Part II: Start smart. Your first step could make your journey!

Last week, we discussed the importance of “first impressions” as they relate to IT Strategy. Specifically, we discussed the critical role a “kick off” communication plays in the success or failure of any major IT Project – including IT Strategy.
What makes this communication so critical?
The fact that it sets expectations for the project both in the “promise” of what will be delivered and the criteria for the “evaluation” of the “delivery” against this promise.
You may not have intended to provide the latter. In fact, there might not be any overt references to criteria to evaluate success or failure of the project. However, your style, tone and language etc. sets these criteria, whether you like it or not.

  • If your tone and language is too optimistic, then the bar is automatically set high
  • If it takes too much “ownership” of the project, the bar is again high

That is why, what you have said is important. What you left out is almost as important. How you said it and to whom it was said and when was it said are all important.
Bottom line: take this communication very seriously.
Let us look at each question this communication should answer and see how best to address them.
Why are you writing this letter?
Often, we make the mistake of thinking that the first paragraph of this communication is to “inform” the reader of what you are about to undertake. It is true, that is what it is supposed to do. But that is only one of the objectives.
The second, more important, objective is to get them “on board” as an active participant in this adventure. Nobody, and I mean nobody, gets “on board” anything till they see something of value to them. (Unless, of course, if one is communicating with Mother Teresa. In that case, she will not get “on board” something that will not help the poor and disenfranchised. So, you see, even with a person like that, you do not stand a chance with your “information”)
The first paragraph, indeed the first sentence, will either connect with the reader or you would have lost them. Let us hope, only partially!
Here are a couple of pointers to consider when drafting this paragraph:

  1. Get to the point, quickly.
  2. Ask for help – they should feel like they are helping you but more importantly, in the process, helping themselves.
  3. This is the first impression of the first impression. Make it matter!
  4. This is your opportunity to connect with them or lose them for the rest of the process. Say something that would be of interest to them!

Objective/reason why this activity is being performed?
One can either hit this in the first paragraph or in the second one provided the first laid the groundwork properly.
The danger in hitting someone with your objective in the first sentence or paragraph of a communication is that you come across is singularly focused on your needs even if they are the same as your readers’. Now, if you fail to connect your objective with theirs, well, that would be the kind of disaster one is well advised to avoid!
So, one should let the first paragraph say something of interest to the reader and let them start to walk toward this train. The second then lays the objective – in terms that it connects with theirs – and seals the deal.
Here are a few points to consider when writing this paragraph:

  1. Why is this objective important to the organization?
  2. Why is it important to me?
  3. This is your opportunity to connect this project to a business need, preferably big and immediate.
    1. Post merger integration?
    2. Stock price’s precipitous drop?
    3. Company going public?
    4. Poor customer survey results? Lost a major customer?
    5. Budget discussions around the corner or people unhappy with the budget?
    6. New product launch?

Remember, it is not that they do not have the money to spend. There are always other priorities. Your objective is to make your project a priority not to demonstrate its value! The latter is a means to the end of getting your project funded or supported.
How will you assess success or failure?
Business leaders are compensated on results. Understandably, they think, eat, breathe one thing: results. Whether they ask or not, whether you tell or not, results are at the top of their mind.
Then, they are focused on responsibility. No surprise there either. Leaders make their money delegating responsibility. They delegate to trusted lieutenants. Trust is built over time on delivery of results.
Hope you get the picture!
So, should you letter, talk about results and responsibility?
This is one of those situations where you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t!
Immediately, our minds go to the obvious alternative: the use of language to skirt the issue or to obfuscate it. How should we talk about them so not to commit to something? Can we finesse our words? Can we hedge our bets?
Well, this is a good thought that miss the point. The point is that you have to communicate to your business “partner” that they are as responsible for this project as you are! This is a team effort and everyone must play their part for it to succeed.
How do you do that without appearing evasive or shunning responsibility? That is the essence of the thought that should go into this paragraph.
This is the most critical part of your communication. You have to convince your reader that they are a partner in this crime. If you leave them thinking that they are the judge and jury, then you have set yourself up for failure.
No matter how successful the project eventually turns up, you will feel each and every one of the inevitable bumps along the way. And then what? There are no ticker tape parades for doing your job. Remember, you said yourself that this is your job and you are taking ownership!
If the project fails? You will experience a hanging worse than any you have seen recently.
IT Leaders fail here because they think IT Strategy – and other major IT projects - is their responsibility. They could not be more wrong. Business is a team sport. IT is a member of this team. It is the team that wins or loses.
Here are a couple of pointers to make this paragraph count:

  1. Paragraph 2 was to lay the groundwork for this paragraph. If you failed to articulate an objective that is an organizational objective, this paragraph is a waste of time, paper and ink
  2. DO NOT let your ego get in the way of the health of your career and the organization you lead. You are ONLY a member of this team. Not its leader not its hero and certainly not its “Most Valuable Player” - MVP awards are given by others.
    1. DO NOT use “I”, always use “WE”
    2. Work with your business partners to draft this communication
    3. The golden rule of leadership is: “under promise” and over deliver”
    4. DO NOT use language that over commits you or the organization you lead
    5. DO NOT appear evasive or shunning responsibility. Take responsibility commensurate with your role but limit it to that!
    6. Identify criteria for success and failure. Include those that are dependent on active business participation. Highlight them if you must.

What do you want from me? When? How frequently?
Now that your audience is at the edge of their seats – after all, they are convinced of the objective and its benefit to them - you have to get them on board with the process.
This is accomplished through “recommendations” not “dictates”. Again, one has to be careful doing this. One can appear to be indecisive and/or incompetent if the language makes the reader believe that.
So, work with your business partners to craft the “draft” plan. Then, this communication can highlight the specific “time”, “responsibility” and “deliverable” that business leader’s team must deliver on.

  1. This reinforces the premise that this is a team effort
  2. This also informs them of the expectations – time and deliverables - from their team
  3. This disabuses them of the notion that their participation in meetings is enough. They must actively engage and get this work done for the “team” to succeed!

Lastly, leave the door open for suggestions to change/improve this process – including roles and responsibilities. If possible, follow up a few days after the initial communication goes out.
When will I hear from you next? Why?
You tell me!
If the first 4 points have been well made, this one will answer itself. Now, they should pick up the phone and want to talk to you.
Just in case, the message has been delivered or understood or is being resisted, it is a good idea to include a “kick off” meeting time and location with the “kick off” letter. The objective of this meeting should also be included so the reader feels like attending.
Follow up
This initial communication can have all the ingredients for success. However, it will have more impact if it is followed up by another communication. Remember, we included the schedule and objective for a “kick off” meeting in our letter? It is a good idea to follow up with a meeting agenda. This will reinforce the need for the meeting and remind them of the importance of their participation!
About the Author:
Sourabh Hajela is a management consultant and trainer with over 20 years of experience creating shareholder value for his Fortune 50 clients. His consulting practice is focused on IT strategy, alignment and ROI. For more information, please visit Or feel free to contact Sourabh at [email protected].

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