\u201cPartners in the business.\u201d Of course, every CIO likes the ring of that. The phrase evokes images of strategic relevance and great relationships with clients. But what does this buzzword really mean? I\u2019m reminded of my friend\u2019s wife who said, \u201cWe\u2019re partners, so give me your wallet and we\u2019ll split it 50\/50!\u201d In fact, some interpretations of partnership are insidious. They induce behaviors that undermine both strategic alignment and relationships, essentially adding up to the opposite of real partnership. This month\u2019s \u201cBeneath the Buzz\u201d debunks two dangerous definitions of partnership, and examines the nature of healthy IT-client relationships. \n\nDangerous Definition 1: We Share EverythingSome people tell me that partnership means that IT staff and clients are one team, and all team members share everything. They work together on everything, and decide everything jointly. This \u201call for one, one for all\u201d notion of partnership sounds lovely. But from a more cynical perspective, it means that each party has the right to meddle in the other\u2019s domain of expertise and accountability. IT staff feel they have a say in business decisions, and clients feel they have the right to tell IT staff how to do their jobs. Instead of each party contributing their unique competencies, decisions are influenced by people who aren\u2019t fully qualified to make them. This cuts both ways: IT staff may know the business, but they cannot know it as well as those who spend their entire careers studying a given functional area. And clients may know what they want from IT, but they\u2019re not as qualified to manage the delivery of IT as are staff who have dedicated their careers to technology. Ultimately, meddling in each other\u2019s domains damages team performance. Furthermore, shared accountability is equivalent to no accountability. Without individual accountability, projects drift. Without clear individual authorities, projects mire. And when things go wrong, everybody takes cover under the banner of \u201cteamwork.\u201d The finger-pointing inevitably scars relationships. The truth is, a great partnership is symbiotic. It takes advantage of people\u2019s different strengths, channeling each to contribute their unique talents to the tasks that most need them. Great partnerships are built on clear, distinct areas of authority which are defined based on distinct competencies and accountabilities. In this way, partnerships create synergies\u2014capabilities greater than the sum of the parts, and certainly far greater than the muddy accountabilities and diluted competencies of the \u201call for one, one for all\u201d definition of partnership. \n\nDangerous Definition 2: We\u2019re the IT Team-MembersAnother misguided definition of partnership that I\u2019ve heard sounds something like this: \u201cWe are partners with our business clients, and hence equals. And since we\u2019re the IT experts in this partnership, we\u2019ll handle that for them.\u201dNote that this is the exact opposite of customer focus. It says, \u201cWe know what\u2019s best for you.\u201d That attitude can only serve to erode client-IT relationships. Furthermore, this definition of partnership is fundamentally disempowering and unproductive. Imagine the finance department saying to you, \u201cWe know money, so we\u2019ll decide your budget and your investments for you.\u201d But of course, you\u2019ll still be held accountable for results. OK, this may sound familiar, but you know it\u2019s untenable. You can\u2019t be held accountable for results when you can\u2019t control the means to get there. Similarly, clients can\u2019t be held accountable for their bottom lines if they cannot control means like IT. In fact, this touches on the \u201cGolden Rule\u201d of organizational design: Authority and accountability must always match. If authority and accountability are separated, problems are inevitable: Those with accountability but lacking matching authority are powerless. They cannot perform, and are set up to be scapegoats. They will adopt a helpless \u201cvictim\u201d mentality, take no initiatives, and spend a lot of time reading Dilbert and laughing about how futile it is to try to accomplish anything important. Those with authority but not matching accountability are unconstrained. They can make decisions without bearing the consequences; they can tell others what to do, and blame others when their commands backfire. Without checks and balances, they do as they please, and ultimately become tyrants. Using the concept of partnership to justify disempowering clients is perverse. It undermines clients\u2019 ability to successfully manage their businesses, and leads to resentment and alienated relationships. Healthy partnerships are based on mutual respect and support, not power games. Partners never disempower one another, since they know that their own success depends on their partner\u2019s success. Perspective on Partnership Let\u2019s get back to basics: To partner with the business, IT must build great working relationships based on mutual respect, tapping each other\u2019s differential competencies, and in no way disempowering either party. The most effective partnerships are based on the business-within-a-business paradigm. IT staff treat business clients as customers who have the right to choose what they will and won\u2019t buy from IT. They respect that clients know their businesses better than IT ever will. And even if they think they know the business better than clients, IT staff know that clients must have full authority over their factors of production (including IT) if they\u2019re to be held accountable for their business results. Conversely, clients respect IT staff\u2019s knowledge of IT. And even if they think they know IT as well as the professionals (after reading that proverbial airline magazine), they know that IT staff must be empowered to run the IT business their own way if they\u2019re to be held accountable for the successful delivery of IT products and services. \n\nProactive, Not PassiveTreating clients as customers does not force IT into a passive, order-taking role. There are many ways IT staff can be proactive and drive strategic value from IT without disempowering clients.