Troika Method: A Conversation between Ian Gunn, Dave Work, and Stewart Burns
A group of three people working together, especially in an administrative or managerial capacity.
The troika method is a robust business practice that links an organization’s three most important voices—business, customer, and technology—in a system of checks and balances. Having three distinct voices ensures balance among what are often competing interests within the same organization. Balancing business, customer, and technology aspects allows for powerful growth and amplified outcomes while protecting the organization’s goals and mission. We listened in as our team of experts—Ian Gunn, Dave Work, and Stewart Burns—discussed the troika method.
SB: This all begins with business. Technical teams exist to fulfil the needs of a business and its customers. Whether it’s process automation, business insights via data, or super-new avenues like machine learning and AI, technical teams are there to enable and enhance growth and sustainability. Ian, how do you see this leader’s interaction with the technical team?
IG: The person taking responsibility for the business voice first maintains focus on the organization’s mission and operational goals, which requires continuous nurturing, focus, and exploration. The business voice needs space to operate independently of day-to-day concerns with specific technical operational tasks.
DW: Right! To expand on that, I see them as an influential leader of leaders, spending a lot of their time aligning other senior team members to the business vision and how the technical product serves it. They should be both inspiring and practical—capable of dreaming big but focused on incremental outcomes that deliver value now in a mission-critical way.
IG: Yes to that, Dave, and I think you touched on those hypercritical personality traits common in people that are successful in this position. I would add that this person is one hundred percent aligned with the mission, vision, and values of the organization, outcome-oriented, and—as I mentioned before—granted significant independence. In that high-trust environment they can be evaluated on their ability to drive outcomes related to those three guiding principles. I’ve seen people achieve success in other environments but it’s painful to watch the inefficiency with which things are accomplished without high trust.
DW: The Indiana Department of Health’s project to change the infant mortality rate comes to mind. Because of the troika voices in place, the project moved quickly to big-picture outcomes that really made a difference. Not only was the project able to reduce Indiana’s infant mortality rate, but now the DOH can accurately predict which women are at risk and preemptively reach them—even before they become pregnant. Let that sink in a minute.
SB: Okay. Keeping score: The business voice takes ownership of why. What then, in your humble opinions, does the customer voice own?
DW: To answer simply within the Angela-Lansbury-framework you’ve chosen, the customer voice owns the who. They’re responsible for making sure we don’t forget whom the organization, product, or solution is ultimately for. When this person sees the beginnings of failure to provide actual benefits to customers, they raise the alarm and correct course.
IG: Absolutely! They really lead the push in identifying the who. There’s an important distinction to be made between private and public sector organizations, and how the process of customer definition works. Where it veers from the purposeful customer identification—through user personas, user journeys, and user stories—the result becomes a bit murky. Here goes.
Private industry customers are selected. Key demographic customers are chosen to be served by your product; you learn about them and support them. When you support them well, they reward you by continuing to purchase your product or service.
In the public sector—specifically in government—despite wanting to delight citizens while they are in need of the government service, they’re not in the business of creating repeat customers. Additionally, the customer is literally “We the People.” The customer voice in government systems serves as the stand-in for the broad expanse of voices that includes both current and future users of the system. The voice speaking for the customer must be their demographer, researcher, friend, and ally.
DW: Yes. I’d add that they collaborate, and, when necessary, spar with the other two voices to ensure the reason for the agency’s existence remains to delight the customer.
When describing what these people are like, the first word that comes to mind is advocate. They’ve got to be empathetic enough to live in their customers’ shoes and help fight for them constantly. But they also need to be well-versed enough in technology and design to communicate effectively with the technical team. In this way the customer voice plays a very strong role identifying and defining the requirements of the solution and collaborating with the technical team to find technological solutions that fulfil those needs.
IG: Dave, hang on. I’ve got to hop on my soapbox for a minute to emphasize what sometimes seems like a controversial viewpoint.
DW: Go for it.
IG: (steps on soapbox) The idea of an internal customer is a mistake and a misunderstanding of what a customer is. An organization’s customer is the individual they’re aiming to delight. Delighting the customer is the entire purpose of the organization.
A quick example: In our work with the Department of Workforce Development, one might refer to the work we do for the adjudicators as work for our internal customers. However, DWD is not in the business of adjudication; they’re in the business of helping unemployed people and adjudication is part of achieving that goal. When you place internal customers on the same plane with the actual customer, focus on true customer-driven outcomes is diluted.
