Five ways to get your IT project signed off

So you've got a great idea for a project - here's how you get a green light from the management.

Here's the situation: You need to get the chief executive to give your new project the green light.

How do you work with business colleagues and demonstrate the potential business benefits of your initiative in the best possible light?

Five experts give their best practice tips.

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"IT people love nothing more than a good project to add excitement to their life and enhance their career," says David Allison, head of business systems at Aggregate Industries. That passion, however, can lead to challenges for the business - and IT leaders can sometimes be willing supporters of project requests, even when the business case is ill-defined and the requirements are suspect.

"The demand handling process needs to have a culture of looking to tear apart a business case and ensure only the robust ones get through," says Allison. "So on the assumption that the project is a sound one, the CEO needs to be presented with a project request that lays out the problem being solved, the options, the benefits, the risks, and the timescales."

Allison says the ideal project request is closely associated to broader organisational strategies and values. The "model" request, he adds, has a senior sponsor that is responsible for the benefits, and who remains accountable throughout the project lifecycle, and for a period afterwards.

"Obviously, the lower the investment, the higher the returns and the more minimal the risks, the more likely you are to get the green light. With many projects being digital initiatives, the speed of deployment and competitor differentiation is key," says Allison.

Talk about business benefits, not vanity projects

Sarah Leslie, CIO at Iglo Foods Group, says the best way to get sign-off is to ensure the executives at the top of the organisation understand the value of the initiative. "Senior people must believe that the functionality of the project you are delivering is worthwhile," she says.

For Leslie, the link between business and IT is a given. While some organisations will have a budget to experiment, the lean approach at Iglo means that business executives who want IT-driven change must find money for new initiatives from their own financial resources.

"I don't have a budget for IT projects. There isn't room for vanity developments - IT projects need to help a specific function, such as finance. We have a business steering group that will decide whether a particular IT investment is right for the organisation," says Leslie, who says big decisions about underlying IT architecture must be clearly articulated and understood.

"If it's a large scale implementation, such as networks, infrastructure or enterprise architecture, you must explain to the business why your core IT systems need to be maintained and refreshed. Identify where challenges exist and how investment in new underlying IT will help support new business opportunities. Everyone understands technology is now critical to success, so explain how the business will benefit from your ideas over time."

Show how you will measure the plus-points

Modern IT leaders need to be comfortable in many different roles, from manager to advisor and from operator to innovator. David Reed, head of information services and infrastructure at the Press Association, says CIOs must search for projects that provide quantifiable returns.

"Heading up IT requires having a knack for hunting out game-changing innovations and process improvements that can make a real impact on the bottom line," he says.

"A good investment is one that will have a tangible, measurable impact on current systems and processes within an acceptable timeframe."

Reed says at least half the job of being head of IT is stakeholder management. CIOs looking to get sign-off should make sure they demonstrate how their idea for change will produce long-term returns.

"Helping the business understand the benefits that a new technology or new project will have on the company in real, quantifiable terms is undoubtedly the best way to get a green light," he says.

"Give clear indications of how you'll measure success, which will help drive both the project and the business forwards."

Find a senior sponsor for your creative ideas

Jonathan Pilbrow, financial controller at car dealership network TrustFord, says anyone thinking of selling an idea for a technology project needs a plan.

"You need to be confident, and have an understanding of who you are talking to and why. It is crucial to make sure you're hitting the right audience," he says.

Once the right audience is established, Pilbrow encourages his peers to think about novel ways of selling an idea. "Be creative," he says, referring to his own attempts to introduce deeper analytics into the organisation.

"When we wanted investment from the business, we went the extra mile to show how the changes we were looking to introduce would really benefit the business."

Pilbrow reports to the TrustFord's finance director and has regular conversations to help ensure his plans for IT are on the right path. The FD, says Pilbrow, acts a project sponsor and allows him and his colleagues to present their long-term plans to the business.

"We're lucky because this is an information-hungry business and the team is always looking to deliver something better," says Pilbrow, adding that he is currently looking at how to introduce dashboard-style analytics. "Looking to help the business improve its decision-making processes has to be the way forwards."

Build close relationships with the people that matter

Working Links CIO Omid Shiraji says he is luckier than some IT leaders because he reports directly to the chief executive.

Shiraji has been in his role for just over a year and the close relationship with the CEO has brought benefits. "He's the main reason I joined the organisation and I've had sponsorship for my plans from the very beginning," he says.

Not all IT leaders are in such a fortuitous position when it comes to reporting lines. For CIOs who are struggling to get the ear of the senior team, Shiraji has some simple advice. "Make sure the executive team is involved as much as possible as early as possible," he says.

The key to success, says Shiraji, is to challenge any mention of the phrase 'IT project'. Rather than implementing technology, Shiraji encourages his team to see technology as a means to create better outcomes.

"You'd never talk about building projects; you'd talk of creating roads, offices, or shops," he says. "I feel the same about IT. So, for example, you don't have an outsourcing project - what you have is a business change initiative for a particular part of the organisation. If you think in business terms, you can change behaviours and perceptions."

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