It’s Business First

It doesn’t matter if you’re a systems architect or a janitor in a company, you serve a purpose and that purpose is to enable the company’s business.

I recently gave a speech where I asked the members of the audience to raise their hands if they represent their company’s business. Two-thirds raised their hands. I followed up with another question to those who didn’t raise their hand: if you don’t represent your company’s business, what exactly do you represent?

I didn’t start to roast them on the spot because the point of the question hardly escaped anyone’s grasp. Everyone who is an employee of a company represents its business.

In my experience people whose day-to-day work doesn’t involve a business transaction, often see their role as something outside of the business. A classic example is the division between the IT and the Business. How many times have you heard something in the line of “we need to improve the communication between IT and Business”, or “we don’t own this project, the IT/the Business owns it”?

Let’s be frank: every function and operation within a company exists only with the sole purpose of enabling business, therefore everything is about “the Business” or else its existence is fairly easy to question.

First-Class Customer Experience As a Business Goal

From an organizational, top-down point of view, people in the proverbial driver’s seat make decisions about the future direction of the business. These decisions are then carefully molded into business goals. These same people view these goals as something vital for the success of the business, and try to commit everyone to work towards reaching those goals. If those goals aren’t met, what’s the harm in that? The worst case scenario? The company ceases to exist if it fails to implement its business strategy and doesn’t reach the goals set in that strategy.

“Why aren’t business goals understood as well as they should be”

In the bottom-up point of view, whether you’re a team lead or a trainee, you need to understand the “why” as much as the “what”. In other terms, you need to know the end purpose your work serves in order for you to make those day-to-day decisions, which give direction to your work. After all, doing the right things and doing things right are not the same.

Let’s view this by an example from a role almost everyone can relate to. My spouse is a fishmonger, the head honcho of the fish counter in a big supermarket, and has a number of people to supervise. Those salespersons are there to sell fish. They have been told that customer experience is important, and therefore they have to be friendly and smile at the customers. But is that how customer experience is formed?

No, no it’s not. What they should’ve been told was that the company’s goal is to provide its customers with a first-class customer experience. This is formed first and foremost by high quality products and customer service. This means that the fish is of high quality, fresh, and one that the customers value. The products in the counter are easy to buy, and are available in the format the customers prefer, whether that’s a whole fish or a fillet. The fish should also be displayed clearly with correct labels and pricing, and attractively so that the customers can easily identify and compare them, and find them desirable.

Furthermore, the packaging of the product should be impeccable because the customers handle and open them at home, which further affects the customer experience. The salesperson must know all the products in sale, their origins, and how to prepare them. Smiling, friendly, and professional salesperson makes the customer feel welcomed and evokes confidence.

If these salespersons would understand all that, their view of their job description would be revolutionized. All of a sudden they would go from a smiling and fish-packing salespersons to experts whose mission is to provide customers with a first-class customer experience, which needs to be under a constant development and improvement based on customer feedback.

“…doing the right things and doing things right are not the same.”

All things considered, if I would go around in big supermarkets’ service counters asking the salespersons what they do and why, how many of them would give me at least a remotely similar response as described above? Honestly, I would be positively surprised if even a half of them. Just to clarify: I’m not saying it’s just them. I’m saying that in my experience this applies to a substantial share of the entire workforce.

The Way You Think about Business Does Matter

Why aren’t business goals understood as well as they should be? To me it’s about the eternal issue of communication. Everyone knows that a message should address its target audience. Business goals on the other hand are relatively high flying and extensive. They have a different meaning to different stakeholders. Not completely different but enough to be confusing. But whatever those goals are, it’s a matter of a mindset than anything else.

A classic example of this comes from the world of ICT projects. If you are a software developer and you’re asked to describe your criteria of success for a given project, the answer might be something in the line of: when the solution meets the requirements and is of high quality. If the same question is asked from the project manager, the answer would likely be: when the project management triangle (budget, scope, and schedule) has stayed within the given limits.

What neither of them is unlikely to say is that they and the project have succeeded when the goals of the business have been met. What you actually should ask is: Why? Why is it important? How does it contribute to your job and reaching your goals? When you know the answers to those questions, it’s your job as an expert to figure out how you can apply your skills and expertise to ensure the realization of those goals.

Apply Systems Thinking and Ask “Why”

So how business goals could be better understood? I admit, I’m not a communications expert and I don’t have a silver bullet for this. What I can tell you is what I’ve learned. I use systems thinking in my job daily. It’s an integral part of the Quality Intelligence services where we identify what is important, how value is created, and how to measure and ensure the creation of value. For those of you who are unfamiliar with systems thinking: systems thinking is a way of thinking where you identify causes and effects.

“…you serve a purpose and that purpose is to enable the company’s business.”

For example, if you know that quality is important, you start to map out why it’s important by viewing the things it affects since quality isn’t the absolute value but merely an indirect value. The real value in quality are the factors it affects, i.e. cost effectiveness. When you have a high quality solution, you save in costs because you don’t need to spend as much money fixing it.

Another good example to better understand the goals of a business is to learn how to ask “why” five times in a row. Just like little children do but with a bit more finesse.

  1. Why do you need a new customer relationship management (CRM) system? - Because we need to improve sales.

  2. Why do you need to improve sales? - Because it’s not efficient enough.

  3. Why isn’t it efficient enough? - Because our current systems don’t adequately support sales steering.

  4. Why don’t they adequately support sales steering? - Because we can’t generate good enough reports.

  5. Well why don’t you invest in a new reporting system rather than a CRM system? - Because we already have a reporting system.

To summarize the above: The goal is not the deployment of a new CRM system. The goal is to improve sales reporting in order to improve sales steering, which will then improve sales efficiency. The CRM is just a means to an end.

Adjusting Your Mindset to Understand

So all in all here’s my two cents: Business goals need to be understood better by everyone because that’s the only way to reach them. To make them understandable the message needs to be directed to the selected audience. The responsibility of understanding them relies in both the communicator and the recipient. The communicator needs to make sure that the recipient can understand the message, and the recipient has the responsibility to ask questions and give feedback to ensure that the message was understood correctly. You don’t necessarily need to learn how to “think bigger”. You just need to adjust your mindset: Business first.