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November 9, 2021

Setting the Stage for Partnership: A Playbook for Aligning Technology & Business (Part 1)

By IT Revolution

This series of posts is adapted from the DevOps Enterprise Forum guidance paper Winning Together: A Playbook for Aligning Technology & Business by Dominica DeGrandis, Ana E. Torres, Elisabeth Hendrickson, Levi Geinert, and Jeffrey Fredrick.

At this point it is largely taken as a given that the ability to develop and leverage technology is a competitive advantage in any industry. Every company is a technology company regardless of their market segment or product category. Digital transformation is a strategic investment that promises dramatic business results. In order to achieve these results, Technology must become a strategic partner to the Business.

Although this is not a new insight—far from it—many companies still struggle with establishing this strategic partnership between Technology and the Business. Both sides express frustration. Business leaders report feeling stymied by what they perceive as the high costs and rigidity of their technology groups, and thus seek to work around those groups with so-called “Shadow IT.”

On the flip side, technology leaders express frustration with business leaders who view Technology as a cost center, seem to expect a purely transactional funding-based relationship, and who push back on any investment that does not yield immediate and tangible benefits for business initiatives.

Of course, the underlying issues are not one-sided. This is not a technology problem or a business problem but rather an organizational problem. What is missing is true partnership: a relationship characterized by shared goals, mutual respect, true collaboration, joint commitment, and shared accountability.

We wrote this paper for Technology leaders who would like to improve their partnership with the Business. As a technology leader, you may have tried to partner in the past and struggled to bring your business counterpart along. Or perhaps you feel that you lack the political capital to shift your relationship.

This playbook provides concrete advice for making a deep and lasting change in your relationship, shifting from what may have been a fraught or transactional relationship to a more productive partnership

Setting the Stage for Partnership

If you are a technology leader seeking to change the relationship between Technology and the Business, where do you begin? The first step is to take an inventory of the current situation, being honest with yourself about not just the shortcomings of the Business but also the ways in which Technology contributes to the current situation. In this section we invite you to reflect on three dimensions of your relationship: the business context, your current relationship with the business, and your hopes for change.

The Business Context

If you want to improve your relationship with the business it helps tremendously to meet them where they are and speak their language.


The better you understand the context in which the Business operates, the better you can act as a strategic partner to the Business in identifying opportunities for Technology to be a strategic leverage point. It is useful to take stock of your own understanding of the Business.

Consider the following questions:

  • Competitors: Who are your company’s key competitors? How rapidly is the competitive landscape changing? Are there new competitors arriving on the scene or are you competing against the same incumbents you’ve been competing against for years or decades? How fragmented is the competitive landscape?
  • Customers: Who are the target customers for the business? Are you going after a growing or shrinking market? What factors do those customers consider most important when making their buying decision? How well does the company currently serve the customers you have? How does the company acquire new customers? If your customers did not buy from your company, what would they do instead?
  • Product or service portfolio: What makes your organization’s primary product or service special? What is the “secret sauce” that makes it a compelling offering? Why do your customers choose it over other options?
  • Financials: How successful (or not) is your company? What are the margins like? How does your company’s financial performance compare with the rest of your industry?

These questions speak to the core of the Business. Your Business counterparts have a responsibility to drive business outcomes, so these are the things that your Business stakeholders obsess about day in and day out. Technologists who lack an understanding of the business context risk investing in initiatives that ultimately won’t drive value.

Consider the case of one software vendor where exuberant technologists correctly identified a problem and solved it, only to learn that in doing so they created the risk of a free offering cannibalizing the customer base for a lucrative commercial offering. Such missteps happen not because people don’t care or aren’t paying attention, but because they’re trying to solve legitimate technical problems without having a full awareness of the business context in which those problems exist.

Note that if you discover your understanding of the business is lacking, this is a fantastic opportunity to make an immediate improvement in your relationship simply by asking for help: “I have realized that I don’t know enough about the business context we operate in. Can you help me understand your world better?” This humility can go a long way in earning trust with your partners.

Your Current Relationship

Before you can improve or change a relationship, you need to be honest with yourself about the state of the relationship and, most importantly, why it is the way it is.

