These are tough times for anyone with an innovative IT project in need of backing. When budgets are tight and the cost of failure is higher than ever, sticking with the tried and tested methods seems like the safe thing to do.
But arguably, it’s times like these when businesses most need innovative ideas that can push the business ahead of competitors. So what are the secrets to getting sign-off for your dream scheme?
1. Speak the language of business
Key to getting project approval is knowing your audience. Tech talk may impress techies, but chances are you’re going to be pitching to a far broader group.
“You’ve got to talk to the business in terms the business accepts and understands,” Clive Longbottom, founding analyst at Quocirca, told silicon.com.
“Going into the business and saying, ‘I think we should go to the cloud because it means we’ll have a much smaller IT estate to deal with, we won’t need so many sysadmins and licensing will be a lot easier’ – you’re not going to get the money.”
Instead, Longbottom said CIOs should present the project in terms of how it can add value to the business, lower business costs – not necessarily IT costs – and lower risk in order to get a better reception.
“If you can create messages that fit into those three buckets the business will listen and the business will be saying, ‘So hang on, we’re going to get lower risk, lower cost, and we’ll have better capabilities… how much do you want?’,” he said.
2. Relate everything back to the bottom line
To get backing for a tech project, CIOs have to convince the business they have as much of an eye on the bottom line as anyone else in the organisation.
“Going in at the moment and going, ‘Well, we know that the business results are down by 14 per cent and we’re talking to everybody about taking cuts in holiday entitlement and cuts in their salaries and it’s looking like figures are going to be down by 30 per cent next year but can you give us £2m please because we’d like to replace a load of servers’, could well be a career-limiting decision,” Longbottom said.
Without changing the proposed project, CIOs can present their idea in a way that demonstrates how it will impact business revenues. This in turn will demonstrate that the CIO is concerned about the success of the business as a whole, not just the IT department getting to play with the latest technology.
“Being able to go in and say, ‘Well, actually we figure that by putting in place this change the impact on the business will make it so that instead of being a 14 per cent cut in revenues it will be a 10 per cent cut in revenues’ will get the business listening.”
3. Don’t fall into the ‘because it’s cheap’ trap
However, while you want to show you’ve got as much of an eye on the bottom line as anyone else in the business, portraying your project as a purely cost-saving exercise could hamper the future development and implementation of your proposal.
“I would never lead with it being cheaper because…
…then all the discussion comes around, ‘OK, this is cheap, that’s great – let’s do it’,” Longbottom said.
If projects such as outsourcing are done for business reasons, they can deliver both desired business outcomes and cost savings. However, according to Longbottom, if cutting costs is the primary motive, business results are less likely to be achieved.
“If you go in and say, ‘We can save 10 per cent by going to this outsourcing company’, some smart-arse will then go, ‘Well, if we go to India we can get it for 15 per cent less’. All of a sudden the argument has gone away from what’s the best way to do this to what’s the cheapest way to do this.”
Instead, he advises that CIOs present the cost-saving element to clinch the deal after highlighting the value of the project to the business.
4. Keep it bite size
Proposing a mammoth IT project that is extensive in terms of time, budget and projected aims could seem like the best way to bring innovative technology into the business on a large scale, but as many mega IT projects spiral out of control and fail to achieve their business aims, CIOs should think about how the project can be achieved incrementally.
“You know what the big problem is and you know where you would like to end up, but trying to get to that end point straight away is useless because by the time you actually reach that desired end result, all the problems you’ve been trying to resolve have changed – you’ve solved the wrong problem by the time you get there,” Longbottom said.
“This has always been the problem of the public sector. For them, what’s the best way to eat an elephant? Start with a herd of elephants. Whereas really it should be, the best way to eat an elephant is a forkful at a time.”
Now more than ever, investment in a large-scale, inflexible IT project is unlikely to receive business backing as businesses do not want to commit to a long-term investment on a project that could be outmoded by the time it is completed.
Instead, CIOs should break down the proposed project into a set of smaller tasks that can react to changes in the organisation’s needs.
