What if Disney Ran Your IT Department?

Nobody loves IT.

Nobody loves IT, and with good reason: information technology (IT) departments generally deliver terrible customer experiences. Demand for IT services is basically infinite; there’s always another system to update, another application to build, another security hole to patch, and a million more enhancement requests to address.  As a result, IT is always fighting a losing war, and it shows.  Their favorite solution to your critical business problem is to try rebooting your computer. They seem to have a knack for rolling out a network-crippling change just as you’re trying to communicate with your most important client. They pride themselves on giving you equipment so durable that it no doubt saw service during the first Gulf War, and in the name of uniformity they keep everyone running on Windows XP and Office 2000. Connecting your personal phone or iPad to the office WiFi network is a security threat equivalent to a terrorist cell setting up shop in your cubicle. Frustrated users look for solutions outside of IT’s reach (cloud, anyone?) or do without. The opportunity cost of bad IT is enormous.

But everybody loves Walt Disney World.

(Well, almost everybody.) In contrast, Walt Disney World creates fantastic customer experiences. An organization with more than 60,000 employees in one place somehow manages to focus intensely on creating magic for their guests, drawing tens of millions of people from all over the world each year. Disney puts an enormous amount of design effort into creating that magic, and it shows.

So what if Disney ran your IT department?

What if you applied Walt Disney World’s design approach to your organization’s IT? What would a Disney-esque IT department look like?

1. It would understand and clearly communicate its purpose

A common purpose clearly defines the organization’s goal, communicates that goal internally, creates an image of the organization, and distinguishes task from purpose. Without a common purpose, the customer experience will be inconsistent at best, and a disaster at worst.

First and foremost, the Walt Disney World staff understands why it exists. Their common purpose provides clarity to everyone in the organization regardless of role: “we create happiness.” Nothing about shareholder value, competitive advantage, or market innovation. We create happiness. Clear, concise, easily understood. Disney trains every employee to understand the common purpose, and the internal culture repeats and propagates it at every opportunity.

In contrast, most IT organizations have a poor understanding of their common purpose; at best, it might be summed up as “keep everything from breaking.” True enough, the modern enterprise IT function is a whirling, complex mass of people, systems, networks, software, and vendors, but Walt Disney World’s 27,000-acre property is also pretty challenging to operate, so that’s no excuse. When the goal is status quo, that’s the result you’ll achieve.

What if your IT department decided on a new common purpose? Instead of focusing on systems, what if it focused on the people? A good common purpose for IT might be, “make our users more powerful.” What would your IT be like if every programmer, every network engineer, and every help desk employee understood and believed in that purpose?

It would be amazing.

2. It would know its customers

The staff at Walt Disney World knows precisely who their customers are: the people who come and visit their resort, whether for one day or for weeks at a time. In fact, they call their customers guests, a conscious choice designed to communicate both to the customers and employees how customers should expect to be treated.

Most IT departments refer to their customers as users, a word rooted in the dark ages of computing technology; accurate, but with a faint whiff of condescension and disdain. Users are irritating, constantly pestering IT with their demands, awash in their ignorance and unaware of what an astonishing miracle it is that the network is even up today. Internal or external, users are an annoying distraction from the task of maintaining and creating beautiful systems.

Great IT organizations recognize that users are the customers, and that the entire IT organization exists to serve them. In the end, the human being is the only part of the system that matters.

3. It would design the customer experience

Great customer experiences don’t happen by accident; they must be designed. Design is the purposeful creation of the customer experience; it is the intersection of technology and psychology. While most IT departments have a half-decent understanding of technology, they rarely possess an understanding of the customer’s psychological needs and wants.

Walt Disney World not only designs the customer experience, they’ve got the discipline down to such an art that they provide training on how to do things in “the Disney way” via the Disney Institute. They make money teaching people how they make money!

Deliberate design is great, because it positions your organization to be responsive and powerful:

  • Great design is intentional: most organizations end up with “design by default,” and that’s not good.
  • Great design is proactive: by thinking about and planning for challenges down the line, your organization has the luxury of calm contemplation, rather than panicked improvisation.
  • Design attempts to see things from the perspective of the customer: in the end, it’s the only perspective that matters.
  • Design attempts to prevent issues before they occur: it’s far easier to prevent a crisis than respond to one.
  • Design positions you to be responsive to your customers.

82% of consumers say the number one factor that leads to a great customer service experience is having their issues resolved quickly. You can’t get out of constant crisis-management mode without design. You can’t respond quickly without design.

The principles of customer experience design can apply to any organization, large or small, but IT organizations, in particular, suffer from a lack of intention. The technology is so complex and demanding that an IT organization can literally spend all of its time dealing with the crises of keeping the systems up and running.

A great IT organization rises above the daily crisis management that comes with the technology. A great IT organization designs great experiences for its customers.

