We are well into the bloom of spring with 2016 strategies and budgets set in stone many months ago; do these well laid plans stick as the year ticks along?

As the business reacts to the shifting market, how often is IT probed to change course and up-end priorities and planning? How do you position your team to be responsive and innovative with mid-stream alterations, yet deliver with excellence? 

Most IT teams face limited financial and labor resources; routine management of legacy systems alone can push hard against these constraints, never-mind finding room to navigate changing business directives. How does the Digital Age leader transform the IT model to enable breathing room and flourish in the fast paced, customer focused, and innovation-minded Digital Era?

Larry Bonfante, CIO of the United States Tennis Association (USTA) and Institute Fellow has managed to thread this needle. Larry and his team are responsible for all information technology related services supporting the US Open, the most highly attended annual sporting event in the world. Here he shares some tangible and sage advice on how he has been able put wind in the sails of both his team and the enterprise as a whole, to create a nimble yet responsible environment for addressing rapid change.

The “Secret Sauce”

Multiple layers of relationships, communication, and ownership allow the USTA IT team to bring authentic partnership in delivering the organization’s customer engagement mission.

Larry has integrated IT into the core USTA operations by deploying client relationship managers into other departments. Three IT members work as members of the business team, so much so that the business views them as a part of their own unit. In this immersed position, they are perfectly poised for immediate awareness of new product offerings as they are conceived. They can leverage technology to match the specific requirements of the business initiatives because they sincerely understand them. According to Larry, these IT client relationship managers are “living and breathing the business” and are always in the front seat of the project planning process.

At the executive level Larry has established strong and personal relationships with those in the C-Suite. As a trusted member of the team, his voice is more likely to be heard, as opposed to being just another IT guy trying to push tech ideas without business context. As a peer he has the opportunity to fully understand leadership’s goals and objectives, and in being a good listener, he can ultimately help them translate their targets into solutions that fit.

To further deepen the conversation, Larry facilitates a C-Suite Steering Committee where they financially prioritize the project activities and requests across the business. If an opportunity in the market creates a need to consider a new project Larry says, “We can have a conversation about it” at the leadership level. This helps bring clarity throughout every department of the organization regarding the value of the targeted outcome, along with the financial consequences. If a project is put on hold or even taken off the list, there is an executive understanding of the reasoning behind the decision.

In effect, this leadership team has a part in and responsibility for all critical technology decisions. This means that there is ownership across the C-Suite, and as Larry notes, they are “in-sync to set a one-voice tone across the entire organization” related to IT. With the leadership team in lock-step on the decisions, there is flexibility and nimbleness in adjusting quickly to elevating market relevant projects above the fray, when necessary.

An important element of managing new initiatives mid-year is Larry’s approach to discussing the change in priorities. In the instances where he has to go back to the Board, he does so hand-in-hand with the business sponsor, who provides the business case, ROI, and as he calls it, messaging around “why this matters.” The take away here is to keep technology as the supportive mechanism, but uplift the business value as the objective. The ownership of the project and the justification of the value are owned by the business, not IT, but IT plays a significant role in guiding and supporting the technology behind the scope of the initiative.

Don’t Forget the “Little Guy”

The USTA approach aligns with recommendations of some of the highest regarded process management organizations, such as APQC. According to a 2016 report, “organizations that want to improve their organizational flexibility should…move to a monthly schedule for implementation reviews and quarterly reviews with senior management.  These regular and formal discussions with senior management keep plans flexible and allow organizations to adapt to new opportunities and changes in their business environment.”

Additionally, APQC recommends that an organization “invest in incentives and communications with front-line and middle management. Organizations that engage front-line and middle management employees create buy-in throughout an organization. Include those who will execute the new behaviors on a daily basis.”

Relationships, Communication, and Ownership

With IT members living within the business, and Larry as a trusted peer at the leadership table, the USTA IT team is able to react and respond “in real time.” Because there are multiple levels of IT staff integrated into the business, IT can more quickly understand the project objectives and make recommendations that are more likely to match the goals of the business owner.

Larry feels his team has “gotten to a place now, where they are truly engaged” with their business partners in such a way that they can “dramatically change the way we engage with members, players, and prospects.” Whether enjoying the onsite US Open experience through personalized messages, insights on favorite tournament players such as where and when they are due to play or, for the active tennis player themselves, learning of upcoming tournaments in their area in which they are eligible to participate, the IT team and the business are delivering engagement together. The collective effort of the IT and business owners of the USTA is tuned to deliver experiences that truly matter to the valued members, players, and fans that enjoy the wonderful world of tennis!

Larry is quick to point out that all of these tactics are a good start, but that they still “are on the road” to creating an environment where IT is not just “for people putting in orders.” It is important to recognize that the USTA, just like any organization steering its way into the digital age, has to commit to enabling transformation in every nook and cranny of the business. Transformation is not about IT alone.

It is critical that IT helps to educate and guide each business unit, so that, as Larry describes “they understand they are not just customers, but are partners in the process.” The transformation for IT is far more than simply a metamorphosis in the data center; it is a shedding of traditional expectations and accountability across the entire enterprise through relationships, communication, and ownership.

This is how you create the best laid plans, and then enable adaptive, nimble and winning delivery that can delight your customer in the digital age.

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