In this article Cliff Moyce, Independent Management Consultant, addresses the unhelpful beliefs, attitudes and behaviours behind the phrase 'the business' - a term that he has heard people in IT departments use for many years... I’ve been listening to people in IT departments use the phrase ‘the business’ for many years. Though I can understand why people use it, I confess it is a pet hate of mine. At a couple of recent business technology conferences, I heard it so often (and never in a positive context) that I felt compelled to write this article. What I will do (briefly!) is describe what I have done in the past to address the unhelpful beliefs, attitudes and behaviours that I have found to be hiding behind the phrase. Hopefully some of my experiences will give you food for thought.

Whenever I hear ‘the business’ as a starter, I know I have to brace myself for some blaming and buck-passing as the main course, and should expect dessert to comprise evidence that the person speaking has little belief in taking joint and several responsibility for business outcomes.

Such behaviours and beliefs are a risk to any organisation in any industry or sector. For this reason I strongly discourage the use of the term in those with whom I work, while recognising that it is merely a symptom of a bigger problem. To say ‘the business’ is to suggest that IT has made a unilateral declaration of independence from other parts of the organisation. And actually that is exactly the scenario I have found on occasion - if only intellectually rather than physically. People who use the phrase often hold a belief (perhaps based on painful experience) that they and their colleagues are the victim of the actions of others over whom they have no control. But that belief is self-fulfilling and self-defeating, and suggests learned helplessness and a victim mentality. The good news is that I have been able to help change the mindset on several occasions. If I can do it, you can definitely do it. I find that once people are made aware of what they are doing, they often embrace the change. Let’s face it, none of us were born with a passive-aggressive attitude. Sometimes the attitude arises as a defence mechanism from having worked in a blame culture. Sometimes it comes from working for a line manager who espouses the ‘IT versus the business' mentality (bad role models being as influential as good ones). Sometimes it stems from poor self confidence. A real-life quotation that I heard recently, and which exemplifies the problem is

“We can only build against the requirements that the business gives us. It’s not our fault if they get it wrong”.

The battlefield of ‘requirements’ is often a good place to start changing beliefs and attitudes. The quotation makes explicit a belief that requirements are the responsibility of someone else. A combination of language (‘the business’) and wrong-headed beliefs about responsibility for requirements creates an internal client-vendor relationship that benefits only those people who want to play the blame game. Accepting requirements regardless of whether they are right / wrong / incomplete is a horribly destructive example of passive-aggressive behaviour. I have worked on major projects where the word ‘requirements’ was almost never used. Instead, we all worked together (with our various expertise and professional disciplines and coming from different organisational functions) to produce business and technical designs in which there was joint and several responsibility amongst the team / matrix / organisation for the outcomes generated by those designs. The point being that we were all there to achieve an outcome, and everyone contributing to designs is one of the best ways of doing that. Agile methods that employ autonomous, self-managing, multi- and cross-functional product development teams are designed specifically to facilitate this better way of working, but it is achievable regardless of the methodology. My approach to improving the situation is to impress on people that we are all ‘the business’ and that the only way the organisation is going to achieve its goals (including paying our wages) is for everyone to care passionately and equally about a range of things. Those things include customer satisfaction, profitability, shareholder value, product design, and service quality, all of which have to be underpinned by, but are not separate from excellent IT products, systems and services. To believe that IT and ‘the business’ are separate is wrong-headed and creates risk. It reminds me of the false mind / body duality belief that clinical psychologists sometimes have to overcome in their clients to help them recover from serious injury. I also believe that if you come to work principally to practice and perfect your own profession and function, then the company would be better off without you. I say this because I have heard the ‘professional distance’ argument from some of the most passive-aggressive people with whom I have worked, and I can’t help but observe that things went much better when they were replaced by people who got fully involved. I know that some organisational designs strongly encourage the business / IT divide and it is not just the mindset of some individuals in IT that is at fault. But if everyone challenged the assumptions behind divides (real and imagined) and worked to change them, then organisations would be more productive and successful. We are all in it together. We are all the business.

Article kindly provided by Cliff Moyce, Independent Management Consultant please click here to email Cliff Moyce.

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