Tech Governance: The Advanced Course
The latest ASAP Webinar began with an acknowledgment from our very own Jon Lavietes, ASAP staff writer extraordinaire, serving as moderator, that while a prolonged teachers’ strike has meant no school where he lives in Portland, Oregon, “School is in session here at ASAP!”—in the form of a guided tutorial covering the many ins and outs, twists and turns of tech alliance governance.
One caveat, however: “It’s not Governance 101,” stressed panelist Norma Watenpaugh, CSAP, founding principal at Phoenix Consulting Group. Large, complex alliances may involve multiple geographies, partners, functions, stakeholders—and lots of money. As such, she said, “they require expert alliance management,” which might be an understatement. So she and the other expert alliance leaders on the panel proceeded to provide some guidance.
Whereas “governance” in biopharma might evoke visions of layers of committees tasked with decision making and endless meetings and cups of coffee, in IT partnering it’s a bit of a different grind. In fact the title of the webinar—“More Than Meetings, Stronger Than Coffee: Brewing Up Better Tech Governance,” alluded to that always percolating reality.
Performance Anxiety? Not If You Have Enough Oxygen
Watenpaugh defined governance in tech alliances as “a system for managing performance and the outcomes you’re trying to achieve through your alliance.” Straightforward enough, right? Alas, it gets more complicated.
Barbara Couturier, director of strategic alliances ecosystem at Analog Devices, noted that these large alliances tend to have “a lot of moving pieces, and various verticals, geographies, and organizations involved,” which could mean sales, engineering, marketing, product, etc.—not to mention rafts of senior execs. “Governance is trying to keep all these stakeholders informed and engaged.”
And Lisle Holgate, CSAP, global director of CX strategic alliances GTM at HCL Software, described governance as “the hemoglobin of your partnership, the red blood cells. It’s the oxygen that feeds and fuels that.”
Simple Plans with Legs
Lavietes observed that these large, complex alliances tend to start out smaller and then scale. “They have to crawl before they walk,” he said. Couturier said it could be an existing alliance that “needs a jump-start” or a brand-new partnership where you have to get the governance going from scratch. That may mean starting out with a “simple marketing plan,” a plan to go to market and target the right customers—but she stressed that it has to be an actual plan, “not just ‘if you build it they will come.’”
Watenpaugh acknowledged the “tactical, almost accidental” nature of how such partnerships often get started: with a few wins that grow into larger opportunities, from a “deal in the field” to a value proposition that “makes sense and has got some legs,” she said, characterizing this as an example of “agile development.” You want to “put a few wins up on the board and make them visible,” she said.
Follow the Money—and the Cookies
From there it’s (hopefully) scale and repeat. “You’ve got to leverage the DNA of the salespeople,” said Holgate. “They’re going to follow the money.” The other thing to follow—besides what customers want—is the various players who may form key elements in such a partnership. They may be software companies organized around product, or global systems integrators (GSIs) concerned with digital transformation, or the big hyperscalers who want to “leverage the consumption of their cloud services,” he said.
All these partners and potential partners have different interests and ways of working, different driving forces, so getting them aligned behind your value proposition and communicating with them all in the right way can be a challenge.
“It doesn’t blend well into a nice cookie you put in the oven,” as Holgate put it. “I don’t have a couch in my office, but sometimes I wish I did, to talk to all the people the way they want.”
Team Charters and Orchestra Leaders
Cookies and couches aside, how do you keep these various partners—let alone the executive leadership and the various functions inside your own organization—informed, engaged, aligned, and even excited about your partnership? Very carefully.
Lavietes mentioned Watenpaugh’s preferred method: team charters. As she likes to say, “When everybody is on the same page, this is the page.” A team charter need be no longer than a page or two, and could simply be “the top sheet of your business plan,” but it encapsulates “what the alliance is” for stakeholders, including the value prop, the associated initiatives, who’s doing what and when, who works with whom, and who makes which decisions.
However it’s done, it’s also essential to get executive sponsorship for the alliance—even though sometimes their “focus gets a bit diluted,” according to Couturier. In any case, the alliance manager ends up functioning as the “orchestra leader,” she said. “It can get very decentralized, so let’s keep pulling things back together.”
Having a top-level executive like a senior vice president involved can be a good and helpful thing, especially when it comes to decision making. But as Holgate asked, “What are they deciding on?”
“The SVP has to be an enabler of the process beneath him or her,” he said. “What’s going right? What’s going wrong? What do I need to help you fix?”
The Hardest Job: Listening
As with most alliance processes, there’s no “one size fits all” to governance. It must be fit for purpose and appropriate to the size, scale, cadence, and context of the alliance itself—as well as what it’s seeking to achieve. And as the webinar title indicates and Lavietes echoed, this is about more than meetings—but yes, meetings are involved, perhaps by other names and at various levels.
“It starts with the conversation going on in the field,” said Holgate. “Then you bubble it up to people who can make decisions at the next level. Then you come to QBRs, then the annual review. One level informs the next level up.”
It’s “a communications architecture,” in Couturier’s term: your calendar, schedule, and cadence for the year. “It doesn’t always have to be a meeting,” she stressed. “It can be an email.” Then there’s “the hardest job of an alliance manager,” according to Holgate: “getting people to buy in to the communications strategy.” Which involves not just talking, but a lot of listening. And not just meetings or email, but “sometimes you need to get on the phone, or face to face,” as Watenpaugh said.
“You have to have a foundation, otherwise it’s not a relationship,” Holgate summarized. “And you have to have your fingers in all the pies.”
And that, folks, is how you bake in—or brew up—better governance!
ASAP members, you can view this webinar in the ASAP Content Hub and find out more, including additional analogies relating to food, football, hat wearing, bags of parts, and trust. We’ve barely started to slice the pie!