CXO

More on how to kill a major project without killing your career

This is the second part of our series on a CIO who has to handle an SAP expansion project that is over budget and taking way too much time.

When we last left our CIO, Christine, she was on her way to the quarterly steering committee unsure of how to handle an SAP expansion project that is over budget and taking way too much time. She just bumped into her consultant, Martin, and hoped that he could give her some sage advice on how to handle the problem without it killing her career.

OK, Martin, now that you know the basics of the story, what should I do?

"This is a tough situation, Christine. Not so much because of how the project is going (although that's hardly helpful) but because of where you are personally in it. I feel your pain. But this does not have to be a career killer. There are a few things you can do, even if you haven't already laid the political groundwork."

Obviously, I can't blame any of my own people; I have no one to blame but myself. Or the vendor. They knew those modules weren't ready and sold them to us anyway.

"If you're asking Who's to blame? especially at this point in the process, you're playing the wrong game. You're operating at the wrong level. You feel bad about your mistakes? You feel guilty?  Get over it. Pointing blame — whether you're dumping on your own people, on the vendor, or on yourself — is all beside the point and thoroughly unproductive. Blame has nothing to do with any of what I'm going to recommend."

So what then are you recommending? How do I deliver the bad news? Where do I start?

"First off this meeting really shouldn't be about delivering "bad news." I want you to differentiate between delivering bad news and shinning a bright light on a problem; and that is where you start. Tell the committee the project isn't going as well as you would like and you've got some serious concerns. Outline the nature of the concerns and where they are coming from. But remember, senior executives do not like to be brought a problem without potential solutions. So let them know that you will be rapidly developing a set of options for handling the situation. Keep this update quick and fact-based and commit to a date when you will have a set of potential solutions."

Makes sense. Then what?

"The next thing you have to do is de-personalize your analysis. Remember, it's not about you; it's about the project, the original objectives, the things the company needs from this initiative. Those things may be in peril. Tell the committee you want to bring in some outside experts to help you determine if your concerns are warranted or if you're overreacting."

What? Consultants! I think I know the answer already. Besides, isn't that just a waste of time and money. . . .

"It doesn't have to be external consultants, it can be other well-respected folks in your company, but good consultants can be very helpful in a situation like this. And NO, it is not a waste of time and money. Because the truth of the matter is, you do have a problem and you do need some external thinking to help provide some objectivity. And when YOU are the one asking for the help, YOU are in control and appear to be rational and problem focused. Resisting the involvement of others in solving a problem comes across as being defensive, like you have something to hide. Also, remember, consultants can often be very effective at delivering information that would otherwise not be well received if coming from an internal person. That's just the way it is."

Is that all?

"Oh no, that's just the beginning. While you're working on developing some formal options for dealing with the problem, seek guidance from your peers — privately. Share your concerns with them in more detail, but in a one-to-one forum: short hallway meetings, an office drive-by. Listen carefully to their perspectives as individuals. Confide in them. Test out some of your options with them; let them help you figure out the best way to handle the situation. From these informal discussions, you'll start getting the sense of how to handle things. Besides helping to develop your going-forward plan, it helps move you onto their side of the table, which is part of what you're trying to accomplish at this stage. The reason this is so important is because this way you're bringing your colleagues / bosses into the decision making, as opposed to purely reviewing you."

I can see that. What else should I be thinking about?

"Now for the most important part. As you prepare the options analysis, if you can, find a way to make your colleagues the heroes. Generously share the credit with them for figuring out the best way to handle things. Remember, if you make them the heroes, they won't make you the villain. If you do that, they're going to know they can work with you in the future."

What do you mean exactly?

"In the upcoming meetings, refer to your brief talks with each of them. Whenever you're describing an idea that came out of those talks, describe it as the other person's brainchild — even it was mostly your idea that they only modified slightly. Have your colleagues take part in the presentation of the pros and cons for various options to the broader committee, and then you back them up, not vice versa. You can't be the only one in the limelight. By making your peers the winners, you've banked some political capital and shifted the focus away from YOU and your role to the problem and getting it fixed."

Wow, that's an important twist. Any other advice before I go into the meeting?

"Remember in this meeting to keep the focus on the specific problem and your plan to deal with it. Stay away from the blame game. As much as people like to play it, explain to your colleagues that it's too early for the post mortem; first, we need to solve the problem. They will remember that professionalism. It's a good reputation to have."

Thanks, Martin, I guess I'd better get in there.

Marc J. Schiller is a leading IT thinker, speaker, and author of the upcoming book The Eleven Secrets of Highly Influential IT Leaders. Over the last 20 years he has helped IT leaders and their teams dramatically increase their influence in their organization and reap the associated personal and professional rewards. More info at http://marcjschiller.com.

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