No more heroes: View problems as solvable together

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Colleen Pietrobono, principal of Ernst and Young’s performance improvement practice, on the value of collaboration from the very beginning of a project

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You must have felt it, if you have worked in IT for even a few years -- that creeping sense that more of the time you once spent installing, configuring, administering, testing and training users of technology is now being spent on what can only be called "non-technology" issues. Issues of how work actually gets done, galloping collaboration with teams that swell and shrink, and how to retain lessons learned when key people are reassigned, for example.

Colleen Pietrobono's career so far has been a good illustration of this trajectory and why it is the new normal. As a principal in Ernst and Young’s performance improvement line, she helps organizations with technology and process enhancements, leveraging analytics, big data and performance management solutions.

"I received my degree in accounting and computer systems management, did internships where I worked with forecasting software running on the mainframe and transitioned to consulting where I wrote Cobol, ultimately working on a large financial software package that became Hyperion," she says.

Pietrobono's more than a decade implementing Hyperion for consulting clients spanned the time when IT infrastructures were themselves evolving rapidly from mainframe to PC to client-server. Since implementing enterprise software touches so many constituencies in the organization and offers so many levels of BI and enterprise performance analytics, dealing with large teams of people is unavoidable.

Following the conventional IT thinking at the time that called for increasing controls, interpreting an RFP's problem statement in ever more rigid terms and driving toward stated goals often to the exclusion of learning acquired along the way, she doubled and redoubled her own efforts. Then Pietrobono experienced what can only be called a moment of grace.

“I had a great mentor at Hyperion who, whenever I felt stressed thinking I should have all the solutions myself, and if I only worked 10 more hours a day I’d have it, said, 'You are one person. You working more hours on this problem won’t make a dent in it. Step back and think about what the problem truly is and seek people with different points of view.'

"I had two small daughters at the time. My mentor said other people have other things in their life, too -- kids, sports -- you are not the only person with other things in their life.  As a result, I learned how to think like a leader and get things done through and with other people. Working harder is not always the best solution.”

Pietrobono considers this deep-teamwork approach to problem-solving to be essential, to ensure that a problem can be looked at from multiple angles. She also believes that nuance is powerful, especially in getting to the real problems that lie beneath the summaries in the official problem statement.

"Gather a team with different points of view. Go to the client and listen to issues. Develop a real problem statement and get everyone on the same page. Don't go in with preconceived notions that you know what the problem is. Do investigative work. Then ask, 'What did we hear?'"

She’s not talking about problems of installing software, or integrating heterogeneous solutions. She's talking about problems and issues of project purpose -- the goal of the work -- the "universal problem: use of technology, people and process to improve financial results."

Pietrobono's holistic approach to large, multipronged projects was put to the test in 2008, when the market downturn and the rush to offshoring was disrupting her firm's business model.

"We realized as a leadership team that we needed to change our offering from commoditized staff augmentation to work with more strategic value. The big challenge was to continue to grow the company while simultaneously doing a sustained change management effort with people internally.

"We conducted one-on-one and group sessions within our company to understand why client, company and individuals need to change, while at the same time bringing in new people to create the new strategic offering. It was one of the great changes the company went through. EY ended up buying the company and they would have looked at it differently if we hadn't changed."

The surprise learning from Pietrobono's career trajectory? Thinking holistically about business processes requires grounding, confidence and actively getting more brains on the problems than her own. "To solve problems collaboratively, listen to multiple perspectives. Keep panic and negativity at bay. View problems as solvable together."

Pietrobono's move to a diverse-team orientation seems particularly prescient now that technology has become so granular and indispensable to business and personal life.  People across the enterprise are much more comfortable navigating digital spaces than they were even 10 years ago.

Another source of internal diversity: outsourcing and strategic partnerships. Externally, the customers are navigating these digital spaces, performing various degrees of self-service and support. Change isn't just across one dimension, but many, and equates to multidimensional diversity. No one mind can think of the best answers.

Every tech move is filled with human behavior implications. Every new stage brings a new level of tech pervasiveness and interoperability and "user" learning. It is probably not too much to say that Pietrobono's focus on the workers' experience of the problem, rather than management’s summary in the problem statement, seems like much more stable ground on which to build an expensive project. Her insistence on a multi-perspective team addressing the issues holistically has emerged as her new normal.  

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