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Creating Alignment with a Background of Obviousness 

I was first introduced to the term “Background of Obviousness” a few years ago by an Executive Coach named Chalmers Brothers. As a successful author, TED speaker, and motivational speaker, he uses the term in a broader context to help explain the importance of language and how to make effective requests and align commitments. 

What is a Background of Obviousness?  

To understand the Background of Obviousness, consider this example. For any subject, there is everything that you know about the subject and the things that are obvious to you. There is also everything the other person knows about the subject and the things that are obvious to them. Finally, there is where the two overlap — what you and the other person both know. That overlap is the shared background of obviousness. 

All too often we only consider what is obvious to us. We explain our point of view without considering the other person’s perspective. We don’t consider the fact that they might now know what we know. Failing to consider the Background of Obviousness prevents us from including details that are obvious to us and not to the other person.  

At WIN Technology, we’ve adopted Background of Obviousness into many of our internal conversations to test whether all the participants in each conversation are operating from a common understanding. Because we all develop our base of knowledge from a variety of experiences, we’re likely not understanding each other as often as we think we are. In my 25+ years in business, with roles in executive leadership, sales, marketing, consulting, and operations, I’ve observed that people frequently believe they’ve reached aligned commitments when in fact they’re nowhere near it. However, with a little extra effort to gain a shared Background of Obviousness, the improvement in outcomes is substantial. 

Two people looking at a tablet together. One person is showing the tablet while the other person is pointing to it. There are several documents laid out on the table they are sitting at.

The Benefits of a Background of Obviousness with a Managed Services Provider 

The concept of a Background of Obviousness can be leveraged by a managed service provider to gain a proper understanding of a new client’s infrastructure environment. A common scenario is a client migrating from one managed service provider to another. The transition window is often narrow, and it’s rare that the client’s environment is well documented.  Although most of the items we find poorly documented or undocumented are the 20% that falls into the margin (in an 80/20 sense), they often create the greatest risk to the organization in terms of expense, performance, and security. 

Understanding the MSP Engagement Cannot Be Well Done from the Outside  

The trickiest part of fully understanding a client’s environment is that it cannot be done from the outside. Instead, it requires time inside of the environment to assess how each of the infrastructure elements – technical stacks, applications, controls, processes, procedures, partners, etc. – are interacting. While there are tools and methods that can produce a reasonably accurate approximation of the environment, it’s not the same as what’s actually happening under the hood. 

The combination of 1) not being able to fully understand an environment from the outside, 2) the high probability that the environment is not well documented, and 3) the need for a narrow transition window, generates a significant challenge for the incoming provider. It’s like smoke jumper firefighters who parachute into a blaze to help share intelligence on what’s happening on the ground while they’re also helping to put out the fire. In essence, the provider needs to land in the environment and start managing it before they fully understand everything that’s there. 

Further, prior to the engagement, the client is looking for a monthly price for competitive analysis and budgeting. While this is a reasonable expectation, the providers are placed in a position to quote using inaccurate proxies for labor such as number of users or devices. This almost always leads to the client feeling “nickel-and-dimed” after the environment is more fully discovered and the provider needs to seek adjustment for these previously unknown items. 

A Sightline Project Separates Discovery from Management Activities 

One successful approach to this challenge is to separate the activities of discovering the environment from those of managing it at the front end of an engagement.  

  1. Discovery activities are focused on arriving at a Background of Obviousness (which is structured as a project).  
  1. Management activities meet the client’s most immediate need for management (which is structured as part of the ongoing managed services agreement).  

This approach recognizes that these are two distinct, but interrelated, activities with an appropriate set of expectations and deliverables set against each. By separating them, the client gains the benefit of more predictability on each of the components.  

We call the discovery work a “Sightline”. This work runs concurrent with the managed services engagement so that it receives inputs from both our project team and the managed services team. Sightline projects run between three to six months. Insights gained are used to create several deliverables including: 

  • Missing documentation 
  • Lifecycle management gaps 
  • License or regulatory compliance issues  
  • Cybersecurity concerns 
  • Recommendations for standardization and modernization  

The primary intent of the Sightline is to create a sound Background of Obviousness and align on a common base of knowledge so that mutually beneficial requests and commitments can be made. This allows for: 

  1. An understandable adjustment of commitments on the managed services component.  
  1. A known path to other projects that may be necessary to improve the environment and the cost of managing it.  

With this approach, the client will receive immediate delivery of support, and the provider can service the client in their current state while also recognizing that there likely will be something discovered in the Sightline that would impact the managed service scope. Once the Sightline project is completed, the client and provider have the Background of Obviousness they need to appropriately adjust the engagement and form plans, budgets, and roadmaps for future improvements.  

Additional Use Cases for a Sightline 

A Sightline can also be valuable when the client has not yet committed to a managed service provider. There are many situations where a client would benefit from a more complete understanding of their environment. The deliverables of the Sightline project form the basis for a variety of decisions. These scenarios could include 1) a client moving some part of the management of their infrastructure from an internal team to a provider, 2) a client who is preparing to change to a new managed service provider and is not under-the-gun to start immediately with support, and 3) a client acquiring or merging with another organization.  

In the end, Background of Obviousness in any form is useful for making effective requests and attaining alignment. For clients contemplating a new relationship with a managed services provider, consider the use of this method to create a quality experience.  

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