Technology, diplomacy, strategy: the trifecta of success in large-scale problem solving.

We're usually engaged to solve confoundingly difficult systems problems. We're successful because we address the underlying personnel, organizational and team problems that stand in the way of success.


Portfolio Company - Cybersecurity

The technological problem

A private equity firm and the company’s board had tasked the Senior Leadership Team (SLT) with building out a modernized system within a year. When we were called in 8 months later, no progress had been made. The actual plan was still just a series of user interface sketches done by the CTO.

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The Deeper Problem

The project was stalled because the CTO couldn't translate the company's business objectives into technological systems. This is a notoriously difficult task, demanding often contradictory linear and lateral thinking skills. As often happens, the CTO chosen to pursue a never ending stream of new initiatives, rather than work through the core issues.

Certainly, the CTO had skilled support in the SLT. But there was rampant discord among team members, caused by lack of focus, pressure to solve the problem, broken promises, and a leadership void. As so often happens, there was also a very real issue of bruised egos that stood in the way of open, productive collaboration.

Like an accelerating centrifuge, the core issue spun off a dizzying array of equally serious business dilemmas.

The VP Sales, for example, was frustrated because the deadlock prevented him from fulfilling client promises and driving new business mandated by the board. This vocal frustration undermined confidence in the SLT - and the Company.

As pressure rose, an executive from a recent acquisition went 'rogue', attempting to wrest the stalled project from the SLT.

The CEO was swamped with solving personality issues within the SLT. The COO faced a huge project backlog, with no resources to move forward.

And perhaps most critically, rank and file team members were at the point of mutiny, either taking sides in the battle, or preparing to jump ship.

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The Solution

As technologists, we quickly determined it was possible to complete the massive project in the 4 months that remained on the clock. As business strategists, we knew we'd need to implement highly controversial strategic steps to hit the deadline:

  • The internal team would need to adopt Agile processes to collaborate with us effectively,
  • This team would need to work beyond the SLT's purview, and
  • They could not remain under the leadership of the CTO.

It was critical to get buy-in from the highest level for our solution. Happily, the CEO gave us control of the team.

Shielded from internecine conflict, and with a clear, highly motivating goal to hit, the team enthusiastically responded.

We established Agile training for all staff who asked - and were thrilled to see so many step forward. Core team members were trained as project and scrum masters, and technical team members joined us to map out the strategy and tactics needed to hit our daunting targets. Ownership for the project's success was shared by all.

In addition to driving the system build, we found ourselves playing a crucial, but decidedly non-technical role: preventing the SLT from repeatedly undermining and blocking progress.

As targets were hit, engagement and confidence rose. And the project was successfully brought in by the energized group. The team was united and possessed both the tools and confidence to tackle new challenges in the future.

And yes, the VP Sales was excited to deliver better client experiences and boost sales.

The Learnings

1. Solving complex problems demands both linear and lateral thinking at the highest level. This is a rare skill in any individual (and in most teams!). If this thinking doesn't happen, it can quickly spiral into multiple new problems, frustration, hostility, and business-threatening issues.

2. When a team tasked with solving a problem isn't successful, bruised egos can lead to sabotage of new efforts to solve the problem. New teams need to be decoupled from any but the highest authority, answering directly to the CEO.

3. Given clarity and motivation, even the most daunting targets can often be hit. And hitting these targets can re-energize a team demoralized by a previously toxic environment.

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