Walk the Alignment Tightrope

At Hon Industries, a furniture and hearth manufacturer based smack in the middle of America-Muscatine, Iowa-Malcolm Fields walks a fine line when setting expectations with his business colleagues on what IT projects can accomplish. For Fields, vice president and CIO of the $1.7 billion company, that balancing act means showing them the challenges of implementing new technology without coming off as a naysayer or know-it-all.

The 41-year-old executive continually works to set, reset and communicate expectations on the length and cost of an IT project, the challenges that might arise during its course, and the new technology’s true functionality. Not doing so can lead to project failures, wasted resources, additional costs, lost opportunities and a loss of respect. “If you waste a half-million bucks [on a failed implementation], you have to take a one-time hit to your [financial] reporting, and that’s ugly,” says Fields. “You lose credibility with the street.”

Botched projects damage reputations and can ultimately damage careers. “CIOs are terminated not because they’re not strategic but because they don’t deliver,” says Louis Boyle, vice president of the Executive Directions group at Meta Group. “Job number one is to deliver, and that means delivering on expectations.”

Setting user expectations-neither promising too much nor offering too little-is one of the trickiest aspects of the CIO’s job, Boyle says. Those who do make the effort to communicate expectations risk appearing arrogant or difficult to work with, particularly if the users view the advice as the CIO’s intransigence to give users what they want. Fields warns that “if you sound negative and if what [users] hear from you is ‘He’s too busy, he doesn’t want to deal with this problem,’ they’re going to do it anyway”-by purchasing software they’ve read about, for example, regardless of whether it’s the best solution.

Helping users understand what they’re getting into and then helping them succeed at it is of paramount importance. At the same time, the Kansas-born, Iowa-bred Fields doesn’t want to seem too big for his britches. So when he caught wind of a business VP’s interest in CRM, Fields knew he had to act fast and act with class.

Time for the Full-Court Press

Sitting in strategic-planning meetings where corporate executives discussed their technology needs, Fields knew the day would come when his colleagues in sales would ask for a customer relationship management system-and he dreaded it. “Consultants will tell you 50 percent of CRM projects fail. I’d say it’s 75 percent,” says Fields.

In March 2002, Kevin Jordan, vice president of corporate accounts for Allsteel, one of Hon Industries’ furniture manufacturing businesses, went to the IT department with a proposal. He told Ralph See, an IT project manager with whom Jordan had a working relationship, that he could improve the efficiency of his field sales employees if they had more tools to communicate with each other and with corporate headquarters. He wanted IT’s help in looking for a solution that would integrate with the rest of the company’s business systems. Jordan was obviously under the impression that finding and implementing a comprehensive, off-the-shelf contact management system would be simple.

Within a few days, Fields heard about their meeting and decided he better get involved. He knew he needed to make Jordan understand what it takes to successfully pull off a CRM project.

First, Fields needed to show Jordan the reasons behind CRM’s high failure rate: The scope of these projects easily and frequently explodes; the products, with their bells and whistles, are too complicated and difficult for field salespeople to use; and the logistics of getting software installed and synchronized on every field sales employees’ laptop is too complex.

Fields and See began by giving Jordan copies of articles about CRM projects so that he could read for himself the difficulties companies face when implementing such systems. They also attended meetings that Jordan set up with vendors.

“I went to every meeting until I saw in Kevin Jordan’s eyes how damn hard this was going to be,” says Fields. Every time the software salesmen began crowing about their products’ special features, which likely would have unrealistically raised Jordan’s expectations for the products’ functionality, Fields gently reminded the vendors how difficult these projects are. He also asked each vendor point-blank what its success rate was. All the vendors fessed up to a 50 percent to 70 percent failure rate.

“Instead of me saying, ‘Kevin, these projects are very difficult and they typically fail,’ I basically asked each vendor what their success rate was,” says Fields. This way, Fields says, he didn’t have to worry about insulting Jordan’s intelligence or appearing negative or confrontational.

Jordan was able to ask informed, pointed questions because he had read the articles provided by Fields. With vendors’ sobering pronouncements about their success rates, Jordan soon realized what he was getting into. In fact, he was ready to can the CRM software project altogether, says Fields.

Knowing the software was something the business needed, however, Fields and his project manager quickly set out to help Jordan establish parameters for the project and the software’s functionality. In one-on-one conversations, See asked Jordan what functionality he really needed, advised him on the importance of limiting a project’s scope, and cautioned him against getting caught up in all the “fluff” vendors showed off during demonstrations.

Fields says it wasn’t hard to sell Jordan on the idea of simplifying the project. Since 1992, the company has adhered to a business philosophy it calls “rapid continuous improvement” that emphasizes streamlining design, manufacturing and administrative processes to increase productivity, lower manufacturing costs and improve product quality. “We’re all about simplification,” says Fields of Hon. “It’s something that people take to very easily.”

The Importance of Being Earnest

In setting expectations, Fields advises other CIOs to deal with their peers in person. “Get to know these people. Understand what they want and what they need. Get involved in a conversation. Work in your points. Find data to back up your points,” he says. “You’ve got to get to know these people. They’ve got to know what your motivation is. They’ve got to know you want the project to work just as badly as they want it to or more so, but you want them to know how difficult it’s going to be.”

Project manager See worked with Jordan to develop a system mock-up, complete with screen fields for entering information. He explained the application’s look and feel to Jordan and asked for his feedback. From his conversations with Fields and See, Jordan could clearly articulate his specific requirements to vendors and find a vendor that could come the closest to matching what he wanted.

For his part, Jordan says he appreciated Fields’s approach to setting expectations. “He listens, then makes a qualified statement based on information rather than prejudging the outcome,” says Jordan. “I never once thought he was imposing his will on the outcome of the project.”

Jordan also appreciated Fields’s constructive approach to laying out the challenges of the project. “Instead of saying, ‘We can’t do this,’ [Fields] said, ‘These are the stumbling blocks we’ve got to get past. Here are my ideas on how we can get past them. What do you think? What do you need us to do?'” says Jordan.

Jordan recently selected a vendor, which he declined to name. The system went live in mid-February and took only eight weeks from management approval to rollout. Fields believes the time he took to get Jordan to understand the challenges of implementing CRM software paid off when they jointly sold the project to the executive committee.

“My role as CIO is to ensure that the projects we invest in turn out to be successful. The best way to do that is to make sure the people who get involved understand the true risk and the true [total cost of ownership] so nothing comes back to bite them,” says Fields. And properly setting expectations reduces the risk that users will come back and bite the CIO.