Make the IT Function Speak Your Language

Cut through the tech jargon by having your IT leaders embrace the power of storytelling

Larry Shutzberg - Head Shot 1 (EPI) - 2010-03-311. Manage expectations

Few executives truly understand IT at a nuanced level, and the investment opportunities within it can be overwhelming. “Like a faucet that never turns off,” says Larry Shutzberg, IT can turn off many execs if a CIO lets his or her portfolio get out of hand. It’s not that IT professionals should be cautious or conservative, but they should be strategic in sharing those ambitions. Shutzberg says it is crucial to give executives a form of calibration to assuage the confusion and keep the finish line in sight. “I like to begin with a 10,000-foot view of our current state,” Shutzberg says. “It’s important to get people to look at the world in the same way you do.”

2. Provide a framework for decision making

Every IT opportunity can be qualified as foundational, cost-justified, risk mitigating or compliance-related, or strategic. Categorization is one framework Shutzberg employs to bring a sense of order to his clients—both internal and external—to help them digest the information he shares. Cost-justified projects that stand on their own don’t come through the pipeline often, but when they do, he’ll make a business case for their ROI. Foundational items like e-mail and a centralized financial system are a must. Risk mitigation and compliance projects can be costly but often must be completed, and strategic projects can directly affect how the business delivers to its customers—and ultimately how it performs. At Evergreen Packaging, as with many manufacturing businesses, most initiatives are foundational or strategic. “I want my execs to understand not just what they should spend money on but the opportunity costs and benefits of not doing the other things,” Shutzberg says.

3. Have a beginning, middle, and end

The success of any business is predicated on good operational planning and execution. When Shutzberg joined Evergreen, there was no centralized transportation-management group. He contextualized the need for IT-enabled transportation systems by beginning with the company’s 20 locations and the several hundred million dollars spent each year on shipping. Next, he laid out the financial savings a holistic transportation-management approach with IT enablement could yield. Finally, he painted the picture of an optimized transportation-management operation. “It wasn’t the IT guy telling people what to do,” he says. “It was an internal consultant making a recommendation with the best interests of the business in mind.”

4. Be a good listener

IT customers, both within the business and beyond, love to tell IT problem solvers what they want from a solution. Shutzberg prefers to dive into the actual problem itself, in case there is an opportunity for a solution not previously thought of. That’s not always easy when the client is focused only on solutions—and a finite set of them. If he were to pose the question, “What’s the biggest problem in transportation?” people might ask him to shorten lines at the airport or reduce the cost of baggage, but they’ll never ask for teleportation, he says. This is where listening for the problem is key. “The customer doesn’t know the scope of what’s possible,” he says. “If they tell me what’s wrong, and I know what’s possible, I can recommend a more optimal solution.”

5. Create a brand for your storytelling

Like any entertainers, storytellers need to make a good first impression. “When I’m storytelling, my brand includes speaking English,” Shutzberg says. “And when IT says it will deliver something, we follow through. My passion is to turn data into information, then into knowledge, then into action, then into dollars.” Branding your storytelling with clarity, simplicity, and consistency will go a long way in creating legitimacy for your department and confidence in your capacity. “If you do five things well, people will be lining up behind your ideas the sixth time,” Shutzberg says.