2003 on a shoestring

Let’s start with what every IT leader knows already: There’s no money. There is no money. There is no money. There’s not going to be money anytime soon. You don’t know when there will be money. You can’t make any plans that depend on there being money, because for the foreseeable future, the one thing you know is, there’s no money.

And as far as money goes – forget about it.

This year, IT leadership isn’t about achieving great things by marshalling all the resources at your disposal. It’s about getting the job done, even without the resources you need.

But how do you keep a sense of powerlessness or paralysis from creeping in, when there’s no budget to do things that need doing? And how do you keep morale up and keep moving ahead – all on the cheap?

First, don’t sugarcoat your situation. You know there’s no money. Keep repeating that to your staff, your users and your CEO. Don’t complain; just be matter-of-fact about it – again and again and again. If nothing else, it’ll help keep expectations low, so every success will look like a real achievement.

Brainstorm. No, not in a conference room with some overpriced facilitator. Kick ideas around with your staff in a dimly lit pizza parlour, the way nature intended. Don’t take turns – just let the suggestions, objections and corrections flow. Take your own notes on the back of a napkin, and make sure staffers follow up by identifying what they think are the best and most practical ideas. They’ll remember the good ones.

Take a walk in Userville. Touch base with some actual, hands-on-the-keyboard users. It’s your cheapest and most accurate reality check. If they’re really unhappy with your systems, they’ll tell you about it. If you can come up with a solution, everybody’s happier. If not, they’re no worse off. Either way, you’ll get cheap insight into what matters most to them.

If it’s dead, kill it. You’ve already spiked your least-likely-to-succeed projects, right? Now go after the rest of them ruthlessly. If you can’t see success, kill it. If you can’t kill it, freeze it. And if you can’t freeze it, figure out how to make it a success. Remember, the most costly projects are the ones that never deliver a return on your investment because they never go live.

Refactor – don’t nickel-and-dime. You can trim a little fat out of any project easily once, maybe twice. The third or fourth time, it’s a lot harder. Forget the nickel-and-dime approach. Try cutting big. Slice off bells and whistles, features and even some functions. Then offer users the option of a simpler, more reliable version delivered sooner – a go-cart instead of the Ferrari they asked for. They may go for it, and you’ll cut development costs. Sure, they’ll still want the Ferrari next year. But that’ll be in next year’s budget.

Watch out for overreactions – your own and anyone else’s. Everyone’s tired and stressed from tight budgets, shrunken staff and overgrown workloads. Tempers are frayed. Minor problems or disagreements can blow out of proportion. Step in. Find a resolution. Stupid blowups tend to get expensive fast.

Take care of your staff. Relax any rules you can that will make things easier for them without raising risks. Praise individuals in front of other executives and managers; word will get around. Defend them if a complaint is unreasonable or unfair. Look out for their interests.

Finally, follow through. The risk of trying cheap new ideas is that some won’t work, others won’t be worth the trouble, and all require more attention than business as usual does. You’ll have to stay on top of everything you try if you want to get real value on the cheap.

But, of course, you knew that already.

Hayes, Computerworld (U.S.)’s senior news columnist, has covered IT for more than 20 years. Contact him at frank_hayes@computerworld.com.