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What IT Needs To Give Up Wed 24 Jun 09

The best IT governance in tough times involves giving up some control--and a lot of information

Dont just say no cheerfulmonk Balancing requests for more services has always been a challenge but it is especially tough during tough economic times when adding more resource is no longer an option. It is in situations like this when the word "no" can be very powerful.

This may seem contradictory to my previous suggestions that IT should put more effort into saying yes but it really isn't.  The concept of saying yes is about finding ways to help rather than looking for reasons why you can't help, why something can't be done or why something won't work. I still think we should look for ways to say yes in that context.

At the same time we have to recognize resources are thin. In many cases the rest of the business and IT have had staffing cutbacks and budget reductions. The hard reality is that there is only so much we can do effectively. Try to do too many things and you end up doing nothing well and failing at them all. It isn't a question of saying no to requests; it is a matter of prioritizing.  Or as the saying goes. "Don't just say no, say yes to something more important."

The trick to being effective in saying yes to something more important is for IT not to say it all. Instead we have to get the business to decide on prioirties and projects. This goes beyond the trite and over-used phrase "just tell me what you want us to do and we'll do it".

If we're going to ask the business to make some hard choices there are a couple of things we need to do. First we have to ask the right people--the people that have not only specific responsibility but also a more cross-enterprise responsibility. Second, we have to provide them with the information needed to make a good decision - information on the project and the available resources.

Let's start with who we ask. Typically for this type of IT governance, a steering committee is formed to decide on projects. And just as typically, everyone wants to be on it to make sure that their interest are protected (read: to be sure their projects are selected).

I recommend that the steering committee be kept small, just the heads of business unit, someone to represent the corporate groups such as the Chief Administrative Officer or the CFO and the CIO with everyone but the CIO having a "vote" on which projects are done. Notably, I suggest leaving the heads of the functional areas, such as engineering, HR, etc., off of the committee.

My reason: in this case, you want the decisionmakers to have a more global perspective and not just their specific responsibilities. Business unit leaders will recognize the need for functional area projects and support them if they can be shown to support the core business areas. It really is in their best interest to support both "business" projects and functional area projects that have business value because both types will benefit them and the company as a whole. Ultimately that is the key--how does this project benefit the company?

Over and above, carefully choosing the committee involves an issue of size. If you have one functional area head on the steering committee, you'll probably need to have them all. You will end up with a convention, rather than a committee. Large groups are never quick to make decisions.

Once you've got a good committee, you have to give them the right information to make good decisions.

Start by having the project owner present what the project is about and its benefits are. Too often IT fills this role and that is a dangerous trend. If the project owner can't or won't "sell" the project, why should IT? What does that reluctance say about how important the project owner believes it is?

Project details aren't enough. The CIO needs to provide details on:

  • what will be required to complete each project, measured in resources, cost and time?
  • what is IT's capability to take on the project now? Are the right resources available?
  • when are existing projects ending and so freeing up resources?
  • what is the available mix of needed resources? What does each new proposal need? Not all IT skills are interchangeable.
  • what resources (especially people) are needed from the business?

These days, adding additional resources is seldom an option. That means the steering committee must pick its projects carefully by answering a couple of questions:

  • What are the most important projects that we need to take on?
  • What is doable? What can we accomplish?

The CIO can not answer those for the business but she or he can provide much of the information the steering committee needs to answer those questions.

If IT wants to get out of the mode of trying to do everything and accomplishing nothing, we need to step up and provide that needed information and guidance.

This article is also posted on Forbes.com.  Feel free to join in the discussion either on this site or at Forbes.com

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