The Business of IT

How I helped by refusing work

A very good repeat client introduced me to his own customer, CEO of a fast-growing company, with the words “you should talk to Shlomo – he does wonders.” When I get an enthusiastic referral like that – which happens often, as most of my business is via referrals – I move fast to see how I can help.

The CEO and I met and began to explore important areas of his business that I typically help with: usage of cloud resources, leveraging the data collected, streamlining processes and team dynamics. The discussion was progressing quickly – in fact, too easily, too rapidly – toward defining a potential project. I sensed something was wrong. He couldn’t describe why he wanted these things to get done; all he could say was, “this is the next issue we need to tackle.”

“Tell me what your rate is for doing these things and we’ll get moving immediately,” he finally said. In the past I would have jumped at the offer – what could be easier than business that practically lands itself in my lap after only thirty minutes of discussion? But, thankfully, I’m constantly learning from the past. My motto is “make new mistakes,” and I had learned the perils of undertaking work without comprehending the motivation behind it – without understanding the “why.”

“Joe,” I said, “I’m not going to work with you on any of that.” He stared at me in wide-eyed shock for a moment. Had I not known he was an elite long-distance runner, in top cardiovascular shape, I would have feared the worst. I continued: “You’re too close to the business to see what’s really going on and what areas need the most urgent attention. That’s why it’s hard for you to explain why these items are important. With your permission, I’ll lead you through a brief series of questions to help us both ascertain the areas of true priority for your organization. Then we’ll be able to jointly determine the best way to work together to achieve those priorities.”

And so we did. We began with these three questions:

  • How much of your own time is spent resolving day-to-day issues versus establishing and communicating direction and priorities?
  • If your business volume were to triple tomorrow, what about your organization would break?
  • If you were to ask your engineers, your support staff, your accounting staff, etc., what their biggest headache was, what would they answer, and would you be surprised by their answers – and why?

These questions helped Joe step out of his day-to-day role and think about the business from the outside, as a doctor would observe a patient. From this vantage point we observed the symptoms that the patient exhibited – the areas in which the organization was not healthy. There were many. We both agreed on the diagnosis: the underlying problem was the organization’s inability to take on new customers because its accounting functions could not handle the additional work. Then we discussed the course of treatment. Joe suggested introducing an automated billing system.

An automated billing system would certainly have alleviated the problems, but I sensed that there was still something more fundamental to explore. I asked Joe, “how can your billing system be directly beneficial to your customers? Why should they care?” Joe thought for a moment, and then he said excitedly, “you’re so right! We need to integrate billing into the customer interface!” Joe’s product is all about simplifying the use of multiple aggregated services, and therefore simplified billing is part of his product’s key value proposition. He realized that he was missing a core element of his product, one that would also enable the company to grow profitably.

We had come a long way from “help me implement these next few things we need done,” and were now discussing how to help his company achieve its strategic objective: to grow profitably. The tasks we had been discussing originally would not have contributed to this goal significantly, and Joe acknowledged that those immediate issues of reducing cloud usage costs and leveraging collected data were illusorily urgent. And he thanked me for pushing back on his request to tackle those issues.

Joe and I are currently discussing various options for helping him build his critical billing capability. He would not have realized the real priority, the true “why” he needs to address, if I had said “yes” to his initial proposals. And my involvement in helping him achieve strategic objectives is much more valuable, and much easier to demonstrate, than extensive work on non-strategic tasks. I prefer the former, and so does Joe, and all my other clients as well.