Just Say No

Just Say No

Proposals for IT projects that are clearly going to be too risky, too costly, too crazy or too impossible to justify in the context of the company's overall IT schema or corporate mission - especially if they come from the top - can leave CIOs in an invidious position

How to refuse ill-advised business requests and live to tell the tale.

The sales force automation looked great, and the tools were certainly capable of delivering. The trouble was, says Peter Nimmo, now IT director for Panasonic Australia, it would have taken vast amounts of time to recoup the dollars invested. So as Nimmo worked through the proposal with the sales director of the company he was then working for, he was also gently guiding him to the realization that the dollars just did not stack up.

In the end, it was the sales director, not Nimmo, who was inspired to veto his own proposal.

Now that is the way to say "no", without ever uttering the "n" word.

Proposals for IT projects that are clearly going to be too risky, too costly, too crazy or too impossible to justify in the context of the company's overall IT schema or corporate mission - especially if they come from the top - can leave CIOs in an invidious position. You know you should not say yes; but you also know that saying no can mean putting your career on the line.

Let's face it, there is nothing easy about saying no to any of the requests that come your way. Saying no flies in the face of the easy corporate acceptance that a big part of your job description is to support end users or complete IT projects. Companies expect IT to be an enabler, not an obstructionist. When a business executive proposes a project, he or she tends to imagine that your job must be simply to make it happen. After all, isn't internal IT like any other customer service gig? Aren't you all about helping people and solving problems? Shouldn't you be open to any and all requests?

You know better, of course. Yes, you agree that one major part of the internal IT organization's job is to serve and support end users by solving problems and filling needs as requested. But you also know that you must serve the corporate interest and technology best practice at least as much as you do individual end-user needs.

Although users might think they can make a reasonable case that pesky user IDs and passwords impede their systems access, you know doing away with systems security could be potentially disastrous for the company. In cases like these, where company interests override end-user interests, you may most frequently find yourself having to say no, even if you are technically capable of fulfilling the request.

"I have to say no daily," says Mark Laforest, general IT manager, Independent Print Media Group. "I mean, you're approached from people as high up as the CEO to the people as low as data entry clerks to fix things on the spot, so you have got to just put each request in perspective."

So is it easier to say no to the data entry people than the CEO? Not always, says Laforest. "Sometimes there are a hundred of them and only one CEO."

The No Starts Here

Bickering about resources; starting projects that you know will never be completed on time or to budget; no controls put in place and no validation with the end users: these are just some of the symptoms of a CIO who does not know how to say no, says Raed Haddad, vice president of client programs, ESI International.

"The lack of a clear strategy, formal project selection process and a portfolio management process that involves all the business executives are often the root cause of such dilemmas," Haddad says.

CIOs that do not learn how to decline gracefully unreasonable requests can end up taking the blame for the failure of projects they knew in their heart of hearts should never have been approved, says Jerry Luftman, distinguished professor in the School of Management at the US-based Stevens Institute of Technology. Because their failure to convey the reasons why the project should not have gone ahead demonstrates their ineffectiveness in relating to the businesspeople, the relationship between IT and the business inevitably suffers.

Compounding the CIO's dilemma is the fact that nobody likes a naysayer. Luftman says corporations value people who are positive and willing to take risks. They love the team players who will pull out all the stops to satisfy their fellow team member's demands. That means you have to be very, very careful when you recognize that a proposal or project is not in the long-term best interests of the company. You cannot just say no, and you had better not say yes.

"I think the worst thing you can do is just go in and say no to a business partner without really thinking through how to be most effective in getting them to see the rationale for reconsidering it," Luftman says.

However, Luftman concedes the CIO's ability to say no - and how he or she says it - can be very much affected by the relationship that exists among the stakeholders, the "rigour" of the governance process and the extent of the concern over the idea or proposal. (Does the concern lie with business or IT? What is the risk, and how can it be shared?) "In other words, the situation of organization where the CIO has a very strong relationship with the business partners and a very strong governance process is very different from when the CIO is sort of a technical geek that just supports infrastructure and [the business] has no respect for them."

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