Party Politics of Projects

SAN MATEO (05/15/2000) - In this year of presidential politics, a year in which politicians of every persuasion seek to bring groups of various backgrounds into one fold, the importance of building alliances has moved into the mainstream. At the same time, politicians understand the importance of winning approval from their party officials, meaning they must build their coalition without losing sight of their party's core values.

That same balancing act -- the ability to blend groups with varied needs and differing concerns into a cohesive unit without allowing one to take precedence to the detriment of the others -- is the challenge faced daily by CTOs who must reconcile the needs of technology projects in various business units with overall corporate strategies.

The feat requires not only political savvy, but careful planning and shrewd execution. CTOs must earn the respect of both those they wish to represent and those whom they wish to serve -- or they will never get all missions accomplished. They must convince corporate executives that they have a strategy to take the company to the top, while also communicating to corporate users that this strategy will meet their individual project needs.

As most presidential candidates and forward-thinking CTOs have learned, pulling off that Texas two-step can be a tricky proposition.

Setting the vision

No matter what constituency you're trying to please, credibility is key when it comes to winning support on project initiatives. CTOs need to demonstrate that they are trustworthy to their peers and capable of setting forth a vision that will resonate with a variety of factions.

The best way to do that, says Jim Barton, CTO of Persistence Software Inc., in San Mateo, California, is to establish, communicate, and then execute a strong and consistent strategic vision.

"One of the biggest success factors I've noticed is simply having a coherent vision, getting buy-in across the organization, and continuing to pursue that vision," Barton says. "A lot of companies that I've been associated with have had a vision du jour, so they end up never getting the buy-in and sustained focus required to have success."

Much like a politician who is constantly changing his or her message to match the flavor of the day, Barton says, a CTO who does not set forth and pursue a viable strategy from the outset but drifts with the tides -- a practice referred to in political circles as waffling -- is destined for failure.

Face time

Of course, that vision won't articulate itself: Communication is the key to building and implementing a plan that will tie together departmental and corporate needs. In all cases, the most important element in communicating effectively, and one politicians have mastered, is face time.

"Unless you have enough interaction with people, you can't build the necessary relationships, which makes it harder to have their respect and thus harder to get things done," says Mike Remedios, CTO at ResourcePhoenix.com, a financial services outsourcer in San Rafael, California. "The only way is to get good face time on a regular basis, sit down and give a state-of-the-union."

For Remedios, the task comes naturally because he is a member of the management team that is charged with setting the vision for driving the company forward.

By the nature of his position, he has access early and often to the development and implementation of initiatives. That same type of interaction has worked well for Persistence Software's Barton.

"What happens is we have an executive staff meeting every week or two with the vice presidents of sales, engineering, marketing, and professional services, so we can butt heads and, to some extent, reach consensus on critical technology issues," Barton explains.

Such discussions lead to the first step in implementation: executive approval.

Winning key officials

Much like a politician seeking some degree of official backing from party officials before hitting the road, CTOs will need executive approval before heading off to implement project initiatives. The No. 1 selling point for corporate executives is cost benefit, says Remedios, and the best way to articulate that message is -- once again -- via face-to-face meetings.

"The most important thing for me is to discuss in layman's language the things that can help in the future -- not get caught up in jargon -- and all of the sudden the trust is there, the respect is there," Remedios says. "Once you have that, you're going to get that support."

A step beyond articulating the company's needs and the potential cost-effective solutions is fostering in executives an overall belief that technology is a critical business driver, says Atle Fjeld, CTO at TheSupply.com, in San Jose, California. In turn, CTOs gain buy-in for specific value propositions rather than individual action items.

For example, Fjeld explains, TheSupply.com executives understand that every new hire requires the appropriate technology investment to work effectively.

"Basically we made the decision that if we can afford to hire someone, we have blanket approval to provide them with the right set of tools the day they show up," Fjeld says.

Winning the electorate

Providing the right set of tools for the job is important when it comes to bridging the gap between an overall corporate strategy and business-unit-specific needs.

"The biggest impediment to implementing a corporate strategy is that everyone is very busy and has their personal preferences, so you really have to show ... that they are going to have a tangible, positive benefit from any new technology you want to implement," says David Marshall, CTO at Evolutionary Technologies International, in Austin, Texas.

One way to overcome such problems, suggests Fjeld, is to plant a few stakes in the ground rather than going full-bore with a strategy that could alienate some users.

"It's hard to convince 30,000 people to change overnight, but what you can do is say, 'let's have one railroad track to ride on and put right cars and locomotives on top of that,' " says Fjeld. "At least that way you have the same gauge of track to deal with across the organization."

Of course, if that doesn't work, there is always the option to walk softly and carry a big checkbook, suggests ETI's Marshall.

"People have individual preferences, and we try to accommodate them," Marshall says. "But there is nothing that can be bought without a purchase order going through me, so there's still some of that control there."

Action items

Managing multiple projects means working both sides of the table.

* Gain credibility with executives and peers* Establish and communicate a cohesive vision* Build face-to-face ties with executives and users* Earn the buy-in and support of executives by translating business issues into technology solutions* Earn the trust of users by putting useful tools in place and being flexible where possibleCompany size plays into CTO's scopeAlthough the title of CTO may be the same at organizations both large and small, the difference in the role a CTO plays when leading technology initiatives is akin to that between a governor and the president.

For starters, inherent cultural differences among large corporations and smaller companies affect the way CTOs manage projects. For instance, even though both small and large companies are under constant competitive pressure, smaller organizations such as CTO Jim Barton's Persistence Software Inc., which has about 150 employees, find it much easier to alter their course in an effort to meet those challenges.

"Any company in Silicon Valley knows that if you don't have a culture of change, you're dead in the water before you begin," Barton says . "The issue [with larger corporations] is that they have a much bigger ship to turn and more entrenched ways of doing things. So it's more of a challenge to them because they have to adopt a culture of change first before they can implement it."

Barton points out sheer scale as another difference that can greatly affect the role of CTO. Whereas Barton is fortunate enough to get the all-too-critical face time with executives and business unit managers on a regular basis, CTOs in larger companies can't count on the same luxury. That leads to an environment in which it's more difficult for CTOs to implement a universal corporate strategy.

"One of our largest customers is dealing with this issue right now," Barton says. "We're trying to drive larger enterprise business through their CTO, but all of the business units have certain agendas they are pursuing, so [their CTO] has no direct control and can only play the role of the influencer."

Large companies also struggle with finding and hiring qualified workers -- a big issue for CTOs driving multiple projects, adds TheSupply.com's CTO Atle Fjeld, speaking from experience at high-tech giants Unisys Corp. and Siebel Systems Inc.

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