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Persuading management to support the IT buying process

What steps should you take to get your network buying needs approved by top management? One piece of advice: Learn what your manager needs.

"To ask is a given; to approve requires an act of the Divine."
-- Alexander Pope's IT department

As an IT pro, you intuitively "grok" the value that any given technology brings to your organization, understanding the features and functions at a deep level. When that technology needs to be upgraded, scaled-out or replaced, the whys and wherefores are pretty much self-evident to you.

But often, there's a disconnect from the managers who approve these requests, and who subsequently require a seemingly endless series of meetings, justifications and requests for proposal before (maybe) taking steps to complete the IT buying or purchasing process.

If this was a (somewhat mystifying) black box system, we'd look at the I/O behavior and realize that many of us have been caught in an anti-pattern for quite some time. It's time to set that right.

Psychopath-free zone

It may come as a surprise to those of us who live and work near the warp core, but the business doesn't care about technology unless it doesn't work.

We all know bad situations exist: bosses whose behavior borders on bipolar, managers who went to the Mean Girls School of Leadership and companies that seem bent on fostering business practices that would make even Gordon Gecko blush.

But what we're talking about here are situations where you have -- at a minimum -- decent management, pretty good teams and an "all-right" company. There are no evil actors here, no nefarious politics. In short, we're talking about 80% of the companies out there.

The three foci

"It's like a finger pointing away to the moon. Don't concentrate on the finger or you will miss all that heavenly glory."
-- Bruce Lee, actor and martial artist

We as IT pros must understand what motivates management when it comes to IT buying. It may come as a surprise to those of us who live and work near the warp core, but the business doesn't care about technology unless it doesn't work.

I take that back -- if you've worked in IT for any length of time, that's not such a surprise. The surprise is what the business does care about:

  • Growth: Management is interested in things that increase the bottom line. This can be anything from streamlining the ordering process, to improving marketing message distribution, to making content more SEO-friendly.
  • Cost: Management is also interested in things that reduce spending, including automation; replacing expensive software with lower-cost alternatives; reducing the overall hardware footprint so maintenance, support and even power consumption are lower.
  • Risk: Management is also interested in avoiding risk, and is often willing to spend money now to avert a more costly future outcome. Security teams have gotten good at pointing out the huge fiscal cost borne by companies like Target, Home Depot and Sony due to lax standards. But the case is just as easily made when describing the risks inherent in lack of fault tolerance, adequate staffing or having up-to-date hardware with current maintenance contracts.

The weight given to each of these interests may change over time, but their overall existence is nearly universal. The trick to satisfying the IT buying objectives your department needs is to understand which of these interests is dominant -- and when -- in the minds of management, and then play to that bias. And remember: There are no technology problems, only business problems where technology is part of the answer. Your requests need to be framed in this way or nobody will buy what you're selling.

Just sit right back and you'll hear a tale...

"All marketers are liars tell stories."
-- Seth Godin, Internet entrepreneur, author and founder of Yoyodyne

We IT professionals are used to wearing many hats. A network engineer might also be a sys admin; a database administrator might also be on the development team; heck, some of us even become managers! But one role we assiduously avoid is sales. Sales are the people who lie to us on the tradeshow floor, the ones who sell us rainbows and puppy dogs when all they have are gray skies and three-toed sloths.

So, asking us to "sell" a product is tantamount to saying, "Trade your ethics, self-respect and your very soul for this stale Twinkie." But selling a piece of hardware or software to management isn't about lying. It's about telling a compelling story, a story where the listener can visualize the problem (and remember, it's a business problem) and maybe even imagine themselves as the hero. Or at least part of the adventuring party.

When it comes to IT buying, what does 'no' really mean?

OK, say you do everything I've explained: You spun tale of horror and adventure -- speaking to the perfect blend of growth, cost and risk -- but they still say, "No." That means it's time to pack up your toys and go home, right?

Get back here, you Nerf herder!

In management speak, "no" is not a binary condition. Remember, management does not live for the thrill of crushing the spirits and dreams of engineers. What "no" most often actually means is:

  • "Not right now."
  • "You haven't convinced me."
  • "You haven't prepared me to take this to my manager."
  • "That's not part of our core focus."
  • "You haven't shown me both sides."

Ways to respond to 'no'

So, where does that leave you? Obviously, the key is to find out why the manager felt the request had to be turned down. Some ways to frame this are:

  • "What would have to change to enable you to say, 'Yes'?"
  • "When can I come back to you and make another pitch?"
  • "How can we align this project with the business's focus/goals?"
  • "Is there a better point in the business cycle to look at this?"
  • "Can we set up a small demo to see the merits in-house?"

This is really what is at the heart of the old, "Don't take 'no' for an answer" phrase. It's not about being obnoxious; it's about understanding that your managers want to do what is best for the company, and they believe the same about you. Together, you can work to get the IT buying framework approved.

Now it's just a matter of agreeing on the details of how to do that.

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