A man walks into a doctors office and says "Doctor, I have this dull pain in my back and can't get to sleep. I think I have a kidney stone." The visibly frustrated doctor says, "Stop telling me about your diagnosis and tell my your symptoms!"

You're right. That's not a funny joke. That's not even a joke at all, and outside of House reruns, doctors tend not to be jerks to patients. What's even less funny is when you recognize that this is almost exactly how most corporate IT departments engage with their business partners.

Just Because We Both Speak English

Whether it is a product manager, a communications specialist, a business executive or any other non-geek role, the charade is the same. We all assume that because we all "speak" English that communication is easy. What we seem to ritualistically forget is that we don't actually speak the same language (at least for the most part). The business people speak in a language that seems backwards to IT.

Business people speak all about "the solution", and if you watch carefully, you can see the both the IT eyes roll and the metaphoric steam coming out of IT ears. If you listen and observe carefully, you can both hear the culture of territory in the IT response and feel the palpable disdain that settles in on both sides of the table. This is one the most emblematic tableaus in what is referred to throughout the industry as "old-school IT".

The Honorable Response

In Outliers, Gladwell explained the origins of the culture of perceived honor and territory that led to the feud between the Hatfields and the McCoys. The culture of honor and territory demanded that any incursion on either your conceptual "honor" or physical territory, no matter how slight, had to be met with escalating aggression for fear that word would get around that you were weak and that your territory was thus up for grabs to whomever had the strength to take it.

Much like this, representatives of "old-school IT" look for slights in the words of their business partners. Solutions are the territory of IT and this territory must be guarded at all costs or the inevitable outcome is a poor use of resources and a value proposition that is limited to coding fingers on keyboards. This perspective is the source of the typical old-school response: "Stop telling me about your solution and tell me your requirements".

The Requirements Fallacy

Old-school IT members have themselves fooled by a set of highly specious ideas:

  • If all requirements have been met by a delivered solution, then the delivered solution is therefore a success -- We've all seen and quite often been party to the check-box approach to delivery where solutions are envisioned from the requirements up and traceability of requirements is worshiped above all else. Unarticulated or ambiguous requirements are blamed on the business partners and the IT, business schism gets wider.
  • Requests articulated as solutions are insulting and threaten to turn IT into order takers -- While the intent of the articulation is up for debate, what is not up for debate is the inevitable failure of the typical old-school response to make things any better.

Don't take this to mean that requirements gathering is not valuable. Of course we still need to gather requirements. It only means that understanding the vision, the motives AND the requirements is the key to delivering a solution that can be embraced by the intended users and system owners.

Time for Bedside Manner

When we go back to the opening doctor's office vignette, we can begin to see a little more clearly what is actually going on. A different Gladwell nugget, this time from Blink, was that the doctors most sued by their patients for malpractice were not the ones who "made mistakes", but rather were the ones with poor bedside manner.

Good doctor's know two basic truths:

  • When a patient comes in and self-diagnoses based on web research, that neither is an insult nor does it lower their value proposition. Patients do this, because it is the only way they can communicate what is wrong with them, and it is the Doctor's job to gently facilitate a conversation about symptoms and medical history.
  • Even if it was an insult targeted at their value proposition, responding in a combative manner will not advance the doctor patient relationship nor the process of providing quality medical care.

Doctors who understand these truths choose to elevate the conversation rather than pick a fight. The enlightened doctor responds along the lines: "Interesting. Can we talk a little more about your symptoms so we don't miss anything?"

Let's Play Doctor

Like a good doctor, the best IT professionals owe it to our business partners and our enterprises to move beyond the culture of territory. To move to a place where the seemingly unending business/IT dysfunction will begin to recede, we must embrace the idea that our business partner's natural inclinations is to talk about projects by envisioning the future in some concrete form and then working backward.

Instead of thinking of the workplace as a series of bordering territories, try envisioning the workplace as a sandbox or playground and the beginning of project discussion as an invitation to play. With this mindset, elevating the conversation and giving good IT bedside manner becomes simple. Next time you're "invited to play" remember this article and respond along these lines: "That's a really cool idea! Can we talk a little more about why you feel that would be a good solution so I can make sure that whatever solution we land on meets that same criteria?"

Editor's Note: Always insightful, here's another you'll like from Stephen: Why Customer Experience Needs to Balance Quantitative, Qualitative Approaches.