10 Characteristics of a Successful Internal IT Champion

My sister-in-law is a personal trainer. Whenever she visits, I instinctively hide any delicious Kit Kats I have lying around. But she inspires me, and I admire how she helps people change their lifestyle for the better. That said, it’s hard work, sometimes she fails, and getting people to sustain that change is the toughest part. If you’re a beleaguered change agent within enterprise IT, this may sound familiar. It does to me. I’ve both succeeded and failed at enacting changes within an IT department. What does it take to succeed when introducing lasting changes? I can think of ten things.

#1 – You tell a story focused on outcomes.

It’s key to understand the impact of what you’re doing. What does this technology make us better at? How does the new process “fix” a troublesome pain point? You need to tell a story that starts with “why.” And the “why” can’t be “it makes us more secure” or “gets us onto a supported version of the software.” That motivates no one. Your audience needs to feel the impact.

#2 – You’re generous with proof points.

This one requires pre-work. You can’t have proof points without data! That means you need before/after stats, ongoing metrics, and anecdotes. How have things improved so far? What’s the awful state we started in? Don’t underestimate the value of chart or visual aid. So when you’re making your case, you have to know up front which measurements matter, and how to collect the data you need to persuade your audience.

#3 – You hit the road to tell your story.

The best change agents I’ve seen don’t wait for people to come ask about their amazing ideas. No, they pitch. You need to find an audience that benefits from the proposed change, and get in front of them. Do free training, schedule meetups, or crash team meetings and ask for a few minutes of their time.

This is also where hitting the conference circuit matters too. If your change is just starting to take hold, you get out there and tell the story. This has a few benefits. First, it motivates the team implementing the change. Our champion’s on stage! Woo hoo! Second, it reinforces the change and makes it harder for internal skeptics to starve it. Third, it acts as free advertising for those internal teams who might not have known about it. And finally, it gives you a chance to get public feedback on your ideas, and improve upon them.

#4 – You invest in documentation and useful assets.

Do you want people to adopt your proposal? Make it easy to learn about it! Invest in materials—think presentations, video recordings, FAQs, intranet sites, sample code—that make your case. Do whatever is needed to empower self-service discovery after your roadshow (#3 above) gets them pumped up.

#5 – You make it easy to onboard and use the new “thing.”

How easy is it to get started with your championed IT system or process? Does it require a ten-week training course and a terrifying maze of executive approvals? Yikes. If you’re a champion of a new platform—like Salesforce.com or a cloud platform like Pivotal Cloud Foundry—then it’s on you to get budget to sponsor the sandbox. Want to kill your platform’s adoption before it starts? Throw “chargebacks” in there immediately. No, you want to give people an easy on-ramp to whatever you’re proposing, and then have a path forward to recoup the investment.

#6 – You cash in on your good will, and capitalize on your reputation.

This one may be hard to hear. If people don’t like you, or you’re a pain to work with, they won’t rally around your (amazing) idea. I just haven’t seen it happen. Successful champions have political capital that they cash in when introducing disruptive changes. Even if you have organizational authority and can ram changes through an approval process, the adoption will be sluggish if there’s no goodwill with your teams. It’s a fact of life that you may have to call in favors when getting something new to stick. Make sure you have some chips to play!

#7 – You demonstrate a path forward and plans for future investments.

No one is going to adopt a major new change if they think it’s a dead end. Why go through all the effort? Besides telling a story based on outcomes (#1 above), you need to show that there’s a plan for ongoing investment. How will the new technology or process evolve over time? What teams are queued up to use it? Momentum matters, but so does a well thought-out plan.

#8 – You recognize paradigm shifts and empathize with those impacted.

When you’re acting as an IT champion, it’s easy to get caught up in why something is awesome. But you may forget or brush aside legitimate fears by those impacted. Not every change is life altering, but when there are real ramifications on existing jobs, you need to have appropriate empathy and message accordingly. It doesn’t mean you back off from radical change, but you focus your message on the positive impacts.

#9 – You establish a wide set of supporters.

Some of the highest-potential changes I’ve seen ended up flaming out because the single champion disappeared. There’s always going to be organizational turnover, and unless you develop a wide base of support, your change is doomed. You want to find like-minded people to embrace your message and carry the banner during the inevitable highs and lows within the company.

#10 – You never stop expanding and “selling” the change.

The downside of being an IT champion is that you’re never really finished. If you’re not expanding and solidifying support, you’re going backwards. In any large enterprise, there are antibodies that swarm to unwelcome changes and try to kill it. If you get too comfortable, you may get surprised by those who look for ways to rollback your changes.

Why go through all the potential heartache to introduce changes to your company? Because you care about making things better. That means fighting battles, doing some thankless work, and sometimes losing out. However, it also means giving your company a chance to be more relevant, and you experience the satisfaction of making life just a little better.

Anything I missed? What have you seen? Where do champions get it right?

Author: Richard Seroter

Richard Seroter is Director of Developer Relations and Outbound Product Management at Google Cloud. He’s also an instructor at Pluralsight, a frequent public speaker, the author of multiple books on software design and development, and a former InfoQ.com editor plus former 12-time Microsoft MVP for cloud. As Director of Developer Relations and Outbound Product Management, Richard leads an organization of Google Cloud developer advocates, engineers, platform builders, and outbound product managers that help customers find success in their cloud journey. Richard maintains a regularly updated blog on topics of architecture and solution design and can be found on Twitter as @rseroter.

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