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FAQ: Engaging business leaders in software application development

Getting and keeping business leaders engaged in software application development boosts the likelihood of project success; leaving them out increases the risks of failure.

Johanna RothmanJohanna Rothman

Almost all software project managers agree on this bit of conventional wisdom. Yet getting top executives to participate in software application development -- and sustaining their involvement in a meaningful way -- is an arduous process. Instead of working harder to sustain attention from senior management, project managers often give up too soon. They throw up their hands in despair, chalking up the boss's absence to a busy schedule. Or worse, they buy into the idea that software projects they lead aren't important enough to warrant the top exec's time.

Management consultant Johanna Rothman, co-author of Behind Closed Doors: Secrets of Great Management, said giving up too soon is a big mistake. "When business leaders doesn't show up, demand a meeting and ask them why," said Rothman, of Arlington, Mass.-based Rothman Consulting Group Inc. It's important to determine the root cause of their reluctance. "You might be surprised to hear what they say." Their answers can shed light on how to engage them -- and how to boost the visibility of your software project, she said.

This FAQ provides answers to questions that arise when software leaders seek to engage business leaders in application development projects.

How long has the quest for business-IT alignment been going on?

Technology professionals have sounded the alarm on aligning IT projects with an organization's business objectives for more than 50 years, according to IT strategy expert Thornton May. In the eternal quest for IT and business alignment, May said this idea has taken on a "near mythic" status. "Total alignment hasn't happened, of course, nor is it ever likely to. There are simply too many moving parts." He believes technology professionals should give up the quest and focus instead on effective ways of working with business leaders. One tactic May suggests is "Three lunches." Here's how he describes it:

Don't go in 'cold.' Walk in with something for that executive to approve or improve.

The VP and technical director at a midsized Midwestern bank explains that the first thing he does is identify "what metrics [business users] use to judge success." Every time an executive is hired or promoted, the VP schedules three lunches with the executive.

At the first lunch, the VP asks the executive to discuss the mission of the enterprise and the metrics he plans to use to gauge progress. At the second, the VP highlights how these metrics line up with existing IT initiatives, then the two brainstorm on future IT projects to elevate performance. At the third lunch, the executive tells the VP how IT is doing.

Rothman agrees that uncovering what matters most to the business side -- and appealing to leaders on that basis -- is a good approach. But she also notes that software project managers don't necessarily have answers for business leaders' real questions. "They want to know when will the project be done and what's the return on investment." she said. "At the outset of the project, you don't know the answer to either of these questions." Pretending that you do is not a good idea, she added. "It's tempting to lie about these things -- but don't."

What skills are needed to narrow the IT-business alignment gap?

Soft IT skills, including innovation, analytical skills, teamwork and project management are crucial for engaging business leaders in IT projects. As TechTarget features writer Karen Goulart notes in her article "In quest for business alignment, CIOs looks to fill soft skills gap," IT workers are experts in their various technology domains. But they often lack the skills needed to work more effectively with business leaders.

John Johnson, a chief technology officer quoted in Goulart's article, said he has a hard time finding software developers "who have the ability to understand the solution to a problem, versus just writing code." The article noted that "thinking critically and seeing the big picture of how IT can aid and affect the business is not only helpful, but has become an imperative."

What is the best way to get leaders in at the early development stage?

Every software project needs a business sponsor, Rothman noted. "If you don't have one, you have to ask yourself, 'Why am I working on this project?'" If the planned application is not part the organization's project portfolio, the entire software team is just wasting time, she said.

Getting your sponsor to participate in requirements planning is difficult, said Scott Sehlhorst, a SearchSoftwareQuality.com requirements expert. If you invite your sponsor to planning sessions and he doesn't show up, there are a couple of options, he said. "Your best bet is to try and get fifteen minutes of [the executive's] time." Failing that, get the executive to delegate responsibility for decisions about your product to someone who has more time or fewer responsibilities, he said. Next, meet with the sponsor and present an outline that demonstrates how the goals of the software project align with those of the company. The purpose of this meeting is twofold: first, get your business sponsor to confirm agreement with the goals you have defined. Second, determine whether the sponsor has additional expectations for your product. "Don't go in 'cold,'" Sehlhorst said. "Walk in with something for that executive to approve or improve."

David Nyland, CEO of Blueprint Software Systems, a Toronto-based firm that sells requirements software, said it's important to make it easy for executive to take part in the software projects. He offered this piece of advice: "Don't hand the stakeholder a 600-page document and ask that person to sign off on it." No one will wade through a document that long, he said. A better approach is to present stakeholders only those pages that are directly relevant to them. He also recommends taking a visual approach, where possible, using charts and graphs instead of text.

Does Agile development provide a better way to engage business leaders?

The short answer is yes, in that Agile formally recognizes the role business leaders play in the process that the waterfall software development methodology does not. That said, project managers must work hard to get business leaders involved. Agile practices like short iterations are well-suited to working with business leaders, Rothman said. She recommends that iterations run no longer than two weeks. "If business leaders don't like what they see, you can afford to throw away two weeks of work. That is the beauty of Agile."

Rothman engages business sponsors in the projects she leads by inviting them to demos of the product, typically once every two weeks. Sponsors often attend early demos but over time their participation drops off. "When this happens, find out why," Rothman said. It's a mistake to assume that sponsors are just too busy to attend. It may be that they don't like the direction in which the project is headed. Software professionals need to ask questions, listen to answers and dig deep to find out what the sponsor doesn't like, she said.

What are your best practices for engaging business leaders? Let us know and follow us on Twitter @SoftwareTestTT.


This was first published in April 2013

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