Getting the Board to Yes
By becoming a superstar technologist, you have burdened yourself with the obligation to inform the world about what you know. As you rise up the technology ranks, you are becoming a salesman. Learn your craft
Technology is not only changing way the businesses operate, it is changing the structure of entire markets. You as technologists understand this change is happening, and many of you have an innate sense of what the impact on your business will be. You are close to the changes, because you read about them, you meet vendors, talk to your peers and read the journals — you’re fascinated by technology.
But without your best ideas getting to decision-makers in a way that they can engage with, the businesses you work in, and the economy, will fail to generate the kind of performance that your insights could truly deliver.
Executive decision-makers and directors know that they need to make important strategic decisions about technology, but they can’t always see the linkage between their technologists’ great ideas and their own way of thinking.
They’re inherently skeptical about technologists, and why not? For decades, technology departments have been asking for more and more money, for bigger and bigger projects, not always delivered on time, and the worst part is that the benefits on completion, and the issues encountered along the way, are often shrouded in mystery. They are opaque, available only to those practitioners of the ‘dark arts’ of technology.
The enemy is the disconnect between the way technologists prefer to describe their ideas, and the way top management thinks. Many ideas with great technological and business merit go unsupported because decision-makers don’t understand the strategic value to the business
By way of analogy, many early Australian explorers starved to death even though they were surrounded by an abundance of food resources, partly because they hadn’t learned to communicate with, and trust, the local experts - the Aboriginal people who had been living and thriving in the same environment for over 40,000 years. Similarly, decision-makers in your own organisations are starving from a dearth of insight into how technology can really help their business, even though the answers may often lie with their own technologists, who hold a vast knowledge of the firm’s internal and external technology landscape.
Unless you, as experts in the technology community, learn how to dramatically improve the way you pitch your best ideas to top management, you risk seeing your careers and the businesses you work for delivering less than their potential, and our economy failing to deliver the growth we need to survive and thrive.
Technology used to be a department. Now it’s our whole business. Mining? Autonomous trucks and diggers. Manufacturing? Robotics. Banking? One great big computer network. Transport? Disrupted by Uber, Maven and others. Despite this shift, boards of established organisations remain woefully devoid of technology experience and expertise.
It is now more important than ever that technologists earn a seat at the board table to drive engagement, get decisions made and get great ideas funded. If boards won’t change themselves, you have to change. Now is the time to do that.
Imagine a world where the board would engage with technology and understand what it can offer, the way you do…
Imagine if you were to take a technology investment proposal to a board member, and your presentation approach enabled him to have complete clarity about the proposal’s business value, without requiring any specific technical knowledge, and without leaving him with a suspicion that you’re hiding something behind ‘techno-babble’. How would that make you feel? How would it make the decision-maker feel? How much more likely would you be to win that investment funding? Even if you didn’t, how much more receptive would he be to hearing about the next proposal?
But it’s not going to be easy, there are many barriers to overcome…
Language: You have spent a lifetime building your vocabulary of technology terms and ideas; They have equally spent a lifetime invested in theirs. As technologists, for you it’s all about taxonomy and structure, ITIL, TOGAF and BSP; For business people, it’s about opportunity, competition and execution, the ‘Five Forces’, ‘SCP’, ‘Balanced scorecard’, and NPV.
History: Many directors can recall experiences of technology projects going over budget or not achieving their original objectives. Few talk loudly about those the went well.
Values: Technologists care about innovation, structure, solutions and coming up with ‘the answer’. They value problem-solving above all else. Business-people are rewarded for sales and profit. They value winning above all else. They know that Peter Drucker was right when he said, “Results are obtained by exploiting opportunities, not by solving problems”.
Attention: What works (and is expected) in decision-makers’ thinking is often the opposite of what works (and is expected) in technologists’ thinking: Technologists want detail, but business leaders want the recommendation, “Tell me the answer, what to do, what I will get out of it, and the risks if I do or don’t follow your recommendation. Only If I doubt you will I ask for the detail.”
Trust: Technology, for many organisations, is either the single biggest cost item, or the fastest growing one. No-one likes spending large and increasing amounts of money on things they don’t understand.
Why we can do better, and how:
Change yourself: If you can’t change decision-makers, perhaps you can change yourself. Learn the language. Think through how each of your terms maps to their terms. Find out how business people think through problems. Ask your internal governance function what frameworks resonate with the board. Is there a strategy group you can link up with, or can you hire someone who has done this before?
Acknowledge that the past is imperfect, and at the same time help leaders understand how technology has delivered enormous value for organisations over the long-term.
Take the time to think through your pitch from the board’s point of view. You don’t need to agree with their values, but if you want to convince decision-makers, it’s easier to win them over using their culture and values than to convince them to adopt yours. How do the features that are important to you (for example, faster processor clock speeds / processing power, or a more efficiently crafted algorithm), translate to an improved capacity to exploit a business opportunity?
Be a barrister, not a PhD: Filter your information carefully. You have limited time with your audience. They have a limited attention span. Do not flood them with information. You do not need to prove a fundamental truth. Your audience is not a PhD supervisor, she is more like a judge or jury. You must act like a barrister and provide only the vital few pieces of information necessary to prove your case beyond reasonable doubt. Avoid interesting, but unnecessary, information. The temptation is to show how deeply you have thought about the problem and all the issues you have resolved along the way. Fight that urge at all costs. Let your deep insights show through via the presentation of a very small number of very high-impact insights, rather than through volume. Make absolutely sure that you ‘make the case’ for your investment, and once you have done so, stop!
Show alternative courses of action available to decision-makers, and offer opportunities for deep-dive sessions that provide radical transparency on assumptions and inputs.
They say the first step is the most important in any journey. There is a large body of knowledge that underpins executives’ decision-making processes. They have spent a lifetime learning about, internalising and practicing these techniques, and they are different to the knowledge that you have gathered as a technologist.
Developing your understanding of this new language, culture and values, learning to apply your new knowledge in your everyday interactions with decision-makers and earning their trust will take time, practice and reflection. This is not about throwing out the old; rather is about choosing your approach based on your audience, adding new arrows to your quiver, and increasing the impact your best technology ideas will have on your organisation and the world.
Accept your fate. By becoming a superstar technologist, you have burdened yourself with the obligation to inform the world about what you know. As you rise up the technology ranks, you are becoming a salesman. Learn your craft.