How Curves Jenny Craig CIO Abe Lietz successfully transformed the IT business relationship

Tags: CIO Perspectives

What can successful CIOs share about delivering technology value to the organization? Read how CIO and VP of service operations Abe Lietz at Curves Jenny Craig transformed IT’s relationship with the business, and how he keeps ahead of technology.

From the context of enterprise applications, how do CIOs achieve success? I asked Abe Lietz, CIO and VP, Service Operations at Curves Jenny Craig about his challenges and successes, particularly from the perspective of IT delivering value to the business. This article shares his insights.

Providing guidance

Key to providing technology guidance to the business is transitioning from an order taking role to a business advisory role. In the order taking role, the business decides how to solve a problem, and asks IT to help implement that solution. In the advisory role, IT moves upstream in the problem-solving process. The business first asks for advice about how to solve the problem, and a solution is jointly developed. It’s moving from “Yeah, you're the expert, but I'll bring you in when I have a problem to solve.” to “Hey, before we go and do something new, let’s tee up the problem together and then we can find a solution.”

The key to achieving this transition at Curves Jenny Craig was taking the time to build relationships with the business through shared successes and the occasional failure. These relationships built trust to the point where the business and IT are partners in joint ventures, rather than IT being brought in just before a contract is signed, or worse.

It's also taken a commitment to build business thought leadership and experience inside of IT, and to ensure people have the time to spend with business partners on a more strategic basis. For example, IT’s marketing liaison person might not have the hands-on marketing experience, but they should know more about marketing problems and solutions and how they relate to the business than the marketing people themselves.

Nowadays, Abe spends far more time talking about things like improving gross margin, serving customers and building better customer experiences than he does talking about IT or even new applications. This value driven, service oriented and relationship-centric approach to running IT was a catalyst for Abe transitioning into a new “CIO-plus” role of managing not only IT, but also Customer Service Operations for the company.

Harvest value from existing applications

Enterprise applications have such rich functionality that it is nearly impossible to leverage it all, and many businesses use less than half of the available features. Large enterprise implementations like ERP and CRM tend to be focused on specific use cases, and can be all consuming. After these implementation projects are over, companies have forgotten the other functionality they acquired because they got mired in the details of a big deployment. This happens a lot, especially with multiyear engagements.

After the project is completed, both the business constituents and the IT teams should refocus on the grand vision they had when they started, and examine the other functionality they acquired. While it takes people investment and time, it takes relatively few dollars to add this value to the business. You are not re-acquiring technology, you are just using what you bought.

Uncovering requirements

Earlier in his career Abe was in projects that went live, only to find revenue impacting processes or entire lines of business were missing. Customers were asking “Where is my order?” It came down to the right questions not being asked, and requirements being missed. For years the best business analyst teams have touted themselves as knowing how to ask questions and what to listen for. But gathering business requirements is more than hiring good analysts who can ask the right questions. Rather, business analysis has matured into relationship management where analysts have a much deeper rapport with the business.

It starts by building relationships with business units. For example, as marketing thinks through their next promotional season or develops a brand strategy, an analyst from IT who has a deep understanding of marketing should have a seat at the table. That person is there to listen, provide thought leadership and contribute to the dialog. The goal is for the CMO to feel entirely comfortable making them part of their staff meetings. When the time for a new marketing solution arrives, that analyst knows what both the business and IT need. They ask the questions that never get asked. For those IT people in the business units, that is a full time job.

Abe Lietz, CIO & VP, Service Operations at Curves Jenny Craig

Those charged with gathering requirements are known as relationship managers, not business analysts. These people come from both the business and from IT. They may have been in retail stores or operations for part of their career, been brought into IT on a project and stayed. Alternatively people have gone the other way, where they spent several years in a domain like service management or project management, and they wanted to go back to the business and apply those skills.

Case in point: the head of ecommerce and Web development was in marketing for his entire career at the company and transitioned to IT. He now leads all ecommerce and web development and has a very deep understanding of how marketing operations run, and what they want. Marketing has a lot of respect for him and approaches him in a very engaged and strategic way rather than just asking “Can you get this done?”

As Abe says "Today when we talk about marketing strategy, we engage in a dialog about the next big promotional period or new campaign. The problem statement gets written down, there is a potential solution that someone has created, and IT adds a lot to it." That is eye opening for marketing folks who go “Wow! I didn’t know we had all this capability that we can add so quickly”. IT is enriching the conversation, versus before it was “Ok, let me just write down what you need”. And of course this approach applies to all departments, not just marketing.

Agile implementations

Over the past three years, the company has moved from waterfall across the board to an Agile management approach. Some teams, like Java or .Net developers found this easy. It was a bit harder with teams focused on things like ERP or CRM because Agile is such a different way of thinking. Initially there was trepidation on the part of the business, but after the first few iterations they quickly realized the value. Instead of taking months and years, they saw Agile deliver in weeks or even days.

