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The weakest link?

Tips on connecting your business and technical teams

There are some fundamental differences between business and tech teams. The following 

sweeping generalisations will probably hold true in a lot of cases:

Business and Tech team Characteristics
It's hardly surprising then that when you mix people from such different worlds together, the interaction between these teams can be wildly hit and miss.

For the purposes of this post 'business' can mean sales, marketing, communications, client relations, senior management, or any department that requests work from your tech team. The tech team is whoever acts upon these requests such as IT, Digital, Development, Web, Support and so on.

A good example of how business and tech teams can work together seamlessly is in a successful software startup. A small number of business savvy stakeholders with a clear vision, laser like focus, and passion for their ideas are huddled together in the same room as some very sharp techies who 'just seem to get it'.

The two teams get on well personally, the business people value the technical team's input, trust them to get on with things, and don't burden them with unnecessary bureaucracy.

At the other end of the spectrum you can have scenario akin to trench warfare. Each team digs in a comfortable distance from the other, yet close enough to fire the occasional potshot.
'We need this ASAP' comes opening round from the business side, 'that's impossible' comes the quick fire response from tech, and these exchanges continue in a never-ending battle with no winners.
What if you find yourself somewhere in the middle of these two extremes?

Let's say a few senior people from a business department convene a meeting with one or two techies. They are excited to meet and explain their idea for a new widget that they are convinced will make money for the company. The tech team ask a few probing questions, all of which are rebutted with boundless enthusiasm, so the team agrees to build this widget as a 'high priority'.

But what if this wasn't the right project to focus on in the first place? This kind of interaction plays upon the natural imbalances mentioned at the start of the article. It takes a brave individual from a tech team to rein in a bunch of excited, revenue generating employees.

In this example everybody means well, but it shows how business and tech teams can sometimes combine to waste time, money, and produce inferior products – all whilst meeting the objectives they set for themselves.

Hopefully your tech team is 'Agile', and your business team is perfectly reasonable, so you shouldn't be having any of the issues below: 
  • Constantly shifting priorities
  • Unclear business requirements

  • Every request is a 'high priority'

  • Cross-department politics

  • Unrealistic demands

  • Product tinkering versus product development
    (constantly launching minor features, but nothing 'game-changing')

  • Unplanned or 'emergency' releases to correct mistakes

  • Negative customer feedback on the products you've built

  • Tech team gives defensive estimates for every project

If any of these issues do rear their head, it's worth reflecting on the interaction between the respective teams.
'Hey guys, 

Can you please look into this nebulous idea I thought of 5 minutes ago?
How much effort do you think it would take to build this?'

Qualify your ideas

Remember that software developers are not miracle workers. You can't dump a bunch half-baked ideas on people and expect magic:

'Hey guys,
Can you please look into this nebulous idea I thought of 5 minutes ago?
How much effort do you think it would take to build this?'

This can get very annoying, very quickly.

A better approach could be a recurring meeting between business and tech to discuss ideas. Yes, it's another meeting on the calendar, but the hour spent discussing ideas in person is far more productive than email exchanges, wasted research, and second guessing what people mean.

Not everything can be a top priority

The previous point about qualifying your ideas ties in well with prioritisation. If every new idea, piece of customer feedback, or support request you send is 'urgent', then this the IT equivalent of the 'boy who cried wolf', and you gradually erode any meaning from the word 'urgent'.

Agree on some simple protocols together. For example with support requests you might agree
that a low priority ticket needs a response within 72 hours, whereas a serious customer issue needs a 24/7 'hotline'.

Cultural alignment

If your organisation views your tech team as a something of a black box - 'I don't really know what you do, and quite frankly I don't really care, but I'll be sure to come and find you when I need you' - then it's unlikely you have a good understanding between the teams.

This will hurt you when it comes to just about every aspect of software development. So, what kind of things could you do about it?

- Sit together

You don't need to do this every day, but do occasionally bring some developers to sit with the front-line team they build products for (whether sales, client relations, marketing, healthcare professionals, members of the public and so forth). You'd be surprised how this breaks down barriers and increases mutual understanding.

- Involve employees in beta testing

This is a win-win approach. For tech teams your products will get a 'real' test a lot sooner, but
also give you time to address issues that crop up, and more buy-in from business. For business stakeholders there's more transparency on what's coming, and also inclusion in what ordinarily might be seen as a 'tech' process. 

We took 'we need an iPhone app!' to mean 'How can we engage our customers on mobile devices?'
Know your customers 

Make sure you know your end-users as well as possible. Learn the product, ask questions, and watch real customers use your product in a real setting.

This will mean you are valued as a sounding board by your colleagues, and not just the people to hand off requirements to.

Know the difference between what people ask for, and what they want

A client recently said to us 'We need an iPhone app!', which we took that to mean 'How can we engage our customers on mobile devices?'. Especially since their website wasn't even mobile friendly.

We would have left a lot of value on the table by just blindly building what was originally asked for. Often a tech team's value is in guiding business stakeholders to make the correct choices, by asking the right questions.

Presenting options is better than pushing back

No tech team likes to cut corners, but instead of saying 'there's no way we can possibly develop and test this feature in the time frame you are requesting' – think about what you can do?

Even if these options come with a list of caveats, warnings, and trade-offs – they are still
worth presenting back to business stakeholders, otherwise you risk coming across as overly defensive.

Here are a couple of examples:

- Beta launch or Limited release

I remember one project where our team was worried about some known bugs we wouldn't
have time to fix. So we agreed on a partial release with senior management. This was a great success because business got to deliver on a somewhat unrealistic deadline to some key customers (who we knew wouldn't be affected by the known bugs), and we didn't have the headache of supporting loads of customers before we were ready to.

- Phased release

You've been asked to do everything at once, and that's impossible. But you can sit down together and work out what order to release features to strike the best balance between business win versus technical effort.

There might not be a one size fits all approach to getting tech and business teams perfectly aligned, but it's worth putting in the collective effort to strengthen the ties between the two teams.

Each organisation, department, and person is different, so you'll need to figure out what works best in your particular setting. This post has hopefully highlighted the importance of this link in the chain, and some tangible ways in which to make it stronger. If you have some suggestions of your own, please do feel free to share them!

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