by Michael Schrage

CIOs Should Stop Seeking Buy-In

Jun 15, 20056 mins
Business IT Alignment

CIOs should stop trying to achieve buy-in for IT initiatives and start helping business colleagues sell the projects themselves.

An ambitious CIO came up with an excellent idea for one of the business units. He did some due diligence on the Net, sent out e-mails, made a few calls and built up a pretty decent business case for his proposal. The executive running the business unit even liked the idea. Alas, he didn’t find it compelling enough. The conversation—and the CIO’s initiative—fizzled out.

“Michael,” said the frustrated CIO, “I just couldn’t persuade him to take the next step. How do I get buy-in?”

“Dude,” I responded, “stop selling buy-in. Your IT shop has to get itself out of the buy-in business and start practicing ’sell with.’” IT should avoid being the organization’s “sales leader” for technology-enabled productivity and change. Persuasion can’t be—and shouldn’t be—your core competence. Salesmanship is not your friend.

Too many CIOs invest too much time and energy trying to get colleagues and peers to buy in to IT initiatives. They’re pitching and wooing and selling with every ounce of charisma they have—which, for IT executives, tends to be on the lighter side.

If you’ve got the charm, loquaciousness and skill to sell iceboxes to Eskimos, what the heck are you doing in IT? You should be raking in commissions on the vendor side. But if you truly happen to be a gifted salesperson for internal IT initiatives, chances are your problem is expectations management. You do such a fine job selling that the actual implementation ends up as either an unhappy anticlimax or a bitter disappointment. Not good.

The most effective IT executives I’ve observed have learned (usually the hard way) that the pursuit of buy-in is a chimera. What works is subtler but demonstrably more powerful: Turn the IT client into a sales partner. Get the client to sell with you instead of buying from you.

That means don’t waste time trying to persuade someone to adopt your idea or implement your app. Instead, figure out ways to get people to help sell that idea or implementation to someone else. Former Apple exec and current venture capitalist Guy Kawasaki has called this “turning customers into evangelists.” I call it “turning customers into VARs”—value-added resellers. IT clients and customers should be viewed—and treated—as resellers of IT’s systems, services and reputation, not just as customers.

Consequently, IT should never be driving a CRM or sales account management system implementation within the enterprise. Never. Instead, IT should be getting the sales and marketing vice presidents to champion those initiatives with IT’s open—but clearly subordinate—support.

The truest test? The CIO shouldn’t be making the CRM case before the CFO and the CEO—that’s marketing’s job; that’s sales’ job. The CIO should be the person most responsible for making it easy for sales and marketing to make that case.

Don’t Lead, Enable

What does enabling sales look like? A talented webmaster rigged up an internal account management knockoff for his division’s sales teams. Within six months, the salespeople wanted a bit more support and functionality from the bootlegged ASP. Their boss went to IT for money and manpower. The CIO heard about it.

The creatively opportunistic CIO shrewdly decided to cut a deal. He brought the webmaster, the sales manager and a couple of the salespeople to the attention of the sales VP to demo their working system. The sales VP was impressed. So the CIO suggested that the sales VP go to the COO and CFO and push for a rollout of an enterprise sales ASP. The CIO would say how impressed IT was with sales’ initiative and point to the bootleg ASP as a prototype for a successful system. The sales VP agreed. He did a successful job selling. He didn’t buy in to IT; he sold with IT.

In an ideal world, the only thing the CIO should have to say at that presentation is, “I think they’ve made a terrific business case for scaling the system, and I’m confident we can implement exactly what they’ve proposed in a time frame and a budget that’s doable. They’ve done a superb job defining what they need to make this work. We look forward to making it work with them and for them.”

In an ideal world, the CIO would then sit down and shut up—albeit with a smile, a wink and a nod.

In other words, IT shouldn’t be a change or transformation leader; it should be a change or transformation enabler. What’s the essential difference? For the purpose of this column, leaders are those individuals most responsible and accountable for setting the right objectives and ensuring the right results. Enablers, by contrast, are those individuals most responsible and accountable for providing leaders with the tools, techniques and technologies for achieving those objectives and results. Enablers make effective leadership practical and probable.

Bluntly put, CIOs shouldn’t be leading CRM or supply chain precisely because, in the first and final analysis, they are not ultimately accountable for determining and assessing the metrics of success. What effective CIOs should do is push people in the organization to figure out what IT should best be enabling.

In an ideal world, the CIO’s most valuable influence would be enabling leaders in other parts of the organization to achieve their enterprise potential in partnership with IT. More than a few operating executives have complained to me about CIOs who insist that this new upgrade or that new app is going to make their lives easier. They feel like they’re being sold. Are they right? Or are they cynical?

What these operating executives suspect is that IT is pushing these initiatives to make its own business life easier. Bidding for buy-in inherently distorts the perception of IT as a partner. Even worse, having the CIO positioned as a “leader” often creates a sense of rivalry with the other C-level executives. Sometimes rivalry creates a healthy sense of competition. Frequently, however, operating executives feel that “visionary” CIOs view their colleagues as operational extensions for their digital ambitions.

The best way to confront this issue is to rebrand the CIO as a process enabler rather than a business leader. CIOs can do this by helping seed scalable initiatives throughout the enterprise that can be harvested as future partnership opportunities. Explicitly restructuring the IT budget and deployment process around the notion of CIO as junior partner rather than primus inter pares (first among equals) would also help.

The greatest virtue of annihilating buy-in as a business driver is that it requires executive leadership to take greater responsibility for shaping digital initiative implementations. The CIO succeeds not because he’s good at persuading colleagues about the value of IT but because he’s good at getting colleagues to persuade each other to explore IT’s potential.

Michael Schrage is codirector of the MIT Media Lab’s eMarkets Initiative. He can be reached at