Tailor or an image consultant?

“Gentlemen, you are getting married. You go to the best tailor in town, and you say: ‘I’m getting married, my bride is beautiful, make me look one million dollars, I don’t care what it costs.’

The tailor measures you very carefully then he stands back. He rubs his chin, he is clearly troubled by something. ‘Tell me’ you say, ‘Please tell me.’

‘Sir’, he replies, ‘I don’t think it is my place to say’

‘Tell me’ you beg, ‘I must looks fantastic for my girl’

‘Well Sir, …’ he talks slowly and cautiously, ‘. if you really want to look $1,000,000 can I suggest you lose 5kg?’

What do you say?”

This is the dilemma many a consultant find themselves in. More importantly it is the dilemma that I find again and again in corporate IT:

  • Is IT a service department which is expected to build what is requested without answering back?


  • Is are the IT departments the experts in maximising benefit and value out IT investment?

Is the tailor a master of clothes who just makes beautiful clothes? Or are they, because of their long experience making people look beautiful in clothes, an image consultant who can help you look beautiful?

Is your IT department a tailor who is expected to produce something brilliant no matter what the request is? Or are they people who, because they work with information technology every day, have experience and knowledge to help their (internal) customers maximise their benefit? (Even if that means the original request should be reconsidered.)

I distinctly remember a senior IT manager at an American bank telling me that his department was most definitely a service department, it wasn’t his job to answer back to business requests, his job was to build what was asked for. The implication being that even if his people knew the (internal) client was approaching the issue from the wrong point, and even asking for the wrong system, then his people should not correct them. They should just build what was asked for.

Perhaps this dilemma is most accurately felt by Business Analysts who are sometimes expected to write down the orders that someone else wants to give to IT even if they know better. Fortunately some Business Analysts can go further and advise their “customers” on what the bigger questions.

The original metaphor come from Benjamin Mitchell. As I recall it was part of a very deep conversation we had in Cornwall back in 2011 and which also led to the “Abandon hope all ye who enter Agile” blog post. I’ve embellished and elaborated the story over the years.

I reminded Benjamin of this story in January – he’d forgotten about it, thats how brilliant he is, he has so many great ideas he can’t keep track of them all. Once I’d reminded him he immediately made it better.

“How would you know?” he asked, meaning, “How can you determine what is expected of you?”

For me the story is about missed opportunities, about frustration and about what you might do to change the position. For Benjamin it is about asking “Do we all expect the same thing? – If you think they consider you a service group how can you confirm this?”

Either way the core problem is about a mismatch of expectations. Your IT department might be a service department, that approach could work, its how many big corporations operate (I my experience).

Or the IT department could be the experts in technology, how to apply technology, how to frame problems so technology can help and how to maximise the return from technology.

Both are valid options.

But the real problem is when someone in the department thinks the department is should be doing more than the rest of the company does; or when the rest of the company expects more from the department but the department sees itself as a service group.

Finally, go back to my series on the economics of software development, the supply and demand curve, and apply this story. If the IT department is seen as a tailor who shouldn’t answer back they will find it very difficult, if not impossible, to change the demand curve. Such a tailor can only work on the supply side.

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