4. It would hire and retain the right people

Most organizations struggle to hire great people, but they really struggle to hire great technologists. Organizations tend to hire for skills first, culture second. A mildly enlightened IT organization will consider customer service skills as part of the skills package, but demand for IT people tends to be high and the number of technology experts who are also people experts tends to be dismally small. Worse yet, most IT organizations are terrible at assessing a candidate’s technical expertise, relying on a resume and questions from a manager who was never formally trained on conducting effective interviews. In many organizations, the result is a collection of mediocre technical talent combined with below-average social skills, a group that is barely hanging on by their fingernails to keep the technology going. When you’re constantly wrestling with the technology, there’s little opportunity to focus on the customers.

A great organization has a clear, well-defined ideal candidate profile. The profile includes not just technology skills but also soft skills, personality traits, and cultural fit. Cultural fit is important; you’re not hiring a lone individual, you’re hiring a key component of what is hopefully a smoothly operating customer-centric machine.

A great organization also goes to great lengths to communicate about itself at the same time that it’s assessing each candidate. Walt Disney World begins the interview process at Central Casting, a dedicated building designed to provide a specific interview experience. There is no receptionist at the front desk; instead, each candidate must walk the hallway to the back of the building. The decorations, pictures, and paintings in the hallway communicate the history and culture of the company. Before interviews begin, each candidate watches a short video presentation describing basic expectations of employees (which Disney famously calls “cast members”), including everything from the need to own a car and be on time to the dress and grooming code (sorry folks, no eyebrow piercings or facial tattoos!) Some candidates decide right then and there that they aren’t a fit, and both sides avoid wasting time in a lengthy interview process.

Recruiting is a fine art, and great organizations recognize that and invest heavily in finding the right people.

5. It would train them to deal with people and technology

Disney is famous for its internal training systems. I’ve already mentioned the Disney Institute, which is their externalized version of education originally developed for their own staff. Their training is thorough, comprehensive, and systematic. It covers everything from day-to-day operations to high-level corporate topics like leadership, innovation, and culture.

If your organization has an IT department, stop some of its members and ask them if they’ve ever had technical training. The answer is probably “yes.” Now ask them if they’ve ever had training in dealing with irate customers, or running effective meetings, or time management, or customer experience design, or leadership. I’ll bet money that the answers in most organizations range from dumbfounded looks to a roll of the eyes and a “yeah, right.”

Any individual human being is a million times more complex than any computer. Computers, after all, are simply very complex machines; they do what we tell them in their own idiotic but methodical way. We bend over backwards to teach IT folks how to work with the latest version of Oracle or SharePoint, we send them to seminars on cloud computing and security and network management. But we almost never send them to training on people, and we’ve already established that a human being is the most important part of any system.

Great organizations train their people in the knowledge domains that matter, and for an IT department those domains are both systems and people.

6. It would systematize everything

Walt Disney World is complex. Besides being the largest single-site employer in the United States, the resort has over 3,700 different job roles covering everything from housekeeping to upper management, from pest control technicians to boat captains, from show performers to monorail mechanics. The sheer scale of everything is daunting, but when you consider how much of Walt Disney World is unique or custom-made, it’s astonishing that everything works so well. The Magic Kingdom alone has more than 50,000 visitors a day.

There’s no way an organization of that size could survive without the collection of processes, technology, and knowledge that we call systems; even the most talented people would be lost trying to manage it all. Disney excels at creating and using systems because it has to to survive.

IT is a demanding field, but it’s amazing how even moderately large technology organizations remain functioning only because there’s one guy who understands how everything works. There’s no version control, no configuration management, and nobody is even sure that the backups would work if disaster were to strike. Each time a team member leaves, part of the organization’s institutional knowledge is lost forever, so the team reinvents the wheel on a regular basis, because nobody ever wrote down instructions for building a wheel.

Good IT organizations implement tools and processes that help manage the technology, but great IT organizations systematize the customer service component as well. As a customer, you shouldn’t have to explain your problem to each person to whom you’ve been handed off; instead, a centralized system describing you and your case should be at each IT person’s fingertips. Even the newest member of the group should understand the process (thanks to the extensive training he or she received) and should be ready to help a customer.

With less time spent fighting fires and reinventing wheels, the IT staff can focus on making things better for the customers.

7. It would vigorously control the setting

The setting is where the magic happens. In Walt Disney World, much of the setting is built as physical locations like theme parks, hotels, and restaurants, as well as buses, walkways, boats, and monorails. Disney even designs the street signs to fit the theme and communicate the setting. However, anywhere you interact with the brand is part of the setting, so the company’s website, phone services, and mobile app all count as well.

For most IT departments, setting is barely a relevant concept. If there’s a dedicated IT area, it typically consists of harried workers in cubicles, surrounded by partially disassembled laptops and outdated monitors waiting to be recycled. Users interact with IT via e-mail, or maybe a help desk phone number. IT staff might come visit your office or cube. IT, put simply, is setting-challenged.

