel of communication, and with so many available, it’s important to be flexible — especially when communication gets testy or complex.
For DNA Behavior’s Scott, two email or text messages are too many if there’s still miscommunication, at which point he says he suggests switching to the phone or a video meeting.
“Everyone has a natural approach and it’s important to flex to that person’s style,” Scott says. “It makes everyone more efficient. We see that people stick to their individual communication comfort zone. For instance, if a person is sending you a one-liner email, they likely prefer a quick, short, to-the-point message back.”
Over-relying on technology to collaborate
Business psychologist Melanie Katzman says people are naturally wired to connect, but they’re increasingly isolated in the workplace.
“We stare at our phones, put on noise-canceling headphones, and accumulate followers and likes instead of relationships,” she says. “People send emails or chat on Slack rather than pick up the phone and have a conversation. They use an emoji at the end of a text and assume that a conflict has been cleared. Technology can help facilitate collaboration, but connecting with each other as humans is what makes us really productive — and happier about coming to work.
Failing to keep it simple
Over-engineering and over-explaining causes more harm than good, Katzman says. “People provide superfluous jargon-laden detail to convince others of their unique qualifications,” Katzman says. “You may actually be alienating and exhausting your audience.”
She makes a distinction between people who simplify communication and are solutions-focused, in contrast with peers who complicate matters and make them worse.
“Simplifiers take intricate situations and provide clear options for action,” she says. “They’re calming, clarifying, and provide focus. When working with simplifiers, people often feel energized, confident, and optimistic. You can identify who’s who in a matter of seconds. Complicators take the problem side of the equation. They love drama, revel in petty details, and they’re disappointed or slightly annoyed when someone offers a solution. Simplifiers are the opposite. They long for solutions. They size up situations quickly, study circumstances carefully, and prefer to spend their resources on solutions. One loves predicaments. The other loves answers.”
Not making trust a priority
As in other areas of business, deepening relationships is key to improving how you deal with peers. Focus on trust vs. technology, advises Lisa Woodley, vice president of customer experience at NTT Data Services. Ideally confidence in your peers is fostered by a mix of shared responsibility and shared success, she says, bypassing blame for solutions.
“This kind of culture creates a safe environment to receive feedback because you’re less likely to slip into a defensive mode out of fear of being blamed,” Woodley says. “A culture of shared success that recognizes every win is a group effort and seeks to reward all individuals who contributed to the success. This eliminates internal competition where individuals are reluctant to collaborate, fearing they won’t get credit for their own success.”