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By Nick Eian

Want to experience an organization in its sweet spot? Go to a first-rate orchestra concert and you’ll learn plenty. Think about it: an orchestra has to balance the competing sounds and egos of many top performers, while ensuring technical precision in the use of some pretty sophisticated tools. The conductor, not unlike a CEO, has to orchestrate the group to generate pleasing sounds that audiences want to hear again and again.

The Magic of the Sweet Spot
How do you know that the orchestra is in the sweet spot? For the orchestra leader, it’s where the music touches the audience and produces an emotional and even physical response. The emotional response propels the orchestra to new heights in sound. This is the sweet spot, or peak performance, that every leader tries to reach and sustain. It only can be achieved by invoking the passions that lie deep within the orchestra and the audience.

From the musicians’ perspective, the orchestra finds its sweet spot when the players, notes and instruments combine to achieve the conductor’s desired interpretation of a particular piece of music. In other words, everything works to realize a shared vision. The conductor knows they’re in the sweet spot because he can lead with a minimum of tension, as if the musicians believe they are one with the conductor. When that happens, it feels and sounds almost like magic. But don’t be fooled. A lot of hard work, deliberate decisions and team work came together on the way to finding the orchestra’s sweet spot.

Now imagine that the orchestra has a brass section that has a reputation as an exciting marching band. Instead of playing its part slowly and smoothly as directed by the conductor, the brass section plays as if they are a part of a marching band, preferring fast and energetic notes. This lack of a shared musical vision throws the rest of the orchestra into confusion. Or maybe the brass section tries to convince the conductor to accept their interpretation of the music and a disagreement ensues. The good news is, if handled properly, this disagreement can be used to achieve ultimate alignment on the music’s interpretation.

It’s bad news if the conductor allows the orchestra to turn into a marching band. In that situation the concert would surely make the next day’s papers, but it wouldn’t be a very favorable story! And it’s a good bet that most of the ticket holders—who are orchestra fans–would not become repeat customers.

Getting the Information Technology Section to Play the Same Music
In many organizations, the IT department behaves like the headstrong brass section. The problem usually stems from a lack of understanding between the CEO and the CIO. While the CIO typically has a good grasp of technology, he or she often isn’t comfortable thinking and talking in business terms. In their mind it’s about technology and they miss the “big picture” that is about the organization’s effectiveness. This is the “I know best” syndrome. Like the leader of the brass section, the leader of the IT department thinks he/she knows what is best for their IT organization and insists on doing things their way.

Often this leads to IT employees having a unique culture, encouraging a unique dress code, special work hours and sometimes, special treatment for not being good communicators. All of this special treatment separates IT from the rest of the organization. Although the unique culture may be good the IT person, it creates an unnecessary barrier between their customer and themselves. This isolation makes it more difficult, if not impossible, for ITs frequently innovative approaches to problem solving to be accepted by the organization’s mainstream operations.

Finding the Sweet Spot

To return to our musical metaphor, effective organizations get everyone playing in the same way and off the same sheet of music. As the leader of an internal IT department, your challenge—and opportunity—is to find your organization’s place within the enterprise if you are to participate in the operational sweet spot. In other words, your IT services must create a positive emotional response from your customers and users of your services. This means the technologies you provide must have a positive effect on their performance, encouraging them to perform at new heights.

This starts by sharing the CEO’s vision of where your company is heading and what is expected of the IT organization. And while it might not sound very techy, that means getting in synch with your CEO, learning what customers want and need, and thinking like a business person first and a leader of technology experts second.

All of this is not to say that you can’t influence the CEO’s vision. Most CEOs are looking for ways to increase the performance of their organizations and are leading the search for the enterprise’s sweet spot. But at the end of the day, IT must be heading the same direction as everyone else in the company. As CIO, it’s your job to lead the IT experts in embracing this company’s vision and culture. That’s the onlyway the IT department will find its sweet spot and make it part of the company’s sweet spot.

Organizations in the Sweet Spot Speak a Common Language

Business people are practical. They determine what’s expected of them and they deliver what they promise: on time and within budget. Good business people exceed the expectations of customers by staying under budget with products that are simple to use. Exceptional businesses work hard to become the trusted source by emphasizing common values and demonstrating an understanding of their customers’ business. They know their customers’ success is critical to their own success.

IT: A business within a business

If you begin to think of the IT department as a business within the overall organization’s business, you’ll be on the right track. Your goal is to make your customers happy and to gain the confidence of your bankers, who just happen to be your CEO and CFO. If you can prove to your bankers that you understand the business and offer a compelling value proposition for customers, they’re very likely to continue funding your initiatives.

Of course, to reach this level of understanding, you’ll need to spend time communicating with the CEO and CFO on a regular basis in a common language: the language of business. Remember, the more broadly you think, the more will get done. For many CIOs and IT professionals, this shift in thinking and acting is like our brass band becoming part of the orchestra. They are uncomfortable, unsure of their footing and not very confident about where they’re heading.

Breaking Down the IT Barriers

If you’re one of the CIOs or IT directors wondering why the operational and support divisions shun working with your organization, remove the social barriers to success. Make your organization look and feel like the rest of the company by eliminating those special “benefits” that separate IT from the overall organization. Make the IT experts look, sound, and behave like their internal customers. These people are not terribly different from the company’s customers, the ultimate IT end users. Both groups want to know that IT understands their needs and is committing to meeting them in a cost-effective manner.

At Endurant, we’ve helped many CIOs and entire IT departments find their sweet spot and make it part of the company’s sweet spot. Once IT joins the sweet spot, the organization really starts to hum. It almost seems as if things are running automatically, with product development, sales & marketing, manufacturing and distribution smoothly playing their part in a well-managed orchestra. Everyone is wearing the same black orchestra attire (no funky clothes allowed,just for the IT guys!), everyone is interpreting the music the same way, and the brass band blends and complements the orchestra as a whole which is pleasing to the audience, and the members of the orchestra.

What could be sweeter than that?

Nick’s Nuggets for CIOs:

  • Learn and understand what the CEO expects of the company and the role IT should play in achieving those expectations.
  • Get comfortable with the language of business.
  • Work with each department executive to identify how IT can assist them in achieving their goals.
  • Introduce the executive team at department meetings and ask them to describe their business and expectations of IT.
  • Understand that the “ultimate solution” is seldom required and that partial solutions that are timely and cost effective are more valuable to the business (“Less Is More!”).
  • Only build what the company needs, not what you can deliver (Embrace the KITS principle: Keep It Technically Simple!”).
  • The culture within the IT department should mirror the culture of the entire organization. You’re not just the brass section, you’re part of the orchestra. You share equal responsibility for satisfying the audience.
  • Most importantly: communicate, communicate, communicate! Most misunderstandings occur when there’s an information vacuum.