To get a fresh perspective, try this exercise: Imagine for a moment that you are about to step into a meeting with your business counterparts. What are you likely to talk about? Will it be a forward-
looking conversation or a discussion rooted in the past? How is the conversation likely to go? Will there be a balanced dynamic with each of you speaking and listening in turn, or is it likely to be more one sided? Perhaps most importantly, how do you feel? Are you looking forward to a productive conversation or dreading an inevitable conflict, feeling like you’re on your back foot even before you step into the room?

Whatever your reaction, pause for a moment and examine it. What specific past interactions sparked your anticipation or dread? Now put yourself in your counterparts’ shoes. How do you think they felt about those past interactions? How would they see the relationship?

If you find that there is work to do, it is most likely on both sides. Even if you are convinced that you have done everything you can to partner effectively, there are probably things you can change about how you relate to your business counterparts that will set you up for a better partnership. In particular, doubling down on your efforts to understand and empathize with your business counterpart and really understanding the pressures they’re under will go a long way.

Consider the following questions:

  • How do they define success?
  • What are their near-term key business objectives?
  • What measures are used to evaluate their performance?

Also consider your perception of your business counterparts. One way to assess your perception is to compare how you would describe yourself and your motivation, as opposed to how you describe them and their motivation. When there is conflict, it is common to have the mental model in terms of dichotomies: My motivation is to do good; their motivation is to look good. I am trying to work together productively; they are trying to force the issue to go their way.  If you see them in a negative light, no matter how much you try to put a good face on things, your negative perceptions are likely to leak through.

Finally, consider how history could be influencing your relationship. How have you historically collaborated together? Has your engagement model been based around something transactional, like project funding, or a deeper experience of establishing shared goals? What successes have each of you seen (or achieved) with technology? How might your counterparts have been burned by technology in the past (even if with someone besides you)? To what extent have you been honest/transparent with them, especially when things are not going well? How have your technology goals supported (or not) their objectives in the past? Historically, have you viewed your role as building technology for them or with them?

Hopes for Change

Now that you have reflected on the business context and your current relationship, take a moment to write down one or two concrete things you need most from your counterpart. For example, perhaps you need your counterpart to:

  • . . . make it safer to fail without fear of blame or political repercussions.
  • . . . listen more deeply so they understand the tradeoffs.
  • . . . trust that you really do have their best interests at heart.
  • . . . be more open to experimentation and iteration.

When you’ve chosen the one or two things you need most, decide how you want to ask for those things. After all, your business counterpart is not psychic. They may not realize that the way they are engaging with you is making it harder for you to see them as true partners.

In turn, your business counterpart is likely to have requests of you. These requests and the agreements you make as a result of your discussions will form the basis for new working agreements that will shore up the foundations of your partnership.

Earn Trust by Demonstrating Understanding

You’ve learned about the business context, you’ve reflected on the current relationship, and you’ve heard the request from your business counterpart . . . now what? The first step with your new knowledge is to demonstrate that understanding to your business counterpart. Ask if they’d be willing to check your understanding, and then try describing the world from their point of view.

There are two likely outcomes. The most likely is that you didn’t get something quite right. No problem! They will correct you, and now you have a better understanding of their world. In fact you should expect to be corrected at several points, with each correction giving you a more refined understanding of their world.

The other likely outcome, perhaps reached after a few iterations, is “that’s right”. This is your goal. These words provide validation that you have in fact described the world the way they understand it, and because you’ve done this activity with them, they can now trust that you do understand. This trust is an important foundation for your future partnership.

“But wait!” you say. “What about when they’re wrong? Doesn’t that make this impossible?”

Not at all. Remember the goal here is not to describe the world as it is but rather the world as it is seen by your business partner. If you give into the temptation to “correct” your business partner during this process, you won’t change their mind but you will demonstrate that you care more about your own opinion than having a productive partnership.

Don’t worry, you’ll get the opportunity to contribute to the conversation. As Stephen Covey says in 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.”

Next, we’ll look at how to coauthor your future… 

- About The Authors
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IT Revolution

Trusted by technology leaders worldwide. Since publishing The Phoenix Project in 2013, and launching DevOps Enterprise Summit in 2014, we’ve been assembling guidance from industry experts and top practitioners.

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