When Customers Are Not the Customers

In IT, we love to talk about our internal customers, the people we are trying to help so they succeed.

IT does this because we really believe what we are doing is a service to others. To the end-users in so-and-so department, to the various management and project teams, and to the larger organization.

I believe this “internal customer” metaphor is broken. It puts IT in a no-win situation by trying to satisfy the “internal customers.”

How do the internal customers compare to the external customers?

For the external customers, they pay for the products/services and get what they pay for.

For the internal customers, they often do not pay for the services they get from IT. Someone else in the organization approves the IT budget and pay for what the end-users will get from IT.

External customers communicate what they want from their funds, and organizations can choose to tailor their products/services in exchange for the funds.

Internal customers rarely influence the direction of their technology wants or needs. Someone or a committee within the organization decides what IT will provide for the organization. In fact, IT is often required to uphold the technology standard and consistency for the organization, regardless what the internal customers really want or need.

When working with the internal customers, is it even meaningful to talk about customer satisfaction or even exceeding expectation?

Perhaps IT should find another term for the “internal customers.” Maybe just the terms “peer departments” or “company teams” to keep things simple and focus on the collaboration.

After all, “internal customer” or not, we are still in this organization together to help each other succeed.

What I learned about Managing IT Projects from Playing Online Games

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Time flies when you’re having fun. It seems like just yesterday I grew up playing video games on Atari and Nintendo, and now we have many more gaming choices available to us. To this day, I still enjoy playing video games on computers. Gaming for me is not merely entertainment – I enjoy learning and understanding the design and mechanics behind a particular game. I also enjoy the socializing and friendship-building aspects of the online games.

Many computer games clearly were built to provide entertain value, but there is a surprising amount of wisdom to pick up from some of today’s more sophisticated online games. One aspect of playing those online games involving social activities of organizing a group of players to accomplish a common objective, usually involve slaying a dragon or a boss monster. It is fascinating to me that one often can find some intriguing parallels between organizing a raid and organizing a project team within an organization. Whether it is organizing a 25-player, 6-hour long raid or organizing a 25-member, 6-month long project, some leadership and management principles seem to apply for both cases.

Here are some lessons I believe many younger IT colleagues might be able to learn from spending some time in the virtual world.

What are we trying to accomplish and why?

In the game world, we ask which dragon do we want to slay tonight? Announce the final objective up-front and let people know what is in it for them. Players come to a particular raid for many of their own reasons. Some will come for a specific loot or reward. Some players come to the raid to experience a particular portion of the game content. Some players will come to a raid to learn more leading a particular raid. Some will come just for fun and sight-seeing.

In the real world, people band together to form a project team for a variety of reasons. Those reasons could be driven by organizational, political, or other factors. The why factor always should be aligned to a business goal. Helping others to understand the end state up-front can help to build commitment and to foster positive motivation.

How are we going to accomplish the objective?

In the game world, we need to understand the details of the encounter as much as possible before you can have a successful raid. “Know the fight” is a common phrase used in online gaming. Today’s online game raids can be quite sophisticated and involve many stages or phases. Everyone participating in the raid should have a basic understanding of the raid and what to expect during each phase. However, knowing the fight at a high-level is just half of the battle. Each segment of the raid will have certain activity requirements that need to be met, often under some time constraints. If the requirements are not met in a timely fashion, it is quite possible the raid will fail. To plan ahead, the raid team needs to translate the requirements into workable tasks and assign a time line.

In the real world, it works pretty much the same for a project. The project team should have a common understanding of how the project should be executed at a high, summary level. The project team then breaks down the work into tasks and assigns deadlines or timing dependencies to those tasks.

Whom do we need for this effort?

In the game world, a raid will require a collection of players to fulfill a variety of roles. In online games, the roles can also be referred as jobs or classes. To complete a raid successfully, it will require a proper combination of roles all working together and executing the tasks along the way. In addition to having the proper roles, the raid team will also need skillful players in order to succeed. The skillful players know their jobs/classes well and understand how their roles fit into the raid encounter. The more skillful players can also provide valuable input into the raid and support everyone else to get the job done. Very often, the most time-consuming aspect of organizing the raid is to find and recruit the classes/players you need for the raid.

In the real world, we also need people with the proper skillsets and competency level to execute a project. Staffing a project team with a perfect combination of the skillsets and personalities can be a difficult task. Sometimes, the staff choices are given or established by the organization beforehand or is not entirely negotiable for some reasons. When those things happen, the project team will work with what it has. Sometimes the project team might need to recruit additional people or to replace individuals in order to cover the skill or competency gaps created by the project team make-up.

Which tools will we need to manage the effort?

In the game world, the game client application serves as the foundational tool for all raid team members. Having access to the same information by everyone is critical to the successful execution of any raid. Many raid teams rely on websites or in-game chats to communicate pertinent information about the raid. Very often, critical information also must be delivered quickly. Many raids today are also supplemented by another communication tool, such as voice conferencing. The game world can be unforgiving, and unwanted things can happen extremely quickly. A few poorly-timed missteps by the raid members can easily add up to a deficiency that is too severe for a raid team to overcome, leading to a wipe.

In the real word, consistent execution of a project requires all project team members to have access to the same project information via a set of common tools. Information can be communicated in written form or in verbal form. Project plans, meetings, memos and minutes are just a few tools we often use. The real world can be just as unforgiving as the virtual one. Poor communication can add up to either severely delay a project or sink one.

When Games Mimic Life

Even with the proactive planning in place, many things can still go wrong. Risk management most also be practiced when operating in both worlds. In the game world, risk management takes the form of having a robust combination of roles and solid communication channels. In the real world, we often have a lot more risk management options available to us if we put in the proper level of planning. There is no reason why we cannot do what we can to be properly prepared and well organized for any project.

Whether in the game world or in the real world, producing positive results with a group of people takes leadership, management, collaboration, and communication.

Footnote: Wall Street Journal reported that a new study reveals that adults who played a video game helped their mental agility more than adults who did crossword puzzles. Just saying.

Image Credit: Courtesy and Property of Blizzard Entertainment, Inc.