Disney has a saying: “setting delivers service.” Done well, setting isn’t just the backdrop for an experience, but actually becomes part of the experience. IT must work extra hard to create and control its settings so that they deliver the best possible experience. If you lack a physical space where your customers visit, put extra effort into your help desk phone system and process. Make the automated systems that help users report issues as friendly and customer-centric as possible. Try to find every place, real or virtual, where your customers interact with IT, and bend them to the needs of the customers. It pays off.

8. It would keep complexity behind the scenes

In a similar vein, Walt Disney World draws a hard line between “onstage” and “backstage.” “Onstage” guest areas are meticulously clean and designed to provide a magical experience. “Backstage” areas are tidy and functional, utilitarian rather than experience-driven.

IT would do well to learn this lesson. Remember those disassembled laptops and outdated monitors awaiting recycling? Your customers should never see that. Likewise, the end users of a system don’t want to know about all of the technology needed to make their systems work, so communicate in a customer-centric voice rather than a technology-centric tone.

9. It would protect the customers from their own mistakes

Customers make mistakes sometimes. At Walt Disney World, they might make a wrong turn while driving on the property or make an incorrect assumption about how a reservation works. Most organizations would shrug their collective shoulders and decide that a dumb customer gets what he deserves. Disney takes a different approach, and tries to protect guests from mistakes.

IT organizations are notorious for blaming the victim. The first line out of a support person’s mouth is frequently an accusatory “what did you do?” In the IT industry, we have uncomplimentary terms for users who don’t seem to be able to keep up with our fantastic brilliance, like PEBCAK (problem exists between chair and keyboard) or ID10T, as in “that’s an ID10T error.” The issue is one of ownership; if the user fails, it’s not IT’s responsibility.

A great organization starts with the position that “customers behave like customers, and they are incapable of making mistakes. Anything that appears to be a mistake is because we failed to communicate correctly with our customer and protect him or her from possible bad outcomes.” With that starting position, it’s relatively easy to ensure that customers don’t back themselves into undesirable corners.

10. It would never, ever, humiliate or embarrass the customer

Even though Walt Disney World cast members endure grueling Florida heat, massive crowds, and occasional impolite guests with ridiculous expectations, at no point is it reasonable to make fun of or belittle a guest. Nobody feels magical when they feel humiliated. Disney goes to great efforts to train cast members on how to handle challenging guest situations, and it shows.

IT organizations seem to struggle with this. Part of the issue is that we technical folks fail to understand just how powerless computer technology can make non-technical folks feel. Nobody likes to feel powerless. Modern software is full of complexity and idiosyncrasies, so it’s easy for a typical customer to get backed into a corner. When the help desk comes along and performs the correct incantation to get things working again, the user is left feeling foolish and helpless.

Because technology is so challenging and even threatening to non-technical staff, IT departments have an uphill battle to fight. They must create a common purpose that focuses on the customer, and they must clearly communicate the common purpose to the staff and mean it. They must purposefully train their staff to put themselves in customers’ shoes, to understand that a successful interaction is one in which the customer walks away feeling successful and empowered. Most of all, every member of the IT department must remember that the human being is the only part of the system that matters.

11. It would practice Guestology

Walt Disney World doesn’t have customers, it has guests. Guestology is Disney’s name for the science of measuring and understanding guest behavior. Disney relentlessly polls, surveys, and questions its guests; Disney measures everything. Attendance figures at different parts of the day. Number of bottles of water sold in relationship to temperature. Wait times on attractions. How traffic flows through the parks. Disney collects as many data points as possible in order to better understand how to best serve the guests and maximize the revenue of a massively capital-intensive resort.

IT departments are also capital-intensive; in many organizations, IT is still part of Finance because they buy so much expensive stuff. Most IT organizations do a poor job of understanding their customers—they don’t practice Guestology. If you don’t know what your customers think of you, how can you respond to problems?

Most IT departments don’t solicit customer feedback at all. Those that do tend to focus on transactions: “Was your call answered in a timely fashion? Was your problem resolved satisfactorily? Was the technician courteous and professional?” IT departments almost never ask, “Did we help you do your job better and with less stress?” or “Are there things we could be doing that would make you more effective and satisfied in your work?” Great IT departments don’t just measure help desk requests processed and system downtime, they measure outcomes and meaningful impact on the business and the people who work in it.

Apply Guestology to your IT function. Watch what happens when the team truly hears the voice of the customer… and listens.

IT can be magical

At its worst, IT is a painful, expensive overhead function that everyone tolerates, but nobody loves. The millions of tiny friction points created by a mediocre IT organization don’t show up on any one department’s budget, but instead are spread throughout the organization like grains of sand in the gears of a precision mechanical clock. The price is paid in tiny frustrations and missed opportunities.

At its best, IT is a wonderful multiplier of human talent, a tool that enables phenomenal achievement. When done right, IT lives up to the old Arthur C. Clarke adage: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Do it well, and watch the magic happen.



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