Unraveling the Change Advisory Board

A Change Advisory Board tends to get overcomplicated when it's implemented at many organizations. Here's how to avoid that.

A Change Advisory Board (CAB) is another good idea that tends to get overcomplicated when it's implemented at many organizations. At its core, the CAB exists to provide a balanced analysis of any changes to a company's systems and processes and to provide a final "ruling" on whether a proposed change moves forward or is shelved. The CAB concept is promoted by some of the popular IT management methodologies, which overlay the conceptually simple concept with layers of formalities and a veneer of unnecessary complexity.

Scope changes are generally the only way to control costs on an IT project, with seemingly minor changes made by junior analysts often carrying six-figure price tags. With this fact in mind, the CAB is your best defense against these changes dragging your projects deep into the red. With this objective in mind, consider the following two keys to implementing an effective CAB.

Representation and transparency are key

If a CAB is seen as primarily an IT function, it will rapidly become a bureaucracy to be avoided, sabotaged, and dodged. In all but the most mundane infrastructure projects, most of your IT projects will be done to impact your company's business. As such, many of the change requests will be business-related and impact finance, marketing, sales, and operations and often are fundamentally business decisions of how to allocate scarce resources rather than purely technical decisions. Therefore, your CAB must have representation from each business unit that is respected and empowered to make decisions. IT gets the same vote as other business units and, save for articulating part of the costs of each change and guiding the process, does not gain any additional power to influence the CAB.

With the right people on the CAB, an arbitrator is required for any stalemates that arise. Depending on whether your company is more operationally or financially oriented, this might be the COO or CFO or in some cases even the CEO. In any case, each person on the CAB has voting power and is at a high-enough level that the buck stops with them rather than their decision being subject to reevaluation and overriding by a superior. It should be clear who makes the decisions, and each item that comes before the CAB should be allocated a rapid time frame in which it will be evaluated.

At the end of the day, when change requests come to the CAB you want them to be decided quickly and the people and process behind the decision to be respected by the company, even if it is disagreed with.

Time is money

A CAB's value comes from two areas: respected and fair people and process, and timeliness. If you have painstakingly recruited the right people, but your CAB takes four months to reach a decision, it will rapidly lose its value. While some recommend quarterly CAB meetings, this is generally too long, especially if you are implementing large-scale projects like ERP or CRM systems. Monthly meetings of the CAB should be the baseline objective, and with some forethought, each can be short and effective. Send a summary of each change request, the facts around the issue, and any background in advance of the meeting, and actually CAB meetings can be about final fact finding, analysis, and decision-making rather than endless debates.

A good decision is often better than a great decision two months from now, so in the case where information is missing or the environment is unclear, document the assumptions that went into a decision and document any triggers that might cause the board to reevaluate the decision and move on. Major organizational projects can burn significant amounts of cash just waiting for a critical decision, so be sure to convey the very real cost of inaction.

With the right people, a transparent decision-making process, and a focus on making good decisions as rapidly as possible, the CAB can be a very valuable tool. Rather than an administrative hurdle, it becomes a tool for ensuring money is spent effectively, changes are evaluated in light of the company's core business, and projects are able to move forward in the face of competing priorities rather than spinning their wheels (and burning cash) waiting for decisions. For the CIO, an effective CAB shows his or her peers that the CIO understands that IT exists to facilitate the company's business and also demonstrates the value an effective IT organization provides to the larger company. Each member of the CAB will see IT efforts tied directly back to their business benefit and grow to understand that IT is about far more than servers and software.