From Here to Alignment

I started with a Fortune 500 company via the traditional IT route (programmer analyst, systems analyst, project manager) where my alignment concern was limited to my immediate co-workers and supervisor. I eventually took an IT Director position at a smaller (much smaller) organization, but even then IT / business alignment was fairly simple.

I reported to the CFO, who was also the COO, who was part-owner along with the CEO, who was also the founder and president. My ‘department’ consisted of three people (including me!) supporting one corporate office and seven retail locations. We were too small to NOT be in alignment.

Today I am with a larger company, still in the SMB (small-to-mid-sized business) world, with a department of 17, supporting over 265 retail locations. We have a full contingent of C-level executives and business alignment takes on a whole different meaning. In fact, IT/business alignment has been one of my toughest challenges.

Truth be told though, when I started with my current company in January of 2000, we did not have any IT infrastructure to speak of. We had no LAN, e-mail, nothing!). We were predominantly focused a single point-of-sale solution—the only technology we employed at the time for our franchise community.

As I put technology in place (centralized back-ups, centralized anti-virus, file and print services—what novel concepts!) and as the IT department started to deliver on projects, we started to become integral to all future business initiatives, which is also when the challenges start.

With companies that are rapidly growing, and with the changing personnel that typically comes with such growth, misalignment is often more common than alignment (we were no exception).

I would go through our annual strategic planning sessions (at least we did have these), determine what IT was going to work on for the upcoming year, and no sooner had I dropped off my glorious (to me anyway) planning documents, but some associate from some department would drop the ‘this-is-on-my-goals-for-next-year-and-how-soon-can-you-accomplish-this’ request. Sound familiar?

Many of you will have your own solutions to this all too familiar problem, and some may even have sophisticated programs in place. For the rest of us, the following is how I tackle this situation:

Interview. No, not as in dust off your resume and start interviewing for another job, but interview each and every department leader. You should interview your chiefs as well, but don’t forget about those that also set direction while controlling the blocking and tackling.

I know it takes a lot of time, but I find there is no better way to discover what is lurking in some department’s list of initiatives that they mistakenly believe do not require any IT assistance.

I start with a checklist of questions, covering the basics such as personnel additions (i.e., new PC requisitions), efficiency initiatives, strategic plans (these should already be matched up to the overall company plans) and then migrate into a general discussion of department wish lists, pain points, etc.

Document. Do all IT departments get a bad rap for documentation, or is it just mine? I consolidate all of the information gathered together, classifying initiatives as (a) those already identified as matching company strategic initiatives or (b) as previously undiscovered “opportunities.”

I also identify each initiative as H, M, or L (high, medium, low) with respect to effort required and risk. Finally, I attempt to classify each initiative as a growth enabler, cost reducer, efficiency solution, liability mandate, or other category. The more I can classify and clarify up front, the less time I need to spend in additional meetings explaining.

Present. (The verb version, not the noun.) Once I have a consolidated list of what the company thinks the initiatives are and what the employees believe the initiatives are, I present to our executive team (mostly the chiefs) for review, priority, and alignment.

This step also has the added benefit of further building credibility in the eyes of the executive team as you step out of the traditional IT role and look to understand the entire business, taking a vested interest in what gets prioritized and slotted in.

Of course, you and your team still have to deliver on those plans!

Gantt Chart. With thanks to Henry L. Gantt (look it up if you don’t know the history of the Gantt chart), the Gantt chart is once again my best friend. I list all of the IT initiatives on a single Gantt chart and only work on those initiatives. (While I can talk tough, if anyone out there knows how to truly enforce this, please let me know. One of my top chiefs invariably overrides, but at least that is the exception.)

This Gantt is not down to the detailed project plan level, but rather a high-level view of all of the tasks under each initiative (my expanded Gantt is typically 20 pages), which can be rolled up to list just the individual initiative lines, with expected completion dates (typically 2 pages long).

In some cases the initiative is just a placeholder with the following lines identified: Initiative Name, Business Requirements, Design, Develop, Test, and Implement.

Eventually the placeholder lines get additional tasks added under them to round out the details and validate the expected timeline. Individual project plans are typically created separately for each initiative as needed.

By operating as listed above, and by maintaining this Gantt chart weekly (if not daily), I have been able to significantly raise the visibility within the organization to everything that IT has a hand in, limit (but not eliminate) the number of unplanned initiatives, better justify adding additional staff, and just as important, gain a level of alignment between the business and IT that we have not previously had.

Michael Lehman is CIO of Batteries Plus, the largest and most comprehensive retail and B2B chain focused on the battery category. Batteries Plus has over 255 stores operating from coast-to-coast.