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Handling Senior Management Expectations

 

Often, IT makes wrong assumptions about what senior managers expect of the department and how it actually performs against those expectations. As a result, IT leaders waste time and money fixing low priority problems while ignoring the larger ones that frustrate the business.

Info-Tech research shows that over one third of IT leaders fail to meet business expectations of performance. Failure to meet those expectations results in IT being viewed as an underperforming cost center that makes little or no valuable contributions to the organization’s strategic objectives.

In order to achieve and maintain a strong influence in the organization, IT must recognize and achieve the business’s expectations. Performance management can only take it so far. Close alignment with the expectations of senior management is essential for IT to assist in achieving the organization’s goals, increasing competitive advantage, making productivity gains, and optimizing current technologies.

This research will help IT leaders gain a sense of why senior managers seem to be constantly frustrated with IT even though actual performance is adequate. It will also help IT leaders manage expectations, identify where gaps exist between senior manager expectations and how they perceive IT performance, as well as advice on how to close those gaps.

Managing Expectations

The main causes of the unmet expectations of senior management is either that IT doesn’t understand what the business actually expects, or the business doesn’t understand IT’s actual performance levels. Usually it’s a combination of both. The way to overcome these unmet expectations is through regular management of expectations. Discussing project lists at annual strategy meetings isn’t enough; put forth a concerted effort to keep the lines of communication open between senior managers leading business units and the IT leaders supporting them.

In many cases, a lack of deep business knowledge makes it difficult for an IT leader to understand why that image on the web page should be changed to something different. The benefits of that seemingly meaningless adjustment doesn’t seem to justify the resources needed to complete the project.

This is where managing expectations becomes paramount. A mutual respect for expertise must be held by both groups. That respect is the result of frequent communication, explanation of business need or IT resource requirements, and a natural way to manage expectations.

IT leaders: when managing expectations, follow this basic template:

Give the back story. Provide the reasons why a project is important, what resourcing constraints are currently in place, the impact of business requests on other projects.

Provide estimates. Of staff resourcing requirements, start and finish dates, cost and stakeholder input.

Paint the future picture. Describe the end state after this project is complete. Talk about changes to processes, procedures, or material and the impact on customers and staff.

While managing expectations and their relationships with each other, the roles that senior managers and the IT leader hold are distinct. Here’s how to keep the respectful relationship intact and expectations managed.

Sometimes, saying “no” to senior managers is necessary. When the relationship between IT and senior managers is grounded in respect, this scenario should play out relatively smoothly as long as the answer comes with an explanation and alternate solution. 

Gaps in Expectations

Negotiations between senior managers and the IT leader regarding what is expected of IT rarely occur, so serious gaps in expectations can go unnoticed and begin to taint the relationship. Expectation gaps occur due to misalignment between what senior managers expect of IT and what IT is able to deliver - which in itself is perception-based. Herein lies the problem: senior managers often expect the moon and the stars from IT. While IT may deliver a feasible solution to the business request, senior managers might perceive the solution to be subpar. The perception of a gap makes it real - it may be due to poor communication from IT about what is actually happening, or poor communication from management about what is really required. In the first case, there may not actually be a results gap. In the second, the needed result is missed.

Gaps in expectations occur because of a lack of communication and understanding between senior managers and the IT leader. In most cases, serious gaps in expectations occur when senior managers have a business request that they need IT to take on as a project. The visions that senior managers have for their requests are complex, detailed, and are specific to certain business issues. Very little of this is translated when passing the project to IT; this is how a gap is formed. A steering committee can often mitigate this scenario, but it is not foolproof. Even during group discussions, the perception of what the project will look like in the end differs between leaders.

When a gap exists, the relationship between senior managers and the IT leader/IT department deteriorates. The organization as a whole suffers because:

  • Business leaders seek advice on IT issues outside of IT - money that could be spent internally is allocated to contractors and consultants.
  • The tools the organization already has are not optimized. They may be used but are not likely used to their fullest potential, creating the need for supplemental tools that lead to inefficient processes.
  • The IT leader and department are seen as a pure support center and are not active participants in strategic planning; the expertise within IT goes untapped.
  • The organization risks losing a competitive edge because innovative IT solutions to modern business problems go unexplored.

Acknowledge real or perceived gaps so you can close them.

Gaps can be identified in one or all of these four categories:

  1. Financial management: budgeting, cost transparency, and investment practices.
  2. Service delivery: achievement of service targets, ability to fill business requests.
  3. Contribution to corporate strategy: active participation in corporate strategy setting, alignment between IT strategy and business strategy.
  4. Personal effectiveness: ability to lead an effective and efficient team while developing the skills and knowledge base required to move the organization forward from an IT standpoint.

