September 19, 2006

Four Ways An Information Technology Employee Can Get Ideas Heard

There are many departments in your company that face unique challenges. In my profession, Database Marketing, I am sometimes given assignments that don't make a lot of business sense. But for the most part, the projects I have worked on in my career align with the initiatives my company believes to be important. And because almost nobody knows how to match the science of querying a database with the art of business intelligence and analysis, I have always enjoyed autonomy on my projects. Furthermore, because I have the key to the customer database, I have always been able to influence leaders and decision makers. Database Marketers can wield disproportionate influence.

During my tenure at Eddie Bauer, I frequently talked with a friend who worked in Information Technology at Microsoft. This person was full of ideas, bursting at the seam with ways for Eddie Bauer to make more money. I frequently heard comments like "If you just stopped mailing those expensive catalogs, you would save the planet, and save expense at the same time. I bet your customers would migrate to the internet, and you wouldn't lose any sales at all. Why don't you try that?"

His comments were based on how he chose to shop. He didn't think about how the fifty-eight year old woman in Topeka liked to shop. We knew, from tests and analyses, that while his idea sounded good, we could never practically implement the idea.

But I always felt sorry for this individual. Bursting with ideas, he seldom had a forum to present his thoughts. Worse yet, he was asked to write code to implement somebody else's strategy. In other words, he had to implement ideas he felt weren't always great, yet, his ideas had no opportunity to be developed. I doubt he was highly motivated by such a situation.

Some information technology departments make project implementation difficult. When their voice isn't heard, they can push back with the only leverage they have, the ability to say "no". I have always been amazed how quickly the IT folks rally around a cause when they agree with it, and how quickly the IT folks have "priorities" that need to be worked on if a proposed project isn't perceived to be sexy, or if the IT department does not agree with the strategy behind the project. I have to believe that if IT folks had more of a say in business strategy, they would be less push-back on other projects.

I believe there are opportunities for information technology folks to contribute in more ways than just writing code and managing projects. Here are four ways an information technology employee can get her ideas heard.
  1. Identify a Marketing Mentor. If a person in IT wanted to have a weekly meeting with me to learn about my department, my projects, my priorities, and learn what ideas were percolating among my fellow executives, I'd welcome the opportunity. Not many employees are willing to take this risk. Find an executive who is willing to meet with you either weekly or monthly, and ask to have business mentoring sessions with this individual.
  2. Listen! The friend I spoke of earlier was bursting with ideas. By listening to the needs of business leaders, he could have identified actual problems that needed to be solved, and could match his ideas to problems identified by business leaders.
  3. Get on a Cross-Functional Team. Nothing sends chills up my spine faster than the thought of being on a cross-functional team, a collection of individuals from a diverse array of departments brought together to solve a business problem. However, there is no better way to rapidly network yourself with others in the business than to get on cross-functional teams. You will quickly get to see how politics play out. You will quickly identify the individuals who have power. You will quickly learn who the true leaders are. Armed with this knowledge, you know which individuals are most likely to be receptive to your ideas, and you will understand the politics that can kill your ideas.
  4. Work on Side-Projects. When I was at Eddie Bauer, I made it clear that I wasn't going to work on regular projects on Friday. Friday was the day I focused on special projects, pet projects for certain business leaders I liked to partner with, or projects that I felt were important. Now, in order to make this strategy work, you have to get your work completed in a four day work week, which is a challenge. The upside is that you can identify leaders you wish to partner with, you can learn the challenges they face, and you can work on side-projects that benefit these leaders. By building relationships outside of your normal job responsibilities, you have a better chance of having your ideas heard.
Whether you work in Information Technology, Human Resources, Finance, or any other department not directly tied to corporate strategy, there are opportunities for you to get your ideas heard. Take a few risks, and try some of these ideas.

What do you think? How would you go about getting your ideas heard? What have you seen work?

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