Accomplishing big goals that involve the challenges of security, risk and governance, takes a combination of innovative strategies, resolve, a culture that prioritizes IT, and sometimes a lot of patience.
Even in an ideal environment, Dave Wittwer, President and Chief Executive Officer, TDS Telecommunications and Keynote presenter at last week’s Fusion CEO-CIO 2013 Symposium, told attendees “If you have everything perfectly lined up, the environment isn’t going to let you move forward—things keep coming over the wall.”
TDS has been investing heavily in IT on both sides of the business with a five-year blueprint of projects that support growing operations as a national telecom provider in 32 states.
Solution providers, CIOs, and CEOs have a mutually vested interest in creating functional cross-operational environment to accomplish the company’s goals. Wittwer told the Fusion Symposium audience that in his 27 years with the company, the organization’s focus has stayed pure and simple. “We’re in business to accomplish our goals.”
Businesses that are too departmentalized can get “messy” and goals become difficult to attain. While perfect alignment across all sectors of a company is a worthy ideal, it doesn’t usually happen that way. As any CEO or CIO knows, too many variables get in the way. TDS is constantly evaluating customers’ expectations and technology changes—the need to stay flexible is high on the company’s priority list.
TDS, which typically does two to three acquisitions a year and operates with about $1 billion in annual revenue, has consciously created a culture of informed and calculated risk. And yes, IT has a seat at the TDS table.
In any business culture, invariably a problem comes up when not everyone sees risk the same way. Risk equals uncertainty but the variable are where it becomes interesting. Just because a CEO sees a project as high risk, another team member may evaluate it as low risk. Without a universal measure of risk, businesses like TDS have to create a set of metrics that assign value to the uncertainty (risk) of each stage of a project.
And that is where good communication comes in across the board —where various sectors of the company, including the CIO, needs to be at the solutions discussion table.
Interestingly, in a visual hands-up poll at the first session of the Fusion Symposium, March 7th, about 50 percent of the audience indicated they had a seat at their company’s table.
Don’t underestimate the power of good communication
Good communication isn’t just an overly simplistic strategy, it builds bridges and relationships. It is imperative that a business have a culture of trust in place in order to know if you should go forward on a proposed project. Have ongoing dialogues, keep the lines of communication open. Keep the CIO and IT team informed. Be transparent, accountable and honest. Tell them you don’t know what’s coming, but the important thing is to talk about it.
Is everyone on your side when you’re on the runway with an important project? If you don’t have key people on your side, it may be that they don’t understand what you want to do and why. Have you taken the time to educate your departments about big projects that are on the drawing board? Have you created a culture that prioritizes IT?
Building big projects requires building relationships. Don’t underestimate the power of people who have influence. Get to know key players who can run interference for you and can be an inside coach on your behalf.
The Transparency Factor
Leslie Hearn, Vice President of Information Systems and CIO, TDS Telecommications, made the case for having the right culture in place especially when big projects are pending. In referring to the “Big Five” she pointed out TDS has completed two of the five projects since the company’s blueprint was rolled out at the end of 2010.
How can you not build huge, innovative systems that transform a company without getting your business partners at the same table?
You can’t, said Hearn. “When your big, bold projects that are meant to thrust your organization forward to thrive in the future, your team gets that. When the team understands that they are part of something strategic, they work that much more collaboratively and innovatively.”
The idea of taking on big projects can be daunting particularly if you don’t have cross-organizational support. It’s not uncommon to pass up big initiatives because you may not think you can reel in everyone and leadership fears not everyone will embrace the tasks at hand.
But Hearn said companies’ big projects can actually have the opposite effect. They can be highly effective in building your organization’s culture. And, big initiatives can be easier to implement and work through than their smaller cousins if IT has an all-important seat at the table and when people realize proposed projects can be done.
Like any other problem solving situation, large initiatives like those TDS has been undertaking, require ongoing educational efforts and transparency.
The CIO and IT team members may not understand the business side of the company, but that can be mistake. Mention rate of return and their eyes may start to glaze over, but Wittwer said you have to communicate it right. “We like to say, “Let’s get that software out there earning a living.”
Hearn said it is essential that project teams know as much about the “why” as the “what” of projects. The larger the project, typically the more short- and long-term goals that must be met. If the team better understands these stages they will likely embrace the project more imaginatively. She reiterated– transparency is key.
What about the “the problem child?”
Invariably, when you take on big projects like TDS’ Big Five not everyone `gets’ your vision.
If you want to get a big project off the runway and completed, you have to ramp up communication and be straightforward with your project team. You can’t soft-pedal the benefits of why you need to move forward. CEO and CIO leadership may understand why you need momentum if you have an obsolescence problem, but you probably need to engage others on your team so they have a full understanding of how they contribute to the outcome of the business.
With big, bold projects changes along the way are part of the landscape. Time shifting, fluctuations and budgets are also part of the equation. When both sides of your business talk to each other, your team will have a better understanding of why changes are necessary.
Still, if your end-state is clear, and you communicate in a shared way, you will find a way to remove barriers that may have kept a project from moving ahead.
After all, when you’re addressing security issues and obsolescence, time is of the essence.
Still, even with the best laid plans, how do you wrestle with the unknowns? Wittwer said the business has to be committed to communicating quickly and flexible once an unknown has been identified.
“As a leadership team we meet regularly to stay informed on projects and to deploy resources quickly to address concerns when they come up,” he added. “Our teams know that while we strive for perfection we also work in reality; and trust that the team can work through it with leadership’s support.”
What is next for TDS after the Big 5 projects are completed? For now the business is staying focused on the task at hand as a few projects are not fully complete.
Looking ahead, Wittwer said, “Our strategic plan will dictate the priorities of our next projects”