Tighter budgets are prompting tech leaders to re-evaluate, reprioritize, and replan how technology monies will be spent this year. It’s a familiar scenario that often involves deciding which projects get cut, which get postponed, and which need to be eliminated.

As one tech leader at a Canadian public-sector agency discovered, getting input and ideas from IT staff as well as other departments can help. Diane Gardy says staffers often had excellent ideas for making specific cuts while preserving the most essential elements of IT projects. So she put them to work as members of mini ‘think tanks’—teams focused on how best to spend crucial IT dollars. The rosters included IT employees and staff from business units affected by tech cuts.

Because Gardy’s department worked on projects for many agencies, the think-tank teams had to factor in multiple budgets when planning projects. Budgets were not only tight, they were also often subject to change while projects were in progress, she explained.

“When an organization needs funds to go off and help out due to natural catastrophes, or even the flooding of the server room, you need to be flexible in finding ways to survive and carry on,” Gardy wrote. Using a think-tank approach encourages both IT and other staff members to be creative and flexible in providing a high level of service, she said.

Creating the ‘think tank’
Receiving an invitation to join a think tank was intriguing to employees, as the specific call made it clear that people were sought for expertise. But even though most invitees were interested, some didn’t jump to join. Gardy said some very technical team members were initially skeptical about the think-tank concept, but the uncertainty disappeared after a few team meetings. To encourage participation, Gardy said it’s crucial to make sure the team meetings stay on course.

Depending on the objective, Gardy either brought the entire IT group onto the team or split them into two teams. In the latter scenario, one group may have been responsible for the application development portion of a project, while the other considered hardware requirements. In most cases, Gardy would randomly divide people into teams to make sure each team had a wide variety of perspectives. In some situations, she appointed a team leader to make sure the effort stayed on course.

Capturing ideas comes first
The first goal of a think tank is to generate and capture ideas. Gardy said it’s important that everyone remains engaged in the process, and advised that group leaders should be careful to document all of the ideas generated to help keep the effort on goal.

Although no one wants to stifle participation, team leaders need to step in if necessary to get a discussion back on track so that valuable time isn’t wasted. When time is short, Gardy recommends following a more formal structure and limiting the idea-capturing stage. “You want the best ideas you can get, but eventually you will have to pick something,” Gardy said.

Next is building consensus
In an ideal situation, the group will quickly reach a consensus on the best ideas. But sometimes there may not be enough information to properly evaluate ideas. If this happens, tech leaders must assign one of the team members to track down the information for the next meeting.

Even with the needed information, reaching a consensus can be very difficult. In some cases, the roadblock may be just one person with a personal resistance to change. “Sometimes you get a person who feels strongly about a process or product and ‘owns’ it,” said Gardy.

One way to deal with resistance to change is to acknowledge a person’s experience and ask them to be a leader. Gardy suggested explaining it to the other team members in a straightforward way: “George has been our subject-matter expert on this product for several years and feels he has a stake in ensuring that we come up with a viable recommendation. Because of this, I have asked him to participate today and lead the group specializing in X topic.”

When time is critical, the think tank should focus on eliminating ideas that aren’t realistic. “Use the consensus process if possible,” Gardy explained, “but also ensure that what is being proposed is something you can live with and bring to the upper-management table to gain corporate support.”

Despite a group’s best efforts, Gardy acknowledged that think tanks don’t always work out as planned. “Sometimes if there is no agreement and it looks like people are just saying the same old stuff over and over again, you have to cut your losses and regroup.” A new approach may include inviting different stakeholders or handing the issue to upper management for a decision.

The follow through
If the process goes well—as it usually did in Gardy’s experience—the think tank will arrive at a recommendation for upper management. Once the recommendation is made, it’s important to keep think tank members informed, even if the ideas aren’t endorsed by the next level. “If it cannot be adopted, tell them and help them understand why,” Gardy said. “It’s a learning process.” Be sure to let them know that their work was appreciated even though budget constraints thwarted their recommendations.

With luck and good planning, tech leaders will be able to share good news. Gardy recalled a think tank that included staff from two business groups that each wanted to build their own database. At the time, the IT department was supporting a dying legacy server.

“By bringing the business units together with the technical group and discovering common needs for data, we were able to come to a solution that could be accessible by all parties and replace the server that was in dire need of upgrading,” Gardy said. “We were able to channel three budgetary pressures into one new technology.”

In tough times, it’s important that IT understand critical business needs, and that stakeholders understand how budget constraints affect IT. When budget cuts cause major shifts in planned implementations, “the technical community needs to be seen as having the capacity to offer solutions to some of these changes,” said Gardy. “Joining employees together in think tanks is one step toward promoting that cross-departmental understanding.”