The longer it takes to detect requirement errors and omissions, the more expensive they are to fix. With waterfall, those problems tend to be discovered at the end of the project where they lead to cost over-runs and delays. With Agile they get found and fixed early on, so costs don’t compound. It’s a bit like flying and making course corrections every mile rather than making massive corrections near the end of the trip.

The purist view of Agile is to develop requirements along the way. But there really are two types of requirements: Architecturally Significant Requirements, and all others. You need to know those architecturally significant ones up front, because if you get the architecture wrong, you pay later.

Change management has probably been the toughest part of going Agile, namely getting the tools and the teams to adapt to the mentality of doing things incrementally. Few systems track configuration changes, and even if they do, usable information is hard to extract. Most enterprise development tools still use the waterfall mentality and are not built for continuous integration and deployment. So you have to work around that, which is what they have done.

Related to Agile are cloud enterprise apps like Workday, for example. They deliver value because all the IT plumbing has been taken care of, leaving staff to focus on business value creation. Integration cycles are much faster, and there is no need to worry about things like scaling up to new data centers and disaster recovery. In essence, IT moves up the value stack and closer to the business.

Implementing enterprise software

Where appropriate, Abe uses conference room pilots to test implementations. Here you get all the business units in a conference room and run a set of transactions as if you are running the business. This is a great way for vendors to confirm that the software will perform as claimed.

Abe is amazed at how many software vendors resist this, but some who are easy to work with jump right in and do the pilot. That immediately gels the relationship because you are both shooting for the same goals. By the time the contract is signed, implementation has already started.

In the conference room pilot, the business can evaluate basic processes like order taking, contact entry etc. If these processes do not work out of the box, you can discover the reasons. Do requested changes truly differentiate the company and add value by making transactions faster, cheaper, etc.? If the answer is no, think very carefully before asking the implementation vendor to make them.

What’s new?

I asked Abe how he keeps tabs on the market, especially in terms of innovative new products and vendors. He does this first by nurturing relationships with critical VARs who can introduce new products.

Looking further upstream in the process, he also meets with VCs, especially from the Valley so that they can understand the business and present appropriate companies from their portfolios. The VCs presentations tend to be very targeted, and quickly introduce some of the latest developments in areas like security, infrastructure or applications. There is only one step further upstream than this, and that is the proverbial “guys in the garage”. Abe is on the board of the San Diego Chapter of SIM who hold briefings where VC-backed companies present to groups of CIOs. These VC relationships allow him to stay on the leading edge of the market in the most relevant areas.

Community relationships

Today building and maintaining your network is crucial, but it’s tough, especially in IT, because everyone is busy. Certainly as an executive balancing priorities, finding time to help the community is part of it. For example, Abe is a member of several retail affiliate groups where he regularly reaches out for advice, and also contributes advice to others. Just connecting is one thing, but there is so much more value when you engage. It’s the paradox of life: it’s in giving that you receive. Without relationships, visibility to the next frontier, how to apply the leading edge to the business and ultimately how to use technology as a value driver is severely limited.

Vendor relationships

When you have built a portfolio of vendors you should keep an eye on them. Abe has a process of evaluating and understanding what current vendors are doing. Every vendor has a person in IT who manages the relationship to keep it healthy. They meet the vendors regularly to discuss current issues and what’s being planned. There are two types of vendors:

Partner vendors

A few vendors are real partners, and they provide much more than just services for a paycheck. There are employees dedicated to keeping these relationships healthy with things like quarterly reviews of the roadmap and supplier summits where strategies are shared.

Commodity vendors

These vendors provide more commodity type services and don’t need the level of care that a partnership relationship does.

Share with other CIOs

In concluding the interview, I asked Abe if there is anything he would like to share with other CIOs.

Security

For years, the security paradigm has been to protect your border, hold the line and nothing will happen. These days it’s not a question of if, but of when security will be breached. Ensure you have contingency plans in place for when the inevitable happens. Who are you going to call? How will you communicate status? Educate your CEO and constituents on this.

It’s difficult to prepare for security breaches, but you can build a relationship with local security teams who have learned from “trial by fire” situations and benefit from their experience. Know your threat surface. You can never close all the gaps, but close the largest holes first. The security field is developing very rapidly, so take the time to learn. Also, security is one of the hottest investment areas, so talk to VCs.

Relationships

Finally, Abe commented that the last few years have been rough on most companies. As an IT leader, it takes commitment and time to build relationships with the business. You have to make sacrifices, but in the long term having a solid relationship with the business is going to save you.

It says a lot about your leadership if you build an organizational structure that proves IT is committed to supporting the business. Building a partnership focused on advice and strategy rather than just taking orders takes time and trust. For a CIO, one of the most important things to do is to stay connected both internally and externally. The demands of the job make this difficult, but building and maintaining a network of business and industry peers is key.

With thanks to Abe Lietz, CIO & VP, Service Operations at Curves Jenny Craig for his input to this article, which was originally published on CIO.com on Sep 16, 2015