I was really happy to be in a pivotal discussion today about the Mortice stream – a set of technical projects to connect our under-construction data warehouse (‘Databank’) with our yet-to-be-deployed new learning management system (‘Moodle’). In particular it was great to interact with Associate Professor Ian Solomonidies, Director Learning and Teaching Centre
and his team.
We kicked around a lot of ideas and concepts, but the subject of this piece isn’t about the tech, it’s about empathy. My happiness progressively morphed into a sense of unrequited opportunity as I watched our project pitch miss its mark.
Here’s how I saw the situation, from an outsider’s perspective:
- Super hard deadline. 1 April 2011, no ifs, no buts.
- Existing reference implementation in production (sure it has its legacy issues, but it keeps us alive today).
- Skilled LTC people who are expert in their domain.
- Deep scepticism from many years of let down by ‘the IT crowd’.
- Patience waning having already extended deadlines on the basis of logistics.
Basically, a situation where our customers know more than us, have no basis on which to believe we will deliver, and have extreme pressure to do so. Ergo very little confidence or love in the room.
Do you blame them? I don’t.
So here’s how the Informatics team approach this situation, using – indulge me here a little please – a patient care metaphor:
- We walked in and offered a prescription.
- Our prescription required a leap of faith in at least two new wonder drugs.
- It turns out out these wonder drugs do not quite yet exist.
- It also turns out that we understand less about the condition of the patient than the patient does.
- We offered no prognosis or timeline for cure.
- We can offer no evidence that we’ve cured anybody so far.
And we delivered this using slide after slide of big picture positioning, high level diagrams, jargon obfuscation and bullet points. We offered no evidence, no proof of concept, no timeline, no sample code, and nothing that resembled tangible understanding of the problems at hand.
We did a great job of promoting the various grander scale challenges that the rest of the University faces, but we forgot the golden questions that had to be going through people’s minds: “so what?”, followed by “what’s in it for us?”, neatly concluded with “so what have you done for us lately?”.
In essence, we “told” LTC what our position was and assumed their business would be won. We didn’t adequately understand their context.
Look, we have some really smart and capable people, with some good solid thinking going on – that’s not at issue here. Equally, so does our customer who, like Fox Mulder
, wants to believe but just can’t find the evidence.
Perhaps what we should have done was first listen to our customers and come to a mutual agreement on the three simple ideas we ultimately all understand are crucial (and why):
- Agree on a data model (to allow the project to decouple)
- Use an industrial grade transaction system (to best leverage available infrastructure)
- Build a compelling human experience (to achieve adoption)
On this basis, we could then have “sold” LTC on the tactical approach the project team believes will work best to achieve this strategy:
- Use Macquarie Databank for the model
- Use an off the shelf enterprise service bus for transactions
- Use whatever produces the best human experience for the UI
- Do all of these things in parallel to minimise time-to-ship
- Work together – worry about “who does what” last.
And what’s the best way to do this at the point we were at in the process to date? Hint: it’s not a slide deck.
It’s with a whiteboard marker and a heap of active listening. With some URLs to show examples. With tangible examples and some product demos. With some success stories – which we actually have. With a timeline. And most of all with an expression of goodwill and commitment.
It is a great luxury that we can take the best of the concepts “sales” and “customers” as applied internally – we don’t have to adopt the jaded conventions, spin and jargon of commercial vendor presales just because we (rightly) have a more commercial orientation these days.
Trust is a commodity earned, from whence confidence flows; it starts with empathy. It’s the number one thing we really need to succeed at in engendering innovation within Macquarie University.
The role of Informatics in a sales context, then, is not to impose regimen; it is to transfer belief