How to Get Executive Buy-In for Your Application Development Projects (and Why It Matters)

You might have a great IT strategy for solving a business problem. But unless the development staff or IT manager can sell the idea to senior management, everyone will be disappointed. Three CIOs who have been-there-done-that explain what works.

By Esther Schindler
Fri, September 26, 2008

CIO — The software development department might envision a marvelous solution to the company's IT or business need, but the technology goal can't be achieved unless the Big Boss commits to the new strategy. How do you get there—and ensure that the user need really is filled? The key, say three former CIOs, is accurate business process requirements, a common language for the business and IT to communicate, and executive steering.

"It's what happens before a project gets to IT that often creates the challenges," says Brian Kilcourse, former CIO of Longs Drug Stores, and now a managing partner at Retail Systems Research.

While conflicting demands for IT resources and the propensity for a short-term view are significant challenges, he says, the most basic quality issue that IT efforts face is a lack of business involvement. "Businesses tend to think of IT efforts as separate from their overall strategic agenda, in spite of the fact that to a large extent it is a company's ability to use its digital assets effectively that distinguish winners from losers," he says.

Bob Doyle, former CIO of Alliant Foodservice (formerly Kraft Foodservice), agrees. "My major challenge—the reason I was brought in to five different companies in four distinct industries—was to enable major business change by implementing integrated IT application solutions that fundamentally changed the way the business operated. And do it as quickly as possible," says Doyle, who now runs a consulting firm. Management staff usually did not fully understand their role or responsibility in the development process, he says, so they felt no accountability. Plus, says Doyle, who has more than 30 years experience with Fortune 100 and smaller companies, company management had no process to involve, manage and set expectations.

For an IT strategy to succeed—or simply to sell the business on a major development project—you need full executive buy-in and support. Reports Kilcourse, a CIO friend of his said it simply: the most important word a CIO must learn is "No," and his most important skill is to say it when the business isn't ready to commit. "Top level guidance and visibility is an absolute must," Kilcourse adds.

Given the challenge, how does one address it?

Winning the Boss' Trust

To win over the business side, Doyle suggests three overall solutions:

  • Educate at all management levels: explain and engage.

  • Establish Executive IT strategy committees to create a formal executive and management reporting and feedback process.

  • Win their confidence and trust by demonstrating successful implementations.

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