Using Big Projects to Become a Strategic Advisor

How CIOs can use enterprise software projects to become strategic advisers

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Enterprise software implementations are among the most expensive, visible and risky projects you will undertake as a CIO. They are also among the most strategically important and, as such, can help propel the CIO to the role of true strategic adviser to the C-Suite.

One of the most prevalent career conversations that takes place among peer CIOs is how they can make sure they are treated as a truly strategic business partner. While there are many examples of CIOs who have done this successfully – Chris Laping at Red Robin and Felippo Passerini at Proctor & Gamble – there are still companies for whom the technology function is seen as a cost center, despite the strategic disposition of the person leading it.

I have seen many big software implementations like ERP, CRM, Manufacturing, and Purchasing projects, propel technology leaders to be seen as strategic partners. The best CIOs can use these projects to demonstrate how they can help drive business strategy, not just keep IT operating costs low.

Here are a few ways to strengthen your strategic brand during each phase of a the project:

During Planning

  1. Partner Selection: Advocate for vendors who are not only well qualified for the work but also differentiate themselves on the strategic benefit of their projects. Gartner calls these strategic partnerships (subscription required). These will never be the cheapest partners but they will make sure the project stays strategically oriented and guarantee there is another strategic technology voice in the room.

  2. Align with Your Peers: Begin regular meetings with the other executives to gain and maintain alignment on project priorities, staffing, partner selection, and how the project will be positioned with the users.

  3. State the Strategy: Make sure the working group agrees on the strategic imperatives driving the project and keeps them visible in all materials. Every deck, every budget request, every executive summary should contain a slide or paragraph on the strategic reasons that justify the project. 

During Design

  1. Make IT’s Priorities Secondary: Business users will ask for some requirements that will not be a clean fit to the software and would not benefit the overall solution. If the technology side of the house is the primary voice opposing custom requirements because of the technical complexity, it will create the perception that the IT department is more invested in controlling their side of the house than driving strategic change in the business. Balance accommodating these requests with pushing back and work with the project manager and functional leads to make sure they push back in these areas as well, from a functional and project position.

  2. Develop Your People to Think Strategically: Involve your technical folks heavily in business design discussions and make sure they participate with an eye towards saying “yes” or developing alternate approaches. Understanding the background on why decisions were made will allow them to speak at a more strategic level once they own the live solution. This is something their counterparts in the business will notice and will elevate the IT brand over time.

During Build and Delivery

  1. Define the Post Go-Live Enhancement Approach: The deeper you get into build, the more decisions you will need to make that compromise how the solution meets the expectations of certain stakeholders. Proactively track how these requirements will be met or improved after go-live and get buy-in from the functional executives. These will need to be budgeted and scheduled later on and you will want to have their justifications be bygone conclusions but the time any budget requests are submitted.

  2. Enhance Your Focus on Change Management: Adjust the project’s strategic positioning to emphasize what business users will need to do to make the solution successful. If the technology works but the users don’t adopt it, you will not be seen as successful. If the technology is marginally better than before, there is a path to continuously improve it, and the users successfully adopt it, the project will meet its strategic objectives.

After Go-Live

  1. Shift Your Focus to Furthering the Solution’s Strategic Goals: Continue to hold executive meetings to continuously improve how the solution supports their strategic needs.

  2. Sell Your Success: This will depend on your company’s culture, but I suggest looking for opportunities to speak at conferences, internal meetings, vendor-sponsored events, and user-groups. Write sponsored blog posts, advertise your lessons learned, and serve as a reference for your consulting partners. In each situation discuss the strategic successes of the project (achieved ## ROI, saved $x.x, drove $x.x revenue, new business capabilities, etc.) – not just the execution successes (on-time, on-budget, etc.).

There are, of course, many more ways to use big enterprise software projects to develop the strategic part of your brand. It's also worth keeping in mind that unless the project is successful from an IT standpoint as well, it is unlikely you'll be able to convincingly sell the strategic successes so delivery discipline is still important. That said, a marginal IT improvement with a major strategic win will be preferred over a complete IT win and a middling strategic improvement.

Have you successfully done this yourself?

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