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IT is a lot like Gift Giving

It’s that time of the year when many of us are thinking about finding appropriate holiday gifts for loved ones. The other day it struck me that there are similarities between the gift giving process and the profession of Information Technology (IT). Here are my thoughts about the philosophy of gift-giving as it relates to IT:

1. Gifts are all about the recipient.
The first rule of finding a gift is to find something that the gift recipient will appreciate. Good gifts may be something that the recipient needs, but the best gifts are the things that thrill: gifts that cause exclamations of pleasure and make the face of your loved one light up with joy.

Those thrilling gifts are tough to figure out for most people. You have to really understand the person who will receive the gift: know what they enjoy, know their secret desires, understand their fantasies. This level of understanding requires conversations about their philosophy of life, their hopes and dreams, and how they see their life changing over the upcoming years. It’s not enough to know their present; you have to get a feel for their past and future as well.

There is a message here for IT organizations. In my experience, most IT failures are due to miscommunication. IT strategy gets out of sync with business strategy. Projects fail due to misunderstandings about requirements. The IT customer asks for one thing, but really means another. Somehow the words get turned around, maybe by the speaker, maybe by the listener, and most likely by a combination of the two. It’s a lot like Aunt Sally saying she wants a record for Christmas when she really means a CD. Her terminology may be out-of-date, but her audio equipment isn’t. You would know that if you knew more about Aunt Sally.

And that’s the point, isn’t it? You have to know your customers well in order to communicate effectively. Know your business to focus your IT strategy. Know your project beneficiaries to be able to fulfill their needs. It’s all about the recipient.

2. Gifts have to be viewed as valuable.
Gifts don’t have to be expensive, but they have to be viewed as valuable to the recipient. Value can mean that the gift serves a purpose; some people really do use salad spinners. Or value can mean that the gift will be cherished: a great baby picture or a finger painting by your four-year old.

The key here is that value is defined by the person receiving the gift—not the person giving the gift. An ideal gift is one which costs the giver very little but provides enormous value to the recipient. Sound familiar? We’re talking about cost/benefit here.

Yes, just as IT projects are invariably held up against the yardstick of cost/benefit or return on investment (ROI), the same thing applies to holiday gifts. And just as with holiday gifts, the ideal IT project costs very little but provides enormous benefit to your business.

3. Gifts need to be timely.
Gifts of baby clothing carry the most extreme penalty for being late; the clothes just won’t fit a fast-growing infant. But no one likes it when they receive a birthday gift a month after their birthday, or a holiday gift after the holiday is over. Technically the gift is still the same; if it’s valuable when it’s on time then in most cases it will be valuable when it’s late. But emotionally it’s not the same.

It’s that way with IT projects too. When the project first starts out, the projected completion date is usually pretty arbitrary. You pick a date that sounds reasonable, and then you try your best to keep things on schedule. But the longer the project goes on, the more “cast in concrete” the completion date becomes. It’s repeated so many times that people begin to believe in it. The expectation for the delivered project is like kids waiting for Santa Claus; they know it’s going to be great when the presents arrive, and they count down the days as the date draws closer and closer.

How would your kids feel if Santa postponed his visit for a month or two? That’s how IT customers feel when you miss a date for a project deliverable. Was the date arbitrary? Yes, but arbitrary dates don’t stay arbitrary—they become part of customer expectations.

A final observation
In thinking about the comparison of gift giving and IT, it occurs to me that a lot of people spend more time picking out the perfect gifts for their relatives than they do picking out the perfect IT project for their business. It’s like taking your kid to a toy store. Kids don’t examine their budget, prioritize their needs, and pick the toys that will provide the most return for their investment. No, they just dive in and start begging for the first toy they find that appeals to them.

How many of you have technology strategies that were developed the same way?

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