Choosy CIOs choose how? (first appeared in InfoWorld)

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Have you ever searched for just the right word, failed, and used the wrong one instead?

I did in my New Year’s column awhile back, using “progress” to mean “evidence the world is moving as I predicted.” Some readers understandably interpreted “progress” as “approval” instead. Not so. In fact, I find some of the trends I anticipate distasteful – predicting them is no more an endorsement than is a meteorologist’s forecast of hazardous weather.

An example: I predicted that Linux would become “just another Unix,” spoiled by its own success. Many in the Linux community disagreed with me, politely but firmly. For the record, I hope they’re right and I’m wrong.

If you’re a Linux fan, your team is rising in the standings. That’s really nifty, but as an IS manager you aren’t playing fantasy baseball. You’re choosing products to fill gaps or replace other products in your technical architecture. Regrettably, product and vendor selection isn’t a widespread skill among IS professionals. It should be, though. Most of us buy when we can and build when we have to, so we ought to be the nastiest power shoppers around.

The past two weeks we looked at how to pick future winners in the technology marketplace. This week we address a related, but very different, question: How should you go about choosing products and vendors for your own success?

Here in the IS Survivalist Compound we recommend the When/Who/How/Why/What formula. (No, not Who/What/When/Where/Why/How. That solves a different problem.) Too many IS managers just want to be right, forgetting that product decisions are social enterprises. Skip the socialization steps—most of the formula—and at the first sign of trouble you’ll find yourself dangling all alone at the end of a rope, twisting slowly in the wind.

Here’s how the formula works. You start with “When,” as in “When is the real deadline?” When you make technology decisions you want to make them as late as possible, because products and vendors change pretty quickly. Sometimes, however, you do have the leisure of planning.

Who is next. Ask whose decision this is. It’s a multiple choice question. Don’t just look at the organizational chart. Figure out who’s likely to cause trouble if they don’t like what you select. Invite them, or someone who can represent them, to the party – the kickoff meeting.

A suggestion about preparing for the kickoff: Do some social engineering up front. Spend some one-on-one time up-front with influential members of the group, sharing your goals for the meeting up front and enlisting their support.

At the kickoff meeting you’ll have too many people in the room to do any actual work. That’s fine. Stakeholder meetings aren’t for getting work done. They’re for ratification and socialization. What you need to accomplish in the kickoff meeting is to get everyone to commit to “How” and “Why.”

“How” is the process the work team will go through to reach a decision. Big groups can’t do effective research and decision-making. Since the actual work must be done by a small team, you must give the stakeholder group a sense that it remains in control of the decision without letting its members control the day-to-day work. The best way to achieve both goals is to describe a thorough, professional product selection process, with periodic checkpoints back to the stakeholder group.

Good processes lead to good decisions. Get each stakeholder to commit to the process and you’ll be in a position to make a decision the organization can live with. This is especially true because it is the members of the stakeholder group who will articulate “Why” – why this decision is important, another way of asking what the business need is for the product.

Then, all that’s left is “What” – what product the team selects as the result of the process.

We hand-waved over the actual decision process this week, even though it orchestrates all the real work. We’ll cover that topic next week.