Over the Transom: Dealing With 'Just-this-once, ple-e-e-ase!' IT Project Requests

Special requests and just-this-once favors can turn your project planning into a free-for-all.

Mary Finlay remembers well the hectic days when her IT department was all but buried by special projects for internal customers. Business people would stop IT managers in the halls asking for favors like a system enhancement or a new module for an existing application. At one point, Finlay and her colleagues counted the number of ways in which the requests would come in. "We stopped at 100," says Finlay, deputy CIO at Partners HealthCare System Inc. in Boston. "You can literally get into a situation where you're using most of your resources responding to those kinds of requests."

Mary Finlay, deputy CIO at Partners HealthCare System Inc.
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Mary Finlay, deputy CIO at Partners HealthCare System Inc.

Image Credit: Webb Chappell
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The department didn't have a tool to track the projects that came in over the transom, so it didn't know how many were under way. Without a clear picture of the number of tasks on the docket, IT managers couldn't be sure how the extra workload was affecting scheduled work. "What happened was that one day at a time, projects would get delayed," says Finlay. "We were marginalizing resources by spreading them across the special requests plus the major initiatives."

That was four years ago. Partners HealthCare has since implemented a system for approving nonscheduled work that requires the business units to take more responsibility for prioritizing their off-plan projects.

Off-plan projects aren't new in the corporate IT environment, but the urgency of requests for them may be growing. "The speed of business today requires more responsiveness than, say, 15 years ago. There is probably a better case for an internal customer to say, 'I really need this now,' " says Kent Fourman, vice president of IT at Knoxville, Tenn.-based Housecall Medical Resources Inc.

With many CIOs reluctant to reveal how their departments handle what have sardonically been called "friends and family" requests, it is difficult to estimate how often the typical IT department is asked to sneak in a side project and how many of these requests are granted.

Some IT executives note that project-prioritization committees aren't always effective in dealing with informal appeals for projects. Finlay says that during the years when her department was awash in special requests, the department had a prioritization system, "but it only looked at where the major activity of system work occurs."

At some organizations, it's routine to bypass prioritization committees for certain requests. "Working outside the box is legitimate for most firms," says Bobby Cameron, an analyst at Cambridge, Mass.-based Forrester Research Inc. "If you have a very fixed-budget, zero-sum-game IT shop, it's hard to get anything past the approval board. You have to shut something down to do something else."

As a result, he says, "there's going to be new stuff that you can't get approval boards to approve."

At some companies, he adds, small off-plan projects aren't reviewed because project prioritization committees look only at proposals that require a certain level of funding. When that's the case, funding for smaller projects can become a free-for-all.

Pushing Back

If your corporate governance doesn't require business customers to prioritize projects among themselves, or if smaller requests are permitted to slip through the cracks, you've got to find a way to deal with them.

If you are on the fence about accepting a side project that has a clear business benefit, consider asking the requester to demonstrate the project's dollar value and return on investment. If you are convinced that the ROI exceeds that of other projects you are working on, call the sponsors of a lower-ROI project. "Tell them the value of the new requester's project, and get into a negotiation mode as to why this new request is more important than their request," says Fourman, who employed this tactic when his IT staff's time was recently stretched to the limit by a major clinical system installation.

But if you have to turn down a special request, how do you push back without alienating your business colleagues? It's often not what you say, but how you say it. "If the right thing is to say no, you have to say it, but be as accommodating as possible. After all, we are a service organization," says Rowan Snyder, CIO at KPMG LLP in Montvale, N.J.

Fourman agrees. He advises against flatly refusing a request on the spot. "I say, 'Let me look at our project list and priorities, talk to other business sponsors, and then I'll get back to you with an answer,' " he says.

Gordon Wishon, CIO at the University of Notre Dame in Notre Dame, Ind., suggests offering alternatives. If a request will demand substantial IT resources that you can't spare, look for ways to share the financial burden, or approach senior management with a joint request to commit resources that will solve the problem. "Generally, people accept a rational explanation of why it can't be done, especially if it's accompanied by an offer to assist in finding an alternative to the problem," says Wishon.

Another strategy is to try to head off friends and family requests by improving your systems. For example, repeated requests for a particular off-plan service led Wishon's group to upgrade one of its own systems in order to streamline a process and make the requests unnecessary.

According to Wishon, Notre Dame's IT office gets as many as 50 requests at the start of each academic term from new faculty members and students who need access to campus systems before an account can be provisioned for them. Processing those requests eats up two months of staff time per year. "It speaks to the ineffectiveness of our current provisioning system," he says.

But his IT group is now in the early stages of a project that will streamline and speed up the provisioning process, eliminating most of the special cases. "It will allow us to deal with these kinds of events not as exceptions, but as a matter of course," Wishon says.

Deciding whose off-plan project request has enough value to be approved is less daunting when you get customers involved in the decision-making process, say IT managers.

Today, a multidisciplinary committee at each Partners HealthCare hospital prioritizes special requests such as enhancements to clinical systems. The more IT-centric project requests, such as systems to deal with spam, are prioritized by a group of IT directors.

Partners HealthCare also designed a prioritization system that puts more of the onus on the business units to determine if an "emergency" task is really worth throwing a monkey wrench into the IT work schedule. "We put a structure around it so we don't have to drop what we're doing every time a request comes in," says Finlay.

There is another advantage to handing your business units the responsibility of deciding which scheduled projects should take a back seat to an emergency: It can help keep the IT folks from looking like the bad guys. "The business unit managers have to deal with the users in their own business unit who may not get serviced when they thought they would," Fourman explains. "It takes the heat off of IT."

Even if you don't opt for a formal committee, including internal customers in the special-project approval process can ease tensions in a number of ways. "The better business relationships you have, the more educated your customers [are], the more comfortable they are and the more they understand the issues," KPMG's Snyder says.

He suggests setting up structured, interactive meetings with business people that include discussions of off-plan project requests. "It makes the discussion more orderly as opposed to calling 'my friend the CIO' saying, 'Can you help me out?' If that happens, you're already on the downhill."

Artunian is a freelance writer in Newport Beach, Calif. Contact her at jartunian@sbcglobal.net.

Copyright © 2005 IDG Communications, Inc.

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