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Operational Vs. Technical Truths: How To Successfully Navigate Conversations With IT

by | Sep 9, 2022 | Business Advice, Productivity

Understanding the difference between operational and technical truths can be incredibly helpful when solving issues within a complex process or system. This is especially true with IT systems that have many layers of functionality and security to consider.

Operational truths consist of concepts that are often harder for a more technical-minded individual to grasp, while technical truths focus on the specifics of how something works.

Both types of truths are necessary to completely understand a system in many cases. Operational truths help us understand how something overarchingly works within a process or system that gets us to our end goal. Technical truths, on the other hand, are more granular and not as interested in the bigger picture.

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Operational truths can be incredibly useful when trying to figure out why something is not working as intended or is not getting the desired result. Separately, technical truths can be useful for understanding exactly how a system works. Technical truths are useful for debugging systems and finding loopholes.

It’s often helpful to have both an operational and technical understanding when buying, building, or changing a complex system. In many cases, operational truths can provide insight that technical truths cannot. I find this to be true even when discussing the most highly technical of processes.

Here’s an example of an exchange between an operational person (OP) and a technical person (TP) discussing a backup. Notice how asking a technical question will get you a technical answer when you’re really looking for an operational answer.

OP: Is our company data backed up?

TP: Yes.

This is both operationally and technically true.

OP: Is it an image-based backup?

TP: Yes.

This is both operationally and technically true.

OP: How long will it take before we’re back up and running?

TP: 1-4 hours.

This is not necessarily true from an operational standpoint. If the IT professional has all the new equipment on hand and has done this before, it could be true, but it’s generally not the case. When an IT person has never dealt with a specific challenge, it almost always turns out to be longer than expected. That’s just the nature of IT. Even if it only takes a short while, it almost always has some hiccups or unintentionally breaks something else.

I would like to mention that this isn’t them lying to you. It’s their best guess, so a lesser amount of time is the safer answer. Simply put: The intention of the question and the intention of the answer is different.

Here’s another example.

OP: If our internet goes down, can we still use the internet?

TP: Yes, we have a failover internet line.

This is technically true but can be operationally false. If you are locally hosting an application or email, you won’t be able to connect to those applications. Business continuity is not just technical; it is thinking through all impacts on the business and users.

The questions operational people need to start asking should always be around the impact on their people. Try something like this.

OP: Are my people going to be affected when an internet outage happens?

TP: They’ll be mostly OK. Email might be unreachable for a little bit because it is locally hosted.

Another thing to keep in mind is the culture of your company. If IT feels like they can’t be candid with you, then you’ll always be in the dark. A culture of fear magnifies this underestimation 100-fold.

Also, keep in mind that IT generally doesn’t think about the company’s operational priorities (i.e., making money) the same way an owner or operations leader would. To help your IT person, you can give them some training in finance and operations. Base-level knowledge that helps them understand how you think can go a long way for the business. The closer they think like you, the better business decisions they’ll make.

In conclusion, it’s generally agreed that both operational and technical truths are necessary for a complete understanding of complex systems. However, it’s important to understand the difference between these truths. More often than not, you’re looking for an operational truth instead of the technical one. Be sure to ask the right questions, and give your IT person some training on how to think like you. The more they understand how you see things, the stronger your company will be.


This article was first published on forbes.com.

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