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The seven words to rule them all

Geoff Lazberger | Nov. 29, 2013
When I assumed the position of CIO for the first time a number of years ago, I found the role alluring, intellectually seductive, completely compelling and engaging, and my absolute passion.

That was my Eureka moment! I suddenly hit upon the ultimate question to ask when someone came to ask for that new piece of software or hardware. Seven simple, magical words which brought clarity and depth at the same time: "What problem are you trying to solve?"

This unassuming sentence creates a laser-like focus as to exactly what a person is trying to achieve as an end game, rather than what they want or need. There is a vast difference between these two scenarios.

Once we understood the problem a person was trying to solve, well, we then just needed to provide them solutions. And, if we pre-empted the sort of generic problems our customers would most likely need to solve, then it became even easier.

We were problem solvers.

For example, if the problem someone was trying to solve was remote access to their email then we had already solved that problem. We had three different ways to achieve this. Another example would be a customer requesting a special database to be developed for a specific purpose. Instead, asking them what problem they were trying to solve would result in identifying the information either existing already elsewhere in the organisation, or extending an existing in-house application to accommodate their informational needs.

Going down the old "what do you need" path would have meant creating numerous new and unnecessary methods and implementations resulting in an unnecessarily complex infrastructure and general lack of cohesion across the business.

The powerful question

As a sidebar, the powerful question "what problem are you trying to solve" also exhibits extreme "super powers" when used in those fiery and passionate meetings where everyone has an opinion or beef to discuss at the table; and the conversation gets louder and louder, and more and more confused and misdirected with no resolution in sight. Pitching the "what problem are you trying to solve?" question to the audience at the right time has, in my experience on several occasions, brought the room to a quiet standstill while people mulled the poignancy of the question over. It makes you appear almost sage-like.

When people subsequently start tumbling out what they felt was the problem to be solved, I've found both amazement and sometimes rampant disagreement around the table. People had different ideas as to what problem they were even discussing.

It's not hard to fathom why they couldn't reach a consensus when people were talking and arguing about totally different problems!

Some years back, as CIO for a very large conglomerate with an extremely aggressive growth agenda, word came to me one day from above the business was going to open an office in another state within the next two weeks (because that's the way we do things around here, I was told)! It was a fait accompli. The discussions about the proposed office had been ongoing for some months, I found out, but no one had thought to involve IT in those discussions. The judges' decision was final and no correspondence was to be entered into. IT's role was to comply and make it happen.


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