Instead of saying we’re serving internal customers to increase their efficiency, we should be saying, “To more efficiently deliver adjudicated decisions, and therefore deliver additional value to our constituents, we propose increasing staff efficiencies x, y, and z.” The emphasis is on the real customer and the outcomes are better for it. (steps off soapbox)
DW: Would you say the person owning the customer voice is traditionally an expert in user experience and process design? Would they be responsible for creating the vision for how customers will interact with the business or agency and its services?
IG: Yes…and no. The customer voice is traditionally filled by people who have studied UI/UX. They have a strong background in systems design and customer-centric methodologies, but I’d hesitate to say this is a must. Those skills can be learned and grown. When filling this role, it’s more helpful to focus on intangibles like empathy, curiosity, and advocacy. The owner of this voice is responsible to all those customers who don’t have a direct voice in the process. This is monumentally important in government because constituents can’t vote with their dollars the way they do in private enterprise.
DW: Would you also say that a UI/UX expert should have the technical skills to help lead the solutioning around the final product?
IG: I don’t think it would hurt, but I don’t think you should tie your organization in knots trying to locate the candidate who perfectly aligns with both a role and a voice that role would traditionally satisfy. The person fulfilling the customer voice role can be anyone with the time and empathy it takes to deeply learn and engage with the customer to be their advocate.
SB: So, if I’m understanding correctly this owner of the customer voice isn’t limited to a UI/UX expert, or necessarily tied to a specific role. Any deeply empathetic individual with an understanding or desire to understand the needs of the customer can serve here, correct?
IG: (nods approvingly)
SB: The voice for technology must then be the how.
IG: Yes. They are the enabler of the “auto-magical” but also the pragmatist that reins in absurd ideas brought forth by the business and customer voices. They’re responsible for implementing and realizing the visions of the other two legs of the stool. But they also get to be the technological guru that brings novel technological solutions to the table.
DW: (laughing) Yes! That’s what it feels like to be engaged with technology while you’re pushing its limits. That really illustrates the dichotomy presented in this role. Despite getting general guidance and a good start on the solution from the customer voice, the technology voice has final say on technical feasibility while also being responsible for bridging the gap between idea and reality. I see the technology advocate filling in the blanks on the technical how: informing the size of the technical lift, taking that design to the technical doers, and leading them in technical execution.
To your previous point, the technology advocate doesn’t have to be a technological guru, right? By the logic above you could have a technological guru sitting in a product manager or UI/UX position.
IG: Solid point. The person responsible for the technology voice is also focused on ensuring the health and longevity of the underlying technology. She’s steeped in best practices and focused on sustainable technological solutions that can be maintained and coordinated with all necessary parties.
DW: This is huge and can’t be overstated. This person provides key input to technical priorities. If infrastructure capabilities must be prioritized before customer and business functionality, this person is a trusted advisor who advocates for that. They’re responsible for calling out areas where technical investment needs to be made and ensuring those impacts are understood and appreciated by the other voices.
IG: Absolutely! It’s very easy to look at modern technology and see it as incredibly disposable, infinitely updatable, and easily replaceable—but it only looks that easy when you have a technical advocate ensuring that it remains that way.
SB: So now the acid test: How do you actualize something like this? Should companies and government agencies start posting these three new positions now? Get the show on the road?
IG: The magic to this methodology is that it defines not the specific roles to hire but rather the needs that you are trying to fill with your hiring, or your internal training. In reality, things don’t align so perfectly. There’s a significant overlap. The important part is to understand who will own each voice and why. It’s a checks and balances system. An imbalance in power will lead to an imbalance in goals and outcomes.
While it usually works best with three individuals, it doesn’t absolutely have to be so. There could be a product manager that can maintain objectivity, focus, and balance between the voices. In government, there’s a greater need to educate and coach elected and appointed individuals about this balance, as opposed to private sector organizations who are acquiring already seasoned talent. Everyone must understand the relationship within the system and how the tension between the different voices creates healthy conflict.
DW: I want to stress the healthy conflict portion. What you find when combining all these roles is that even people who have a good balance of all three will often struggle balancing them consistently. Usually this happens because they’re not representing only one voice; they’re playing devil’s advocate when making decisions.
Having a singularly focused voice for each aspect just makes it easier. In all projects there are compromises related to budget, time, or scope. Having healthy conflict and ensuring that there is strong communication and relationships between the voices creates success.
Want to learn more about Troika, Agile, or Digital Transformation? Stay tuned for more posts or reach out to a team member today. We’d love to help you find ways to make your teams and technology thrive.