Keep your key projects off the chopping block

How to save make-or-break IT initiatives in troubled times

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But even those yardsticks may be evolving. Is the original business case still a priority? A project that was once justified by a four-year return on investment might fade into the background if the business is struggling with cash flow. The company's agenda may be quite different today than it was just six months ago, says John Ciacchella, a principal at Deloitte Consulting LLP.

Ironically, if the project really is strategic -- if it involves the executive team and will enable transformation across the business -- then it is by definition more than an IT project, which means the CIO's discretion is limited, Cullen says. In a crisis, the executive team "has to figure out where to cut and where to continue to fund, and that's not a CIO decision," he explains.

IT executives should reiterate the benefits of the project and clearly outline the consequences of killing it. But if the other executives aren't persuaded, step back and shut up. "The CIO is first and foremost a member of the management team," says Whatnell.

The focus should be on doing whatever is necessary to sustain the company. Cutting the project "may be absolutely the right thing to do for the company," says Whatnell. "If [the other executives] are worried about making payroll in March, they may not be too worried strategically about what CRM is going to do for them in 2010."

In fact, the mantra of "business value" is so last year. Cash flow is "the emerging mantra for 2009," says Lopez. He says that an oil company IT executive recently told him that he was being asked to evaluate projects based on cash flow instead of ROI.

"Whatever project you want to save and are staking your reputation on, it had better be connected to dealing with this [economic] storm," says Lopez. "Because if it's not, not only will the project be gone, but if you fight for it, you'll be gone, too."

Make it relevant, right now

Smart CIOs will assess the new lay of the land and be able to explain how and why the project is still relevant or, better yet, even more relevant. Explain the value of the project in the context of current needs, says Teri Takai, CIO for the California state government, which is in the midst of a budget crisis.

While the state's IT budget has suffered cuts along with every other department's, she has been able to maintain long-term projects such as the replacement of the state's 30-year-old payroll system by persistently stressing the benefits of the new system. "The message has to be crafted in a way that provides immediate justification," Takai says.

If the company needs cash, explain how the project contributes to cash flow. Perhaps the executive team wants to take advantage of the situation to acquire weak competitors. Emphasize how the project strengthens the company's ability to acquire and digest companies.

You may have to reorganize the project in order to make it relevant to immediate needs. Can you adjust the timing or the scope? Can you push ahead on things that produce immediate revenue? Can you defer certain costs?

At Harrah's Entertainment Inc., projects have always been evaluated based on their contribution to top-line sales or bottom-line profit, plus some less explicit, hard-to-measure factors, says Heath Daughtry, the company's vice president of enterprise IT. But today, projects need to demonstrate benefits in several major areas, including boosting efficiency and enhancing the customer experience, he says.

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