How to Sell Your IT Projects: Let The Business Do The Talking

By Marc J. Schiller

How to Sell Your IT Projects: Let The Business Do The Talking

If you want to be truly successful selling your technology ideas and projects, don't sell them at all. Have your colleagues and customers do the selling for you.

We're betting you've probably heard this piece of advice a few dozen times. You may have even taken it to heart once or twice -- especially for that really big ERP upgrade you just completed. So, you "get it." Or, at least you think you do. And you're ready to move on.

But before you do...

Answer for yourself just one question: As you think back across the vast majority of IT projects you have overseen, as a general rule, who was really doing the selling, and to whom? Think back to the last time you got your colleagues or customers to present and sell that ERP, CRM or BI project with you at the budget defense meetings. Did your business colleagues proactively come to participate in the internal sales process with you? Or, did you have to work long and hard to persuade them to join you in the presentation?

If you are like 95 percent of the CIOs with whom I have had the privilege to work, your answer is the latter. Because, let's face it, as much as the business people say they are behind you on any given project, when it comes to enlisting their active support, it's up to you to make it happen.

And here's the scary part. The business folk have you believing that this situation is appropriate. That this is part of your job. You have become so used to chasing after the business users for their support and cooperation (both before and during the project) that you have come to believe that this is the natural order of things.

Well, I am here to tell you that you've got it all wrong. And it can all be traced to the fact that you don't understand what it really means to have your business colleagues do the selling. You may be missing the essential idea and power of this statement.

It's not your fault

The truth is that you aren't to blame for the situation. The conventional way of doing things makes sense. IT has, after all, grown from a pure service-and-support mindset. So it does seem sensible that in order to do the big, complex, business-oriented projects, IT needs to enlist the active support of the business executives. And, what better way to demonstrate that support than to have your business colleagues at your side actively selling the project?

The problem with this approach is that it is unsustainable. It can't be applied across the entire IT budget. First, it would simply take too much time and energy to get your business colleagues actively selling with you on everything. Second, many of the most important projects you have planned (read: key infrastructure initiatives) will never attract the active support of your business unit colleagues. So what happens? You do what (nearly) everybody else does. You reserve the pursuit of "having your business colleagues do the selling," for a limited number of projects.

This sends two subliminal messages to the business leadership:

  1. It declares (by omission) that except for one or two key projects when the business is standing by your side, most of what IT does is of questionable business value.
  2. It reinforces the idea that it is up to IT to chase the business for support and cooperation, thereby perpetuating the stereotypical IT-business relationship.

How to Sell Your IT Projects: The Criticality Index

There is of course another way to think about the notion of "having your business colleagues do the selling for you." It involves making a few modifications to your thinking that, when applied consistently, can radically alter the relationship between IT and the business. What's more, these few changes can create an environment where the business is essentially selling every single IT project for you.

I know. It sounds too good to be true. But I've seen it in action and it's a beautiful thing. Here's how it works.

First, you establish a principle that every IT project/initiative from now on will carry with it a measure of business criticality, i.e., how critical this particular initiative is to the business. Your criticality index can be based on the following chart.

Business Criticality Index

Level of Criticality


Degree of Business Support (as expressed by the senior executive(s) who are served by the project/system)

Level 1

Worthwhile endeavor: I support it and feel it's worthwhile. I can express some solid general reasons for my support.

Level 2

There is a good business case and ROI for this project that I can defend.

Level 3


Game changer. This project has the potential to significantly alter the competitive landscape for our organization and I/we really need to do it.

Level 4


This is a must-do project due to regulatory requirements, external market demands from customers, or competitive table stakes. Basically, if we don't do it, the future of the organization is at serious risk.

Once you have this rating system in place, you can approach the CFO and the CEO with the request to include the criticality index as part of the budget approval process. You explain that this index will be helpful for setting funding policy and priorities. For example, during lean times the CEO may decide that only projects with an average level of 3.1 or higher get funded. Then, in fat years, he may lower the number to 1.5. (From personal experience I can tell you that CEOs and CFOs absolutely love this. They feel as if you have suddenly given them a whole new level of control over the IT budget. You get instant hero status.)

Now comes the best part. When you review your projects or budget items with your business colleagues, you let the business users know that if they want anything at all, and I mean anything, they have be very clear as to how critical it really is. Because without a criticality measure, YOU can't even consider it. After all, it's part of the company's governance and approval process.

All of a sudden the game changes. No more taking anything IT does for granted. Laptop upgrades, new reports, iPhone support, whatever. If it's something the business community wants, they have to put a number on it. And they have to be able to back it up. (You will of course generously volunteer to help build the business case with them.)

You see how this works? Now you tell me, who is selling to whom. Here's the best part. If you get pushback from a rogue customer on a commitment, just leave the criticality index for that customer blank. Let the CEO handle it for you. That way, you aren't begging for support, you have baked it into the process.

What you can expect

Over time, your business leadership team will get used to the criticality measure and recognize that they have a permanent role in selling and supporting IT projects. They will partner with you on the basis of self interest, not because you have "sold" them on the idea. And when that happens, you'll really understand the power of that old IT management saying: "If you want to be truly successful selling your ideas and projects, don't sell them at all. Have your colleagues/customers do the selling for you."

About the Author

Marc J. Schiller, author of "The 11 Secrets of Highly Influential IT Leaders," is a speaker, strategic facilitator, and an advisor on the implementation of influential analytics. He splits his time between the front lines of client work and evangelizing to IT leaders and professionals about what it takes to achieve influence, respect and career success. Download a free excerpt of his book at http://11secretsforitleaders.com

This article was originally published on 09-28-2011