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No? No. No! April 22, 2009

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Leadership.
Tags: , , , , ,

There is a fatal trap into which all IT Leaders fall, sooner or later.  It isn’t a sudden trap, sprung upon you all at once, but a slow, gentle descent into a disaster that can break your career if you aren’t careful.

It starts by saying “no.”

Every IT organization in the world is understaffed with respect to the total demand for all IT projects contemplated by the business.  While we may have enough people to keep the lights on and systems running, we’ll never have enough people to execute every project envisioned by our peers in the business.  That’s the way it should be: not every project needs to be completed, no matter how badly it is wanted by its champion.

As the owner of scarce resources, IT can become the arbiter of what gets done and what gets ignored.  And therein lies the trap: for every project you accept, you are telling one or more people “no.”  Each person that gets turned away views IT as an impediment to their grand plan, a speed bump on their road to success.  Over time, you’ll wind  up telling everyone no at some point.  You’ll have accrued so much resentment among your customers that they will begin to bypass you to get things done.  When that happens, your effectiveness as a CIO has diminished, and your ability to serve your company has ended.  Soon after that, you’ll be looking for a new job.

There is a better way, and savvy CIOs know how to avoid this trap.  The key is to engage your peers to decide, among themselves, which projects should or shouldn’t get green-lighted.  IT has no business determining the ultimate cost and benefit of a project.  That’s up to the project champion and his or her peers, debating the project in the broader perspective of the business as a whole.  When they finish their debate, your job is to step in and make their collectively-chosen projects successful.  The animosity of those whose projects were declined can be directed at their peers who made that decision, not you as the CIO.

Every CIO needs to develop this governance process in their company.  Whole books have been written on how to gather projects into portfolios, build governance teams at various management levels, and facilitate the debate among business leaders.  The IT organization provides guidance along the way, with scope estimates, impact statements, and technology assessments.  This is done objectively to support the conversation, not to champion a particular cause.

But, some CIOs complain, change only occurs when I initiate it!  How do I get things to happen while being objective?

You have two choices.  The right way is to present your big idea to another business leader, convince them of the merits, and allow them to champion the project.  With them as champion, you step back into your role of objective facilitator and implementation expert.  The more difficult path is to advance the idea yourself, acting as a business leader and not as the CIO.  This requires a deft hand and can be fraught with peril.  Honestly, if you can’t convince someone in the business to champion your idea, why would you advance it on your own anyway?

Good IT governance is a crucial part of every successful company and every successful CIO.  It takes time to develop the culture and process for successful governance, but your patient efforts will be well-rewarded.  Good governance gets you out of the position of being the “guy who always says no.”  That’s important, because the “guy who says no” is soon known as the “guy looking for a new job.”


1. Autom Tagsa - April 22, 2009

“The key is to engage your peers to decide, among themselves, which projects should or shouldn’t get green-lighted.”

Indeed. And the collaborative approach invariably leads to more sound decisions that position the team to succeed.

Having worked very closely with IT teams over the past 15 years, I hold tremendous respect for their expertise and have a keen appreciation for the technological landscape in which they operate.

Bridging the gap between IT resource and business needs is where I find myself keenly involved as a business communicator. Some good practices here that merit attention.

Thanks Chuck

2. Lui Sieh - April 26, 2009

Thanks for posting this article. It’s a key point worth remembering more often by IT heads. It’s hard to say no but this is a great way to say it positively – and as a way to create more business/IT engagement over key business issues.

You put this point in a very nice way!


3. Jim Pellegrini - April 27, 2009

I’ve often joked that I want my daughters to have careers in IT, so that their first impulse to every proposition will be to say NO!
Thanks for a good article, glad I found your blog via Localtweeps.

4. Lynn M - April 29, 2009

This is an excellent post! I think many people working in all sorts of positions within a company forget what their role is. It is easy to lose focus and you make excellent points about how to go about fufilling your role and advancing your causes when necessary.

5. Long Huynh - May 6, 2009

Putting yourself unnecessary under the spotlight all the time is certainly not a good idea. Finding champions for your causes is another astuce move. However, there will be time that there are no obvious ones (e.g. the need to upgrade the data centers). The CIO needs to stand up then to fight for funds against her peers.
We cannot always step back into the role of objective facilitator and implementation expert, and expect the other business leaders to treat us on equal footing. It’s a more difficult path to take but sometimes this is the only viable one.

Great post though, as usual.

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