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Explaining technical projects to non tech-savvy decision makers

Ellie Mizen
Ellie Mizen

Many of us with ambitious digital ideas will at some point or another have to communicate the “what”, “why” and “how” of a new technical initiative to our decision-makers. If you’ve encountered this in the past you may have experienced the frustration of explaining technology concepts to decision-makers who lack knowledge and understanding in the area. Not only can it slow down progress but it can cause frustration for everyone involved and sometimes lead to promising projects being binned.

Whilst these issues most commonly come up when communicating with director boards, a break-down in communication can happen at any level of seniority where there is a gap in understanding between those with the ideas and those with the power to implement them. This is particularly so when the new project is outside the realms of the business’ current strategy. Very commonly when a business makes a step-change investment in new tech.

It is has become increasingly necessary for businesses to be bold with digital ventures. It is no longer acceptable to have a barely-functioning online presence. Leading technology is no longer a differentiator between businesses, it is now essential!

There are however, a few options for explaining oh-so-important technology to decision-makers. Even if you’re not 100% tech-savvy yourself.

Code on a screen, explain this technology

1. Get your decision-makers involved in the product-planning stages

This is a hugely overlooked opportunity. Particularly regarding directorial boards, there tends to be a belief that they can’t get involved in the actual “doing” part of products. If you’ve read a few of our posts, you’ll know that our model centralises the importance of input from everyone from all levels of a business. With this in mind, it makes very little sense to exclude your board of directors from your early discovery and planning sessions, particularly given that they likely have the most business experience of anyone else on the team. Involvement in the early-stage planning and strategy can help directors to develop a deeper understanding of the initiative, get excited over it and to feel more involved.

To get everyone involved, we’d recommend running a planning and discovery session with some wider team members from all levels of the business. Planning sessions are something you can run on your own, however, hiring experienced individuals to support this stage can maximise on the benefits of the exercise. Getting everyone in the same room collaborating, with professionals on hand to guide talks, explaining the technology and point out opportunities, is an all-inclusive solution to this problem. The Unfold Opportunity Discovery sessions we run are a great example of how successful these can be and have become key to our winning formula. Find out more.

We appreciate that not all board members would be keen to get involved at this level. Regardless of whether they want to be involved in the creative process or not, there are plenty of other things you can do to communicate your tech projects.

If there’s one thing you take away from this article, let it be this: When explaining technology, structure your conversations with board members around business decisions, ROI, increased conversions, competitive advantage and improved reputation. These issues will be the top priority for them, so framing your decisions in this way can cut out issues with translating positive projections.

2. Arm yourself with knowledge

  • There is no getting-around this one – the more you know about the technology you’re proposing, the more astutely you’ll be able to explain the technology and answer questions.
  • Try to set aside some time with a knowledgeable colleague, business partner or agency to get to grips with how and why this piece of tech will be created.
  • Your next best friend for finding out information is Google search.
  • Address any high-cost areas ensuring you have justification for these, as well as backed projections for ROI if possible.

3. Get to know your board members

There is likely to be a varying range of tech-savviness among board members. The fine line between clear communication and not being patronising can sometimes be a bit of a balancing act.

Whether you’ve met board members yourself or you have to ask a colleague, make sure you are aware of who each of them are and their level of understanding before-hand. More on modes of communication later.

4. When explaining technology, keep your language simple

Having ascertained your board’s tech-savviness already, be prepared to adjust your language and level of detail appropriately. Build up knowledge and detail gradually and if required to specify technology, try to have a clear explanation of what it means, does and its competitive advantage at the ready.

5. Have more than one mode of explanation

Because most of us use (rather than create) tech, for the non tech-savvy, a visual explanation can often be more easily understood than words, charts or statistics. This is a much more familiar mode of understanding and can help bridge the knowledge gap.

Idea sketch

If possible, it can be very beneficial to have an early-stage sketch of the idea included in your pitch presentation. This should give a rough visual idea of the outcome as well as listing out key features, ideas and reasoning. A visual representation of the idea will offer context and can short-cut time spent trying to verbally explain the tech.

Prototype

Larger companies with more budget for new ideas might alternatively consider an early-stage wireframe or prototype to demonstrate to the board. Building a prototype is a great way to create something which looks and acts very similarly to the finished product, without spending lots of time and money on an actual build.

Anticipate questions

Try to anticipate in advance what questions are likely to be and have answers prepared. Things they’re likely to want to know are:

  • How much is this going to cost?
  • Why is this a necessary investment for the business?
  • How does x work?
  • Are there examples of a similar solution working for other businesses?
  • Can we add x feature in?
  • I’ve seen x feature included by a competitor, can we include this?
  • Why do you think x is a feature necessary for the market? What are your stats for this?
  • Why aren’t our competitors doing this already?
  • How quickly are we likely to see a return on investment?
  • How quickly could we get the project to market?

Demonstrating know-how and anticipating answers to their concerns beforehand offers reassurance that you’re trustworthy and experienced in what might be a grey area of knowledge for them.

If the technology is complex or you don’t feel that you’ll be able to explain satisfactorily, have a team member (perhaps a developer) join the meeting to answer technical questions. Just make sure they’re fully briefed beforehand and remind them to keep language accessible. This can also be handy for those “can we add this feature” questions, as you’ll get an idea of what’s possible right away and manage expectations.

6. Familiarise yourself with competitors

If competitors are offering a similar product or service, there is a good chance someone on the board will be aware of this. Have answers to questions regarding differentiation, features and gaps in the market. If no one else is doing this, then you should also have a good awareness of why this might be. Is there a good reason it hasn’t been done before?

7. Planning, Strategy, Risk, Performance, Financials

When it comes down to it, what your board will want to see is that you’ve nailed these five elements alongside the practical aspects of your initiative.

It may sound obvious, but doing this will offer confidence that you have thoroughly researched and planned for the initiative, meaning you’re more likely to be trusted with other areas of the project as well. Even if your board were to grasp little else, a solid financial and strategic plan will resonate with business leaders and pull considerable weight.

8. Communication on an ongoing basis

Throughout the project you are likely to need to communicate progress with senior management up to board level. To keep conversations as transparent and accessible as possible, we would recommend:

  • Keep communication as frequent as possible. Whilst board meetings may normally be quarterly, continuing conversations with as many members as possible in between will avoid information overload or big gaps in understanding.
  • If appropriate and they are interested, recommend some areas for reading for your directors. Board members are likely to WANT to learn more about the project, but it can sometimes be difficult to know where to begin. Provide them with a list of relevant topics for research. You can find a useful list of resources on our resources hub.
  • If this is likely to be a significant and ongoing new element to the business, it may be appropriate for directors to take on formal learning to improve their understanding.
  • If you’re in a senior position in the company and it seems appropriate, it might be a good idea to suggest the appointment of an additional technical director. A study by Deloitte in 2017 found high-performing businesses (those fairing better than S&P 500 companies by at least 10%) were more likely to have a tech-savvy board director than other companies (32% vs 17% respectively). If companies wish to keep up with technological innovation, directorial boards need to adapt accordingly. Tech directors spearhead technical operations, explaining technology to other members and making it much easier to communicate the value of digital improvements.

Think we’ve missed anything? We find that technical communication with decision-makers is one of the biggest bug-bears of new clients. Let us know if you can think of any new ways we can offer you support.

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