How to Forge Better Partnerships
Tombstone is one of my favorites movies and is one of the very few Westerns I can sit down and watch with genuine enjoyment. One standout scene takes place at the theater. A performance troupe arrives in town to treat the locals to a variety of entertaining vignettes. The crowd responds to some of the acts with enthusiastic applause. Others are met with gunshots, driving panicked performers from the stage. After a juggler is sent running for his life, a classical actor named Mr. Fabian (played by a pre-Titanic heel turn Billy Zane) strides onto the stage.
While not always as chaotic as the theater in Tombstone, trying to keep pace with hardware and software development cycles can sometimes send even seasoned professionals running for cover. Technology is an incredibly broad field marked by rapid change. Even doing our level best to stay on top of the latest information, IT professionals of all stripes can often feel left in the dust, overwhelmed by the sheer volume of it. Perhaps this uncertainty is felt most acutely when we find ourselves faced with updating or replacing a system within our organization. We can’t know everything, and we can’t have exhaustive expertise in all areas. Putting on a successful show is going to take a variety of performers. When the task is great, we must find a partner to help us meet our company’s needs.
A Company Case Study
Let’s consider the case of a company that was using a central data processing system they had developed entirely in-house. It was long past its shelf life, and their business needs had grown to a point where they were faced with the choice of either completely rewriting their current system or replacing it. No available software package met their needs out of the box, which left them with finding a solution that was flexible and customizable. Their main system used a flat data structure and didn’t have a way of honoring ethical walls or document security when pulling from other systems. There were no security software packages that could bridge all their different systems (at least, none that were cost-effective). Their IT shop kept a lean team, and they only had one developer on staff. Since they couldn’t dedicate 15 years to the development of a new system using that one person, they needed more firepower. They needed a partner.
More Than Money
We could easily default to prioritizing cost as our primary concern when considering any sort of partnership. “Time is money” is a cliche for a reason. It’s something we’ve all heard (and probably said) on countless occasions. We conceptually monetize all sorts of things, and that framing makes it easy for us to narrow our focus to the financial bottom line. I’m not saying that cost isn’t a valid concern. It most certainly is, and it’s one that needs to be kept in mind throughout any project. But I want to illustrate that a shift in thinking is very helpful here. The price tag isn’t a sunken cost; it’s truly an investment. You shouldn’t look to simply minimize the expense. Rather, you’re looking to maximize the value you receive.
Our case study company looked at several options over the course of a few years. They even selected a partner and started down a development path until they hit an impasse. The partner hadn’t adequately accounted for the level of system flexibility the company would need to implement in order to make the proposed solution a realistic one. Neither the company nor the partner had the available manpower to even come close to developing the customizations necessary to make the proposed solution usable. The company had hit the outer limits of that partner’s capabilities. The value they had received at this point was ... less than stellar. Forced to go back to the drawing board, they were out a good bit of time and coin. But they had gained some valuable insights into how to systematize their needs, how to communicate those ideas and how to identify potential difficulties that lay ahead. This knowledge served them well as they began the search for a more valuable partner.
Back in Tombstone, Mr. Fabian warmly and confidently introduces his act: a performance of the Saint Crispin’s Day speech from Shakespeare’s Henry V. He has just begun to set the scene when a shot rings out, the bullet shattering a plaster bust on the stage next to him. Laughter erupts from the crowd, and Mr. Fabian must face the fact that he needs to either change his approach or run for the hills.
Getting the Gist
The importance of understanding your needs as thoroughly as possible may sound like an obvious thing to point out, but it can’t be overstated. The deeper you understand what you’re trying to accomplish, the better you’ll be able to communicate with potential partners and determine if they can help you the way your organization needs them to. To gain the deeper, more thorough understanding that I’m talking about, you need to approach things from the perspective of a potential partner. Imagine someone walking in the door of your organization lacking any familiarity with it. They may have some general knowledge of what you do and the systems you use, but that’s it. How would you describe your needs to them? What are the items or features that you feel most need to be implemented into the new system? Why do you feel that way? Is there a clear reason why certain older features should be preserved, or are you leaning on your familiarity at the expense of innovation?
Getting a fresh set of eyes on things will also help you to understand your needs. Try finding someone within your organization who isn’t familiar with the inner workings of the system in question. By teaching them how it works, you’re also re-examining the system in your own mind. This process can help you identify existing design flaws and ways the replacement system could be built differently. As the person asks questions and posits alternatives, you will be presented with opportunities to rethink the architecture of the replacement system and to refine how you communicate your needs to potential partners. This give-and-take is a great source of clarity.
Play on, Player
Once you have a clear vision of where you want to go with the new system, and you know how you’re going to communicate that vision, you’re ready to guide meetings and discussions with potential partners in ways that will maximize the benefits for your organization. As you move through this phase of the process, keep an eye out for partners that clearly get your vision and can take it further. Not only do you have pressing needs to be met, but you also want a broad range of options for possible future directions. Remember that your focus is on overall value for your organization. This means not only completing the current project but also future-proofing your solution as much as you can.
Returning to the case study example, the company found a partner who helped them implement a replacement system that efficiently processed their main data sources. But things didn’t stop there. This replacement system was expandable and customizable enough for the company to use it as a full-fledged development platform. If they find that they need additional features or capabilities in the future, then they can be built and patched in without having to rebuild or replace the entire system. By cross-training existing personnel, they’re also able to administer and develop for this new system without having to add to the IT staff count. The frustrations surrounding the first partnership’s failure gave the company an opportunity to regroup, refocus, and roll on. They achieved success by going on with the show.
After surveying the room, Mr. Fabian brushes bits of plaster from his shoulder and begins confidently reciting his lines. A hush falls over the audience, clearly stunned by the actor’s tenacity, their attention now fixed on his every word and movement. Mr. Fabian’s monologue continues to its crescendo, and he ends it with a flourish as the crowd erupts in raucous applause. The acting troupe becomes the toast of the town. Your organization’s meetings may not be nearly as rowdy as the theater in Tombstone, Arizona, but you’ll still be amazed at how a clear goal, great communication, and visionary partnerships can bring down the house.