The risks associated with gaps in these areas stretch to the organization’s bottom line.

Avoid these risks by identifying gaps before they cause irreparable damage to the senior manager/IT leader relationship. Use the steps and chart below to identify one or more gaps that may exist in your organization and create a plan to close them.

Step 1: Gather Feedback

To identify gaps in senior manager expectations, ask them. Survey senior managers about what they expect from IT in each of the four key categories. Include how they perceive IT to be delivering on those expectations.

Do this in one of two ways:

  1. Set up meetings with senior managers and talk to them about their expectations in each of the four categories.
  2. Distribute Info-Tech’s Senior Management Expectation Survey, collect the results, and determine where the biggest gaps exist in your organization.

Step 2:  Identify and Prioritize

Use the feedback from Step 1 and the tables below to identify gaps that currently exist in any of the four categories.
Prioritize the gaps you find based on the areas of greatest concern (the largest gaps between expectations and reality).

Step 3: Close the Gaps

After identifying and prioritizing the gaps that currently exist, use the information in the Recommendations column to close the gaps. For more detailed advice, click on the links in the Helpful Resources column to refer to more Info-Tech research.

Financial Mangement Gaps

Symptoms of Gap

Impact of Gap

Recommendations

Root Cause/Info-Tech Resources

  • Senior managers do not understand how much their business requests cost IT.
  • Senior managers are unable to identify, quantify, and report their IT expenditures.
  • Business leaders cannot quantify IT value.

The IT budget will be cut.
Decisions that were once the authority of IT can be transferred to senior managers.

Create an executive steering committee (or project prioritization committee) to ensure business input to project prioritization decisions.
Consult with the business for all IT investments. Sell them first on the business benefit, then on the investment cost.
Implement chargeback systems or budgeting techniques that expose IT costs and how they are applied to services provided to the business.

Failure to take business strategy into account for IT budget: Establish an Effective IT Steering Committee and A Point-of-View: Business Demand Rarely Influences the Allocation of IT Expenses
Lack of transparency into the costs of IT services :Why Chargeback Systems Go Bad

  • Projects are not properly resourced due to inadequate funding.

 

The onus for justifying resourcing requirements is laid on the IT leader and becomes difficult, even if justification is available.

Track and report service usage by department. Estimate required resources based on the projected needs and growth of the business and the IT effort and investment required to support that.

Focus on individual project needs does not balance resource and funding allocation across the portfolio: Develop a Project Portfolio Management Strategy

  • Consistent budget overruns.
  • IT initiatives that are pitched but go unfunded.

When senior managers perceive there is a gap in IT’s financial management, they will generally pull back any budget autonomy IT has.

Use budget forecasts and estimates from previous years to predict upcoming expenditures. Work with the business in budget planning to adjust for changes in business strategy or company direction.

Failure to budget ongoing operating expenses for new capital investment: Develop Successful Strategies for Budget Planning, Proposal, and Negotiation

 

Service Delivery Gaps

Symptoms of Gap

Impact of Gap

Recommendations

Root Cause/Info-Tech Resources

  • Growing project backlog.
  • Priority sequence is shifted frequently.

 

IT can start to appear like a bottleneck for business requests. Senior managers may go outside normal channels for requesting IT work to try to get their request filled.

Set limits for how much can sit in IT's "pending" backlog based on what can be accomplished in a reasonable amount of time (6-18 months). Ensure business management are setting and negotiating request priorities among themselves and managing their own backlog of requests based on those priorities.

IT resourcing is unable to meet business demand: Deliver Maximum Value with Limited Staff
IT is unable to respond quickly to service requests from the business: Make IT More Responsive & Agile

  • Projects are often put on hold.

The business misses opportunities because projects aren’t completed on time.

Implement service catalogs and communicate them to business management to ensure an understanding of the services that IT offers. 

Project managers fail to anticipate and mitigate the risks and issues that can arise in projects: Avoid Project Management Pitfalls

  • IT commits to more work than it can deliver.
  • IT projects have extended timelines.

The IT team can start to feel the weight of overwhelming demand and can break under the pressure.

Implement service level agreements with the business. Use a relationship manager to assist in determining business needs and requirements for IT services. If creation of the role is not an option, then ensure that someone in IT is accountable for this activity.

