Running IT Like a Business

Can You Spot the Problem?

Within the enterprise, the demand for resources typically commences with some semblance of structure: a project review board, an OKR, or some other respectable methodology. But gradually, scope creep rears its ugly head; typically by way of a preemptive priority. Something “urgent” comes about which thrusts us into loose-knit teams with unstructured goals and endless streams of agendaless meetings. We then begin to ask ourselves: is this time well-spent? The answer is likely, no.

Isn’t My Department Already a Business?

Functional teams such as IT, finance, or even marketing tend to grow over time and become involved in various activities. Some of these activities are temporary, such as the IT department being involved in an acquisition. Other times, activities remain long-lived and persist for months or years. As a consultant, it’s interesting to parachute into an organization with a fresh perspective, and ask why a team is doing this-or-that. Quite often, the answer has historical origins. 

Yet there’s a pattern I’ve seen emerge within internal teams. That is, when a team is not a profit center, it tends to have a set of indirect value propositions. That is to say, these teams begin to create their own programs and processes based on what they think is best for the organization. Things like centers of excellence and committees come to mind. 

Businesses Must Focus or They Die

We’re all familiar with the perils of trying to be everything to everyone. But this common sense isn’t so common. I routinely encounter teams with no charter, no goals, and no defined measurements of success. 

Rather than trying to overtly formalize the maturation of an enterprise team via stale methodologies, I prefer a more consumerized approach; one akin to productization which should be a bit more palatable given we’re all consumers at the end of the day. We all like good products and trustworthy, focused companies. Therefore, we should aspire to be like those companies. Here are five ways to do exactly that. 

1 Define Your Products and Services

If you visit any product or service company’s website, they’re sure to have a well-defined portfolio of offerings. Apple has a comprehensive list of all the computers they make. McDonald’s articulates their food menu items in high-def detail. Supercuts lists the various styles one may receive in the stylist chair: from the classic brush-back to the contemporary mohawk fade. If these companies can clearly enumerate products and services, why can’t your internal team do the same?

Too many teams explain their product and service offerings through conversations; spoken words which inevitably morph and adapt like a game of telephone. Customers want to understand a team’s core offerings so that they know when to engage versus hit the open market for alternatives. Likewise, product and service portfolios also save the service provider time as they alleviate redundant re-explanation. 

2 Define Customers of Various Services

This may come as a surprise, but not everyone is your customer. Furthermore, it’s ok to shy away from certain solicitations for assistance; especially those of the non profit-driving variety. 

It’s true that combinations of products and services may be offered to different segments of customers. For example, an IT department will offer commoditized services (think laptops and WiFi) to practically everyone, while more specific services such as vendor management and enterprise architecture must have well-defined customer personas such as the CIO, CFO, and COO. 

Additionally, understanding customers’ unmet needs channels requisite sympathy for them, and creates shared goals. As an enterprise service provider, you should routinely ask: “If I were my customer, what is their shortest path to results?” Such questions should be asked through the lens of total available solutions; including those your team doesn’t offer. 

To summarize, clearly defining your customers equates to focus; which means better service and happier customers. 

3 Define Where You Play

Where you “play” is the rationale for where and when you engage with your customers. Tesla plays in the middle and upper-class car markets. Walmart plays in lower-priced consumer packaged goods. Knowing where you play enables you to conserve energy and expend calories where it counts. 

When teams are spread too thin, they attempt to service broad swaths of the enterprise, effectively leaving no specific customer delighted. Instead, the strategy should be to focus on an outcome, then work backwards with who will be best serviced to achieve that outcome. Again drawing on the IT department as an example: if the company views technology as an enabler of growth, then IT should be a strategic business partner focused on initiatives such as financial automation for the CFO or measurement of marketing efficacy for the CMO. Conversely, if IT is viewed as a mere cost center (a sad state which should be challenged by the way), then the near-term goals may be cost reduction and operational efficiency for specific customers.

Similar to defining products and services within a portfolio, rules of engagement should be codified and socialized. Moreover, they must be operationalized into business processes in order to be both honored, and continuously improved upon. 

4 Define Your Measurements

How do you know if you’re winning? Profit centers have metrics like revenue, customer count, lifetime value, and many other examples. Just because your team is an internal enterprise function doesn’t mean it should be devoid of metrics. 

Measurements can be strategic such as with OKRs or they can be tactical as is the case with KPIs. They can be categorized across standard dimensions as done with balanced scorecards, or they can be highly customized. The point is, if you’re not measuring, you’re not managing. 

5 Define Your Cadences

Measurements are nice, but are people actually reviewing them? Are you soliciting routine and structured feedback? Cadences are the roadshows that tie everything together. They socialize the good you’ve done and poll your customers for what needs to be better. 

Cadences come in many forms; from formal quarterly business reviews to highly-focused sprint retrospectives. Even a weekly or monthly newsletter touting wins and key metrics is an example cadence which should be added to the multi-channel repertoire of constant customer communications. 


Our culture of “more” seems to reward those who are busy; those who have jam-packed calendars, and those who work around the clock. Personally, I believe this is the antithesis of productivity, and should be fought tooth and nail until focus is achieved. 

Running an internal team like a business simply means getting lean and focusing on what matters. A business mindset isn’t just good for the company; it’s also imperative for team morale as it prevents burnout and increases the likelihood of team success.