How to Tell Your Boss That There's No Free Lunch

You've been asked to do a project that's not in your IT budget. Time to muster your diplomatic skills and help your boss or business colleagues decide which other projects they're willing to delay or give up instead.

Your budget is decided and it'll be a stretch to deliver all that's expected of you with such limited resources. Then comes the "unfunded mandate"—that project that you don't have money or staff for, but can't say no to.

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"Sure, we understand it's not in your budget. But we need it," your boss tells you. You smile, grit your teeth. Oh, in that case, I guess all my staff will work for free to get it done, you think. Not!

"You're an exec. I know you can find a way to do it," he continues. Now there's a great pep talk.

"It's not like we have a choice," you hear next. "This comes from the top." Ah, well then, no problem, since it's mandated by someone up top who can create hours and money out of thin air!

Whether a business unit went off and bought a system that needs IT support, or the company decides to expand operations into a new region (with the consequent need for a network and e-mail), unfunded mandates are common and they all add up to the same thing. People, whether your boss or your clients, expect something for nothing and blame you when you can't deliver. And the best thing you can do is to get them to decide which other projects to delay.

How Not to Respond

You can't say no. No matter how unreasonable it seems, this unfunded mandate really is important to the executives at the top. Perhaps it's a real mandate coming from government regulations or law. Maybe it's imperative because of the business landscape. In any case, it's not negotiable.

A good leader knows that it's not right to simply pass an unreasonable mandate down to subordinates with the same insensitivity as that which was imposed from above. The ramifications of that poor choice are obvious. Staff individually set their own priorities, choosing which other commitments they'll postpone in order to fulfill the mandate. As a result, other projects fail randomly. Maybe everything comes in late. Maybe staff cut corners on quality. Or maybe they completely fail to deliver on some promises.

Meanwhile, the CIO loses respect among her staff and builds a lot of animosity because she hasn't protected them from unreasonable demands. Setting one's staff up for failure is not going to get the job done and—if this needs to be said—it's not nice.

Another response, hardly better, is to instruct staff to sacrifice sustenance activities like training and process innovation projects. One may think giving up training or process improvement is only necessary to satisfy a temporary, short-term exigency. But the truth is, this is a slippery slope. Do it once, and you'll have reinforced the belief that your organization can absorb more work without more resources. You'll be expected to do it again and again. As a result, there will never be enough time for anything but urgent projects.

Of course, this is myopic. Any IT organization that's willing to do without training, innovation, process improvements, client relationship building and other "keep-the-business-viable" activities is only postponing its inevitable demise. Over time, IT becomes difficult to do business with, inefficient and out of date.

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