Opinion: You think you don't need buy-in?

The reward of arrogance is to know you're right as you go down in flames

Travel being what it is, I decided that I had had enough of being an IT consultant, and I accepted a position running a corporation's IT operations function, reporting to the CIO.

But on some level, I hadn't really decided to stop being an IT consultant. I figured I could take what I had done on all of my engagements and apply it to my new job.

I had been a consultant long enough for it to become ho-hum, and for me to become arrogant. The job seemed to promote these developments. We had a template, and we stuck to it, domestic or international. I would go in with the assumption that the IT organization was dysfunctional (why else would an outsider be called in?), and after just half an hour with the general manager who had contracted for the IT review, with no contact at all with the staff, I'd be lining up my recommendations. Nothing ever interceded to tell me I might be wrong to do this. Time after time, my hunches were borne out by what I found later during the review.

My final reports all said pretty much the same thing: "If you want to accomplish this, then you have to do that. If you don't know how to do that, you have to learn how to do that. If you don't know how to learn that, you can have someone like us teach you." Get on plane. Repeat.

At the new job, at least, the IT operations function seemed to be in pretty good shape. There was a forthright management team, and no one was afraid of work. Dusting off my trusty consultant's microscope, I began the process of looking at the details.

I found some wear and tear here and there in terms of folks that were a little overworked and undertrained for the work that they were assigned. A boost in head count and some training bucks should fix that. Mainframe and network capacity margins? Working, but way too thin. No capacity plan. Some midyear budget relief should fix that. Single points of failure? My, my, we can't have that. A little more budget relief was surely understandable. PC help desk? Swamped. Why? No training in the business units when new desktop software was issued without warning. Because administrative and clerical staff couldn't use the new software properly, business unit productivity dived, big time. Why? If the software deployment was a surprise, the PC help desk couldn't help folks use it. The help desk folks weren't trained, and so trouble tickets mounted. Gee, we'll need some more training funds, plus some additional staff and overtime money to fix this. You get the idea.

Next, I made an urgent appointment with the CIO to discuss my findings and plan of action.

He listened for about five minutes before asking, "So what do you propose?"

I handed him my summary of areas needing attention and what it would take in dollar terms to make them right.

He read it carefully, taking long enough for me to actually consider taking my leave. Then he put down the paper, took off his glasses and looked directly at me. I had a sinking feeling that this was not going to be fun.

"So," he said, "let me get this straight. I've hired a new director of IT operations, right?" I said, "Yes," because that would be me.

"So, now I get to carry your emergency financial needs in to the executive finance committee and get a huge amount of money to fix problems in my IT operational unit that I should have known about in the first place. Am I right?" I said, "I didn't intend for this to reflect..."

"Let me tell you something," he interrupted, and I could tell he was just warming up. "Over the last five years, I've had to claw every dime in my modest budget personally out of the hands of executive management and the finance committee. And do you know what?" He didn't wait for a response. "They didn't give a damn about their underinvestment in IT for the previous five years. As a matter of fact, as a percentage of overall profit, my budget is the highest it has ever been. And you want me to somehow go and get you a nice chunk to add to that midyear to fix more things that I should have already fixed with my existing budget?"

He went on this way for about 20 minutes. I couldn't help feeling that my hair was on fire and the only way he would let me put it out was with a hammer.

When I was finally released from this tongue lashing, I returned to my office to review the situation. The CIO's points were all valid, but the problems that I had uncovered were all real and in need of attention. Without additional resources, things would worsen. Gradually, I realized that my error had been my arrogance, and it came to me then that I needed to help the CIO bring these needs to senior management's attention without any negative reflection on anyone. There was no need to cast blame; business needs change. IT support and capacity must reflect what's happening in the business or unpleasant financial consequences will arise in due course.

With a little research, I saw that the best way to express IT's needs and make a plea for the required investment to deal with them was surely in stockholder terms. Together with the CIO, I needed to explain in the language of business people how each of these IT investments would help us avoid cost, improve productivity or service, or increase revenue. From my modest research, I knew that this was called the business case."

I had a very different attitude on my second trip to the CIO's office to talk about the need for IT investment. This time, we worked out the business case for each area, and when we met with the financial committee, the CIO gave me what air cover he could. In my presentation, I noted that the company could choose not to deal with these problems, but delay would carry risks. The important thing was that the company's decision-makers know about them. Throughout, there was never any question that the CIO should have seen these problems coming and done something about them. Far more relevant was that he had sought me out and brought me aboard in order to help the company deal with such IT productivity issues. By presenting all this information to the committee, I was only acting in accordance with my assigned function. By presenting the information in the form of business cases that spelled out the risks in terms of looming costs or revenue reductions, I was better assuring the best outcome.

Since then, I have always been on guard against arrogance in myself. I realized that there was nothing to be gained if in the course of seeking buy-in for something, I implied that the need I was describing was due to the personal failure of someone else or the result of someone's misguided intent. In fact, such a negative approach will always be noticed, and will always reflect poorly on the person using it. Coming at it from another direction, just recall that old bromide about flies and honey. Give a nod to those who got things to where they are and they are likely to step up and help out as you propose new actions for even better results in the future. That is the sort of support you just can't buy.

And to lean on another old bromide, people find an emphasis on opportunities more attractive than a focus on problems. I have found in business that people will jump at opportunities and steer clear of problems. Show them your problems in terms of opportunities, and they will sign on and even share ownership with you. That puts you in a great position, because I've always found that the broader the ownership, the better the outcome.

But I have to confess that despite my best efforts to knock the arrogance out of myself, I sometimes approach things with the wrong attitude. I wish it weren't so, but when it happens, I'm comforted by the fact that I have good company, because I recognize my situation in this quote from Moliere: "It infuriates me to be wrong when I know I'm right."

Al Kuebler was CIO for AT&T Universal Card, Los Angeles County, Alcatel and McGraw-Hill and director of process engineering at Citicorp. He also directed the consulting activity for CSC Europe. He is now a consultant on general management and IT issues. He is the author of the book Technical Impact: Making Your Information Technology Effective, and Keeping It That Way. He can be reached at ak@technicalimpact.com.


Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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