IT does not understand the needs and requirements of the business: Overcome the Barriers to Good Requirements Management

Contribution to Corporate Strategy Gaps

Symptoms of Gap

Impact of Gap

Recommendations

Root Cause/Info-Tech Resources

  • There is unilateral communication between senior managers and the IT leader.

The organization misses the opportunity to leverage the expertise and experience of the IT leader and staff.

Meet monthly with business senior management to develop and maintain an understanding of their strategic goals and objectives.

IT Leaders do not promote collaborative relationships with the business: Become a More Effective IT Leader

  • IT is not an active participant in strategic planning.
  • The IT leader focuses on IT issues instead of broad business issues.

The overall business strategy and the IT strategy (if one even exists) could be misaligned and won’t enable each other.

Take an active role in strategic planning. Don't wait to see how the business wants to use technology. Research technology trends and industry developments and present these trends as potential solutions to business problems.
Engage senior business management to jointly identify recommendations for ways that technology can help them to advance their business strategy. Presenting these as joint business/IT projects ensures business is "bought-in" from the outset.

IT leaders are focused on day to day details and don’t engage with the business in strategic planning: IT Strategy: Business/IT Alignment

Personal Effectiveness Gaps

Symptoms of Gap

Impact of Gap

Recommendation

Root Cause/Info-Tech Resources

  • The IT leader seems to misunderstand core business objectives.
  • The IT leader communicates in technical terms, not business terms.
  • Senior managers hear from the IT leader only when there is an issue.

Senior managers don’t understand the answers they get from IT so they stop asking questions.
Senior managers dread conversations with the IT leader, and communication is blocked.

Express the goals and objectives of the IT strategy in business terms, not IT terms. For example, highlight how initiatives will increase revenue, make business processes more efficient, improve the client experience, etc.

IT leaders don’t delegate enough to their teams to free up time to devote to strategy and planning: Become a More Effective IT Leader

  • The IT leader and senior managers can’t relate/respect each other.

Business needs are not accurately communicated to the IT staff working on projects.

Build relationships with business leaders by meeting with them to discuss their long-term plans and needs.

IT leaders lack the political or relationship building skills needed to work with the management team: Navigate the IT Stakeholder Landscape

  • The IT team is de-motivated or unproductive.

The IT team is unaware of how they need to improve their performance so their skills don’t go undeveloped.

Ensure that staff performance reviews are conducted at least once a year, and that areas for improvement are identified and communicated as they occur. Provide career coaching and development opportunities to staff.

IT leaders are disconnected from their teams: Leverage Staff Feedback to Improve Management Performance
IT staff are unmotivated and performance is lagging: Engage Employees with Career Planning and Succession Development

The key to closing gaps in expectations is acknowledging them. If you can self-identify with one or more of the symptoms in the tables above, there may be a gap between what senior managers expect of IT and how they perceive IT to be delivering on those expectations. Those gaps must be closed. Accomplish this in two ways: adjust senior management’s expectations or become better at meeting expectations.

Advice for IT Leaders:

  1. Meet with senior managers informally to ask them about their plans for the future and goals for their departments. Try to understand what it is they do, so when they come to you with business requests, you will have greater context, making it easier to deliver what they need.
  2. During projects, have your team schedule frequent appointments with the project owners in business units. These checkpoints should serve as status updates, requirements checking, and time for questions. This will also help to develop relationships between lower level staff in different departments.
  3. Make IT project schedules available to senior managers for their reference. This will help them determine where their business requests sit in the backlog so they can plan accordingly.
  4. Follow up after projects are complete to make sure business requirements and expectations have been met. Use this time to highlight IT successes.

Encourage Senior Managers to:

  1. Open up about what it is they do. Ask them about their biggest challenges and long-term goals. At the same time, explain the IT world to them so they can gain an appreciation for the impact that their business requests have on the IT department.
  2. Explain what they need in terms of detailed business requirements. Help them to describe the vision from an internal staff and customer perspective, the end state, and how processes, procedures, or material will look after the project is complete.
  3. Understand the IT prioritization process. If a business request is urgent, explain escalation procedures. Describe the bigger picture and help the senior manager to understand that the request will go on IT’s back burner until time and resources permit. Clarify that IT is not out to smite the plans of the business; IT supports every department and must manage all projects that come in, necessitating a ruthless prioritization process.

Bottom Line

Even though IT may be performing well from a metrics and technical point of view, the perception of IT’s performance by senior managers can still be flawed. Identify where perceptions do not match reality and manage the expectations that lead to such inaccurate perceptions.

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