Monday, April 08, 2013

Selling Projects

It’s been 2 years in the role and I have been reasonably successful in changing the IT landscape modernizing the applications and infrastructure; many new applications have done well and have been acknowledged by the Management. The IT team some of which had spent decades in the company too has undergone change with skill upgrades and their alignment to the new way of working. However I have been finding it difficult to make big moves which I know will create business transformation.

I met an old teammate after a long time who had blossomed into a first time CIO. He had done well for himself and the company by taking them from what he described IT 1.0 to IT 2.0. He took the journey step by step reviewing the existing architecture and creating a roadmap that he systemically executed with ease. I remember him having an eye for detail and scrupulous in his approach. Proudly he explained his and his team’s handiwork which was achieved despite the lack of overtly enthusiastic support from the business.

As he narrated his story, I could not help drawing parallels from a decade back when he worked in my team. He and imbibed the principles well and upgraded the team to deliver; he was now struggling to move to the next level where he was unable to find support from his peers or his Management who did not share his enthusiasm for the new initiatives. The company with a strong legacy and loyal customers had grown with the founder driving the business skilfully not just locally but globally as well.

My CIO friend had many ideas based on his understanding of the business; networking with peer CIOs and taking help from vendors, he had come up with a few projects which he had been attempting to sell to the leadership team. They did not share his excitement on the change and resultant outcomes; everything is working well, business growth is better than it was in the past. Why upset the applecart ? He found it incredulous that despite a clear ROI no one was willing to take up the cause.

I dug deeper to figure out the key business drivers (inorganic growth), the makeup of the people (loyalists), the culture (conservative), the connect and receptiveness (cautious), and finally the sense of shared urgency (none). The business perceived the new initiatives as unnecessary and a distraction; they saw no need to change; why fix something that isn’t broken ? It was evident that he was unable to make it their priority or convince them of the merits. So I pushed back and asked him to stop selling.

The current approach appears to be desperation from your side with an automatic pushback response. It is your project, your idea and not theirs; they don’t see any value in your projects, so stop selling and start asking questions. Take a different approach and start engaging them in a conversation on new possibilities that open up to them and make their lives simpler or make them winners. You have to stimulate and connect with different stakeholders across the chain to kindle interest.

In the current scenario even if the project were to get started, the possibility of successful deployment and effective use is relatively low; because it is an IT project and not a business project. I have observed many projects floundering when key process or business owners were not aligned to project deliverables. A challenged HR project where the CFO and CIO pushed the decision on better ROI; an ecommerce portal with reluctant or indifferent business stakeholders, a CRM disconnected from field operations !

Why do CIOs sell projects ? There’s the hypothesis about being proactive and partner to the business, something to do with alignment. I believe that situation belongs to the past as it ends up in a situation where the wooing is all left to IT, business playing the role of a reluctant partner. Unless there is connect on both sides and endorsement from senior management, the CIO begins to appear desperate while others wonder why. So stop selling and start collaborating; proceed only if you find reciprocal acknowledgement of need.


  1. Anonymous9:22 AM

    But the fact of the matter is if CIOs don't sell to their business, someone else will. I have come across situations where SAAS providers would never approach a CIO/CTO with their solutions. They approach the Head of Sales or CRM Business units and sell them the idea of quick turn around and bypassing IT priority management queue. And this adds to the headache of IT dept to accommodate the new foster kid on their ecosystem. And eventually the business project turns into an uninitiated IT project which is perpetually worse. I think transformation programs and portfolio optimization needs a buy-in at a different level with different audience, especially something that leads to productivity and addressing key pain areas which might not be ROI centric in short term but would address some deeper battle wounds that his business would be suffering. If these are addressed, consider it sold.

    1. The example you give is to me a Governance failure which collectively requires soul searching for the CXO and the CIO involved. I am not sure if this example is a generalization of a few incidents or this is reality for many. Most CIOs that I have interacted with have neither experienced this phenomena.

  2. Arun: Thanks for sharing this example with us. I have also experienced something like this in one of the organization where the management hired a process consultant to streamline internal processes and plan for CMM certification,after 6 months the top management stopped looking at processes and fired the process consultant. I understand this is not related to IT solutions but here also the management have not shown any interest in assignments outside business.
    I think, rather selling a solution to the top management, a CIO has to identify the pain and most of the time it is going to latent pain where management doesn't understand it properly due to ignorance or rationalization. So, he should start asking the right questions which will make his case stronger in front of the management.

  3. Geoff Reader6:46 AM

    Hi Arun: I believe that part of the problem is that a lot of business leaders still see the IT department as the people who run and look after our systems, not as a real business partner that can make a difference.

    I have had the benefit of working with a lot of IT leaders who had great vision for IT, and the role it plays in supporting the business it is in. Through those associations I have come to understand that good systems cannot work in places where there are bad processes, or even a lack of understanding that the current processess may be flawed and need updating.

    CIO's have to get their business partners to see them as a resource to run their business better, not as an opponent in the empire building game, only then do they work in harmony. It takes a special kind of CIO to be able to build these relationships, and these are the ones that succeed.