Many years ago, I remember being taught to differentiate between user wants and user needs, writes Robina Chatham visiting fellow at the Cranfield School of Management. The latter were to be addressed, but the former were to receive a polite no. I now understand that wants have an emotional element, and if not addressed lead to grumpy and adversarial customers.
There are two basic problems. Business people are great at solving business problems, but when these solutions involve technology, they are inevitably ill-conceived.
Furthermore, IT people react in one of two ways. Either they say no and reinforce the stereotype of a "can't do" mentality, or they say yes, and when asked to deliver something do their very best to comply even if the request is ill-conceived.
Either way, IT people are seen as the bad guys constraining the business, telling it what it can or cannot have, and when they do deliver, the solutions are inappropriate.
So what should IT people do? I believe the solution lies in the development of two key skills.
First, question - by asking the question "why" and "where will that get you" you will uncover the "nub" of the issue and you can address the real issue, rather than focus attention on an inappropriate solution.
Second, intuition - use your imagination to think out of the box. Giving users a choice of solutions enables them to own the outcome.
So how does this work? I can best explain this by way of an example. When I was IT director of a retail bank I was asked to extend our services to a 24x7 operation.
This was neither practical nor feasible, but instead of saying "no", I asked the business why it wanted to go 24x7. They explained that we had been the first telephone bank and this had been our unique selling point. However, many others had followed suit. We now needed a new selling point and the business saw a 24x7 operation providing this.
I then asked the business users if they would want to offer a full service throughout the night, what volumes they were anticipating and whether the data needed to be "up to the minute".
Armed with the answers, I was able to suggest an alternative: downloading the data at 6pm each evening onto a large PC and running a basic enquiry service overnight until the main systems came back online at 8am.
They thought this was perfectly adequate and were amazed at the speed and low cost of the system we delivered. We ran this system on a trial basis for a period of three months, monitoring the volume and type of activity. After the trial offered a full service between 7am and 9pm, seven days a week.
So next time you are asked to deliver something that you cannot say yes to, do not say no, but ask why they want it, what are they trying to achieve, and use your imagination to come up with alternatives. In essence, become a "can do" person.