\u00a0 \n\nAs a business within a business, IT can market the strategic value of IT. This is not meant to be self-serving. Marketing is intended to lift clients\u2019 awareness of the possibilities so as to engender more creative use of IT\u2019s products and services. IT account representatives can proactively knock on doors and offer to talk to clients about their challenges and (hopefully) identify strategic opportunities for IT. This is \u201csales\u201d in the best sense of the profession\u2014not pushing boxes, but partnering with clients to help them solve their problems. The result of consultative selling is clear functional requirements that are directly linked to clients\u2019 perceived needs\u2014strategic opportunities with potentially blockbuster payoffs. In response to clients\u2019 requirements, IT engineers can proactively offer alternative solutions\u2014as in Chevrolet, Cadillac and Rolls-Royce. In this way, they can make clients aware of better ways to address their needs than the new gizmo advertised in that airline magazine. IT account representatives can help clients analyze these alternatives in the context of clients\u2019 (not IT\u2019s) values. This isn\u2019t a matter of making a recommendation (back to \u201cwe know what\u2019s best for you\u201d). Rather, it\u2019s a consultative process that says, \u201cIf speed is most important to you, pick alternative A; but if life-cycle costs are more important, select B.\u201dOf course, IT engineers can, and must, keep their product lines up to date. Entrepreneurs don\u2019t wait for clients to tell them to study new technologies and vendor products. IT must take the initiative to innovate. Think of this as proactively putting new products on the shelf, available to clients, but only taking them off the shelf (actually deploying them) when clients have agreed to buy them. In this vein, IT service bureaus must actively maintain and evolve their infrastructure. The word infrastructure means assets owned by IT for the purpose of selling services to clients. AOL doesn\u2019t ask its subscribers\u2019 permission before it buys new servers; it takes responsibility for fielding whatever infrastructure is needed to satisfy clients\u2019 demands for services. IT must build infrastructure based on market needs\u2014that is, input from the client community as a whole\u2014but it unilaterally decides what infrastructure it must buy to satisfy its market. IT can also be proactive about facilitating corporatewide decisions such as policies, architectural standards and HR policies related to the careers of IT professionals. Of course, these decisions must be made by the community of relevant stakeholders, not unilaterally by corporate IT staff. But IT can put forward the issues and coordinate decisions on behalf of the corporation. \n\nThe Essence of PartnershipWouldn\u2019t it be great if, as on Star Trek, we could do a \u201cmind meld\u201d and merge clients\u2019 knowledge of their business with IT staff\u2019s knowledge of technology!? That might represent the ultimate partnership. But of course we can\u2019t. Therefore, one party must share all it knows, and the other party must decide. The model of everybody sharing and everybody deciding (dangerous definition 1) doesn\u2019t work. The model of clients sharing their business knowledge and IT staff making all technology decisions (dangerous definition 2) doesn\u2019t work either. The essence of great partnerships between IT and business clients is a customer-supplier relationship. In that style of partnership, IT proactively shares all it knows; and then clients are empowered to choose what they buy. If IT staff have done a good job of sharing their knowledge, it\u2019s very likely that clients will come to the same conclusions as IT staff. If clients do select an alternative other than the one IT would recommend, perhaps they know something about their business that IT staff don\u2019t know, or perhaps they\u2019re applying their own values and putting business pragmatics ahead of technical elegance. Of course, with authority comes accountability. Clients are fully accountable for their choices\u2014for justifying the expenditure, for paying full life-cycle costs and for realizing business results. And IT is fully accountable for the successful delivery of IT products and services at competitive costs. In this style of partnership, both IT and clients are empowered to run their respective businesses. Each contributes based on their respective competencies. Relationships are clean, mutually respectful and cordial. The result: both strategic alignment and great relationships. If CIOs are serious about partnering with the business, implementing the business-within-a-business paradigm is foundational. \n\n Dean Meyer helps IT leadership teams design high-performance organizations. Author of six books, numerous monographs, columns and articles, he brings innovative systematic approaches to what others consider the \u201csoft\u201d side of leadership. Contact him at email@example.com or visit his website for information that can help you implement these ideas, or with suggestions for other buzzwords to analyze in future columns.