I’ve posted quite frequently on this blog about the role of the Business-IT Relationship Manager. It’s a key role – crucial, in fact, at mid-levels of Business-IT maturity.  It’s a role that typically does not work well at lower maturity, yet is essential to reaching higher maturity. It’s also a role that is hard to get right!  But went you get it right, it can contribute significantly to business value realization from IT assets and investments.

An Account Teaming Approach to Relationship Management

I’ve found myself re-immersed in the Relationship Management (RM) domain lately.  I’m working on a significant RM development program with one current client, and helping another client fine tune their IT Operating Model.

With the first client, I got involved in a benchmarking exercise, going back to two former clients where I had led extensive RM training a few years back.  The purpose of the benchmarking was to find out how their RM approach had evolved, what was working well, and where they still had challenges.  In both cases, the clients had converged on an Account Management Teaming approach – essentially, a set of business unit-facing account teams comprising a very senior Relationship Manager (rarely called that, by the way), a Solutions Manager and an Enterprise Architect.

In the client where we are fine tuning the IT Operating Model, one such account team had formed fairly naturally.  Nobody told them to organize that way.  One of the RM’s met with a business architect and a solution manager and decided they needed to set time aside to meet and talk and strategize in order to present a cleaner, simpler face to the business client.  They wanted to be more deliberate and proactive in shaping business demand rather than simply respond to it.  They saw the formation of the account team as a sort of experiment.  They did not ask permission – just went ahead and tried it.  (I’d describe this as a fairly sophisticated client in an information intensive industry, with an exceptional quality of IT leadership and management.)

This Seems to be Working – Let’s Generalize It!

I met recently with the account team and other architects, RM’s and solution managers to talk about how to generalize the model and duplicate it for the other business units and their RM’s.  We analyzed what had changed as a result of the account team approach – both from the perspective of the individual IT roles, and from the business client’s perspective.  It was an impressive story with impressive results.

So, how to ‘codify’ the approach and generalize it?  The responses from the account team members were surprising and distressing on the one hand, yet obvious and comforting on the other.  Their counsel was, “Don’t try to codify this too much.  It won’t work!”  and, “Remember, we formed into a team because we wanted to, not because we were told to!”

Not So Fast, Tonto!

The business-IT interface is an extremely complex space.  The Account Teaming approach works because it is organic, and was emergent.  It works because the team members have mutual trust and respect.  It is the role of the team that is important and brings the magic, not the roles of the team members.  They talk about “having each others backs covered.”  About the fact that the client executives know that they can talk to any of the team and reach the whole team at the same time.  About the fact that any business-IT conversation quickly and automatically gains the perspectives of enterprise architecture, solution delivery and relationship management.  The business executives don’t need to be concerned about who to call for what.  Nor do they have to sit down with five IT folk to get anything done!

The Power of Self-Organization

Ralph D. Stacey, in his great book, “The Chaos Frontier” defines Self-Organization as:

A process in which the components of a system in effect spontaneously communicate with each other and abruptly cooperate in coordinated and concerted common behavior.”

I believe that viewing organizational spaces such as the business-IT interface as a complex system, operating at the ‘edge of chaos’ (scientifically speaking) reveals the insights that:

  1. Variety, randomness, paradox, information, and interconnection are sources of creativity.
  2. Organization is a natural, spontaneous act – to force otherwise is not sustainable or effective.
  3. Systems have a capacity to self-organize to great effect – given the opportunity to do so.

The danger feared by the Account Team was that as an organizational consultant, I would take the model and create organizational charters, role descriptions, competency models, and so on, and in so doing squeeze the life out of the account team concept.  And I use the word “life” deliberately.  Everything we know about complex emergent behavior tells us that for life forms such as this type of account team to really work, they have to behave like living organisms – with porous boundaries, guided by a common sense of mission and purpose, a ‘genetic code’ if you will, not sealed off from their world by hard boundaries and deterministic rules.

Image courtesy of The Savvy CIO

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