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Five Steps to Fixing a Broken IT Project

By Marc J. Schiller
tech failure

Five Steps to Fixing a Broken IT Project

By Marc J. Schiller

This project is a doozy. It involves your new manufacturing and shop floor system—one of those systems with complicated real-time controls—and everything's coming apart at the seams.

The budget is running way over. Your team is missing deadlines. Your stakeholders are disappointed with the quality and functionality that is supposedly complete. And nobody can agree on the functionality for the remaining modules.

Your business peers aren't providing the right resources, and your IT people can't pick up the slack. They're stretched thin by additional requests coming from the commerce system (yes, those requests you were supposed to get six months ago but came in yesterday.)

Net, net: The project is a nightmare. Everybody is at each other's throats and your formerly well-run IT group has turned into a communal you-know-what match.

Now for the real problem: Your vendor just happens to be a Big Four consulting firm that’s threatening to walk unless it's paid in full now. And you don't have the leverage to call them on it.

But you can't just eat the extra cost. Your finance people won't listen; they are under pressure from corporate to hold the line on spending in order to make year-end earnings targets.

How in the world do you negotiate with a vendor and manage the expectations of your stakeholders in this situation?

The antidote: Don't think negotiation, think shared vision.

Sometimes when the going gets tough and you don't see a way to solve your problem, it’s easier to think process instead of fixating on specific outcomes from the get-go.

Put another way, you know you will have to concede something to the vendor. You also know you must get your stakeholders and finance people to make concessions. So, to get started, your goal is to get the various parties (yourself included) ready, willing and able to make reasonable concessions.

Here's a five-step formula that can help:

Step 1: Fight

Step 2: Connect

Step 3: Remind

Step 4: Listen

Step 5: Close the Gap

Step 1: Fight. Sometimes fighting is the only way to shake things up. Even though you know you will be making concessions, you don’t start out that way. You can't begin by giving ground. You have to come out swinging, making it clear that you have a perspective and you need to be taken seriously.

The basic idea is to stick to your position, without being a jerk, on nearly every point to start with. It doesn't mean you are argumentative; it just means that you forcefully make your points to the vendor regarding its obligations and faults in the situation. At the same time you take almost the exact opposite view with your stakeholders and show them all the places where they failed and how their behavior is the root cause of the problem.

When you stick to your position, two things happen:

1.    You demonstrate you're not a pushover. You're the CIO. You're not the head IT geek. When your stakeholders see that they can't steamroll you, perceptions shift.

2.    You're able to let your stakeholder selectively win you over. You aren't fighting every point to win every point. Some points are there just for "gimme" purposes so it's easy for you to give them. When you let them wrestle you over to their side here and there, your stakeholders will see you as a tough, honest person who is nonetheless open to reason.

Fighting won't make you any friends. In fact, many of your stakeholders will become even more frustrated with you after step 1. But it will establish you as a player in this drama. And once you do that, you'll be ready to swoop in with step 2.

Step 2: Connect. Do an off-site team building activity. It doesn't matter what it is. And before you get into working on the nitty-gritty details of the project, go out for dinner, grab a drink or two, or enjoy a round of golf at a fine resort. There's only one rule to this outing: No one talks business! If one of your colleagues tries to bring up a business conversation, politely inform them, "We'll talk about that in the morning. Let's just be colleagues and people tonight."

What are you accomplishing here? You are creating a space where you can talk to each other on a personal level. You are reminding everyone that you're just a couple of human beings trying to get through this drama together.

Five Steps to Fixing a Broken IT Project

At the end of the night, that's the impression you want to leave everyone with. That you're a person. Not a system or a resource request. A person who shares a lot in common with them personally and, as you will remind them the following day, a person with whom you also share a great deal professionally.

Step 3: Remind. The next day it's time to re-establish the professional common ground you share with all your colleagues. The common purpose toward which you are all working.

Your individual ambitions will vary. The external vendor wants payment and a good reference. Finance wants to see a zero-budget impact solution. You want to make it out alive. But on a broad level everyone wants the project to succeed.

So when you walk in the next morning, before your first meeting starts, halt the conversation and say: "Before we continue, let’s all acknowledge we agree on these points. We all want the success of the company. We all see this project as imperative to the success of the company. We may currently disagree on how to best achieve that goal in the context of this project, but overall we are very much on the same page."

Getting everyone back on the same page won't solve everything. No one is going to give in completely because they feel warm-and-fuzzy again. You will still need to negotiate with contrary arguments and dueling perspectives. The main difference from before is that you can now do so in a constructive manner from a place of common shared ground.

Now you're ready for steps 4 and 5, which pretty much go hand in hand. 

Step 4: Listen. Don't ruin the good will you've worked so hard to create by fighting tooth-and-nail again. Instead, listen. When your colleagues start to talk, don't talk. Just sit there silently. Absorb everything they say. Take notes. Then, after they've said everything they want to say, demonstrate your empathetic understanding of their positions by paraphrasing everything they said right back to them.

After every point they make, explain your understanding of that point right back to them. Tell them, "Here’s what I heard…." And if they aren’t nodding along through your reiteration of their point, have them explain that point to you again, and then paraphrase it back to them. Repeat this exchange as many times as necessary until you share an agreed-upon understanding of every one of their points—and every one of yours.

I know this sounds cheesy and tedious, but you have to do it! If you can't even agree on what you're arguing about, then you’ll never agree on how to resolve these points of friction.

Step 5: Close the Gap. Now you are in a position to offer—and ask for—bigger concessions. Now is the time to move in and close the gap between where things are today and where they can realistically be tomorrow. Start by negotiating the biggest and most important issues first ... and one by one, you will slowly close the gap.

In the end, the overall shift from a negotiated view of "Me and my point of view" to a greater perspective of "We and our shared vision" opens up the possibility to find innovative solutions. More importantly, it calms the things down and returns a measure of normalcy to even the toughest situations.

So, take these five steps and put them to practice on your most challenging scenario.

It won’t necessarily make things easy, but it will make them possible.

Let me know how they work for you.

About the Author


Marc J. Schiller has spent more than two decades teaching IT strategy and leadership to the world’s top companies. Through online courses, speaking engagements and corporate consulting, his company educates IT pros at all levels on how to be more effective, influential and successful in their IT careers. Get access to free videos and an excerpt from his book, The 11 Secrets of Highly Influential IT Leaders, at www.marcjschiller.com/resources.

To read his previous CIO Insight article, "The Three-Step Process for Becoming the Next Apple," click here.

This article was originally published on 05-21-2014