“As things change, you can change the tasks to keep the [project] fixed around what the final business-required end result is,” Longbottom said.
At the end of each task, the CIO can …
…report back to the business and show how the project is having a positive impact. Breaking the project down in this way will instill confidence that the CIO can deliver valuable resolutions to business problems and help ensure the IT department is seen as a good area to invest in.
5. Decommission zombie projects
CIOs should look at existing IT projects currently supported by the IT department and identify where cuts and savings can be made.
Tech projects that are no longer useful or are outmoded should be decommissioned to make space in the IT budget and workload for new projects.
By presenting your project alongside a proposal to cull obsolete schemes, you will show that the IT department does not just ask for money from the business but is looking for ways to save money as well.
6. Outline the cost of not doing the project
Another way to strengthen the argument of your proposal is to identify the potential cost of not applying the changes you’ve suggested.
“There is always a cost of not doing something when you take it in comparison to your main competitors,” Longbottom said.
“What happens if both yourself and your competitors decide not to do this change at all? Things carry on as they are. If you make the change and they don’t, then hopefully the change will be beneficial and you’ll be able to take market away from the competitor.”
“What happens if your competitor makes the change and you don’t? The competitor will take business away from you, so if life is bad at the moment, it will be worse if they make the change.”
Presented in this way, the worst-case scenario of implementing your project is that competition stays the same and the best case is that your organisation’s ability to compete improves.
7. Build up credibility
An innovative tech project that is proposed by the business itself is much more likely to be approved than a project proposed by the IT department, according to Chip Gliedman, VP and principal analyst at Forrester.
This preference for ideas that have come from the business demonstrates the importance of perceived insight into the organisation in getting a project approved.
Whether the CIO is thought of as a business partner or…
…utility provider will determine how seriously the proposal is taken, according to Gliedman.
“Sometimes the work that is involved in getting the new and innovative project approved has to take place over the years before that project comes up. The CIO has to build up that level of credibility,” he said.
8.Step out of the CFO’s shadow
CIOs that operate at sub-board level and report to the CFO need to come out from under the finance chief’s shadow if they want to understand the business and have a hope of proposing an innovative project that addresses business needs, said Quocirca’s Longbottom.
“The vast majority of CFOs in this country are still the ones who think, ‘Don’t spend so much, batten down the hatches, we’ll save our way through this crisis’, so they’re saying to the CIO to do more with less and that is just a crazy way to do things,” he said.
Unless the CIO sits on the board they are unlikely to be presented with the business problems and will instead be presented with the financial problems. This leaves little room for the CIO to propose IT projects that could play a strategic role in the success of the business.
CIOs who report to the CFO should get into meetings with other executives and line managers to get a better understanding of the problems the business faces and propose IT projects that tackle these problems.
9. Get a business sponsor
According to Brinley Platts, chairman of executive coaching organisation CIO Development, the main challenge facing CIOs who want to get an innovative project approved is that the rest of the business does not believe they have a compelling business case.
“This most often arises because the CIO is acting without full business buy-in,” Platts told silicon.com.
“IT of itself can never create value – this is business/IT 101.”
Getting someone within the business to back up your project before you make your proposal to the CEO and other executives is therefore important as it shows that your project solves actual business problems and has been designed with the business at the fore.
“You need to have a business sponsor for any technology initiative that touches the business,” Forrester’s Gliedman said.
CIOs should “socialise” the idea by going to business managers and finding out how the proposed project could help them achieve their business goals and objectives, Gliedman added.
10. A cheeky final tip…
Finally, CIOs should consider how they can appeal to what motivates their colleagues the most.
“The best way to appeal to a business person is to understand what that business person needs to do to make their bonus,” Gliedman said.
“If I can help you make your bonus then I am your friend. If what I am suggesting does not help you make your bonus, I am either noise or opportunity cost.”
By knowing how they can help their colleagues achieve their goals, CIOs can frame the project proposal in terms that relate directly to the needs of their partners.