Getting the big IT purchase approved

IT organizations are faced with a tantalizing array of options when it comes to hardware and software solutions. But long before anything can ever be deployed, it has to be purchased, which means at some point it had to be approved. Sometimes deploying a solution is easy compared to getting it approved. But how does one go about getting the big ticket item through? Well, here is my attempt at demystifying the process.

First, lets just say that "big purchase" is without a doubt a relative term. For an SMB, $10,000 might be a show stopper, while seven figures for a large enterprise may be part of the routine. Both offer unique challenges, but share similar tactics. Getting a big IT purchase approved typically consists of a unique set of skills and experience. A mix of preparation, clarity, delivery, timing, and attitude make up the chaotic formula that when done well, will improve the odds of success. It is a skill that can be equally important to anything you bring in your technical arsenal.

Preparation
You will serve yourself well if you think and deliver like a consultant. Life in Ops can get muddied down by internal strife, whack-a-mole fire fighting, and the occasional "look at this new feature" deployment even though nobody asked for it. Take notice of how a good consultant does things. Step back to understand the desired result, then build out your own statement defining the typical design inputs like requirements, constraints, assumptions and risks.

At some point, you will need to prioritize your own wants, and pick your battles. You typically can’t have everything, so start from the ground up of what IT’s mission statement is, and work from there. Start with bet-the-business elements like high availability, and data/system protection that won’t be spoken up for by anyone but IT. Then, if there are other needs, they may in fact be a departmental need that impacts productivity and revenue. While IT may be the enabler of the request, make sure the identity of the requester is clear.

It’s not uncommon for an SMB to have very little money allocated to IT, but this isn’t an excuse for lack of diligence in preparation. Large organizations have more money, but proportionally much more complex problems to solve, SLAs to adhere to, and regulations to comply with. If you have no idea how your organization’s IT spending compares to peers in your industry, it is time to learn, and communicate that as a part of your presentation if your funds are abnormally low.

This is also an opportunity for you to project yourself as the "solution provider" in your organization. Embrace this. Help them understand why technology costs have increased over the past 10 years. If someone says, "Why don’t we just use the cloud for this?" Rather than let smoke pour out of your ears, respond with "That is a great question Joe. IT is constantly looking for the best ways to deliver services that meets the requirements of the organization." And then go into an appropriate level of detail on why it may or may not be a good fit. (If it is a good fit, then say so!). The point here is to embrace the solution provider role for the organization.

Your biggest competitor to your proposal will be, you guessed it, doing nothing. But there is a cost of doing nothing. The key stakeholders might look at this proposed expenditure and compare it to $0. In most cases, this is completely wrong, and it is up to you to help them understand what the real cost comparison is.

One opportunity sometimes overlooked is the power of a cost deferral. Does the unbudgeted solution you are proposing delay a much larger budgeted purchase until perhaps next year? Showcase this. Good proposals typically show a TCO of 3 to 5 years. But do not underestimate the allure an immediate cost deferral has to your friendly CFO.

Get input on defining the "what" of a problem, and it’s impacts. The "how" is usually reserved for the Subject Matter Expert (e.g. you). This will minimize silly ideas from others suggesting your storage capacity issues can be solved by the Friday flier for Best Buy.

Learn to prime the pump. Do a little one-on-one campaigning. This is a common method suggested in many books on successful leadership. It is your chance to win over your constituents before any formal proposal. Trying holding an internal "Lunch and Learn" about trends in technology. Share a little about how amazing virtualization is, and help them understand some basic challenges of IT. These techniques will engage key personnel, and help in establishing a trusting relationship with IT.

The presentation – IT Shark Tank
I’m a big fan of the show, ‘Shark Tank.’ If you aren’t familiar with it, four very successful investors hear pitches by would-be entrepreneurs who are looking for investment funds in exchange for a stake in equity. The investors bring their own wealth, smarts and competitive nature to the table, and can be quite tough on prospective entrepreneurs. A few things can be gleaned from this, and applied directly to your ability to deliver a successful proposal.

  • Come prepared. Nothing kills a proposal like lack of preparation, and not knowing your facts. Lets say you are requesting more storage: You’d better believe some of the simplest questions will be asked. Many that you may overlook when entering a room. "How much storage do we have?" "How much do we have left?" "How much do we need?" "Why does it cost so much?" "what are the alternatives?"
  • Clearly state the problem, the impacts to the business, the options, and your recommendations.
  • Learn to answer the simplest of questions in the simplest of ways. "Does this proposal save us money?" "Is there a less expensive way to do this?"
  • Craft your message to your audience and appeal to their sensibilities. Flog yourself upside the head if you use any IT acronyms, or assume that technical gymnastics is going to impress them. It won’t. What will is being concise. Every word has a purpose.
  • Provide a little (but not too much) context to the problem that you are trying to solve. Leverage an analogy if you need to.
  • Know the counterpoints, and how to respond. Know how you are going to answer a question you don’t know the answer to.
  • Seek to understand their position. What might they dislike (e.g. unpredictable expenses, obligated debt, investments they don’t understand, etc.)
  • Respect everyone’s time. Make it quick, make it concise, and if they would like more detail, you can certainly do that, but don’t make it a part of the pitch.

How to deal with everyone else in the food chain
Be honest with your vendors. They have a job to do, and are trying to help you. If you show interest in a solution that is 10x more than what you can afford, it isn’t going to do anyone good to bring them in for an onsite demonstration. They will appreciate your honesty so they can perhaps focus on more cost appropriate solutions. Believe it or not, most want the right solution for you in the first place, as repeat business is the most important value they can bring back to their own organization.

If you are someone who doesn’t have deep-dive knowledge on the solution you are proposing, take advantage of the SE for the VAR or channel partner as a resource. Many of my friends in the industry are SEs and are some of the best and the brightest folks I know, and they all came from the Ops side at some point. Use them as a resource to learn about the solutions they are proposing, and ask them challenging questions.

Be honest with your organization. This isn’t about what you want. Your value will increase when you can demonstrate repeatedly that you have their best interests in mind.

After the decision
If the proposal was approved, focus on delivering at least some results fast. Then showcase the win and how IT can help solve organizational challenges. This may sound like self promotion, but it is not if done right. The wins are for the organization, not you. This establishes trust, and lays the groundwork for the future. Use company newsletters, or establish a monthly IT Review to share updates.

If it was denied, don’t take it personal. It is great to show passion, but don’t confuse passion for what you are really trying to do; helping your organization make the best strategic and financial decision for them. Would it be gratifying to get a new Datacenter revamp through only to realize it was the financial tipping point of the organization just a few months later? Keep it all in perspective. Besides, some of the best purchasing decisions I’ve been involved with were the ones that were ultimately rejected, which gave solutions a chance to mature, and me an opportunity to find a different way to solve a problem.

Try doing your own proposal or presentation retrospective. What went well and what didn’t. Ask for feedback on how it went. You might be surprised at the responses you get.

Conclusion
You have the unique opportunity to be the technology advocate for the organization rather than simply a burden to the budget.  Do I get everything approved?  Of course I don’t, but a well prepared proposal will allow you, and your organization to make the smartest decisions possible, and help IT deliver great results.

3 thoughts on “Getting the big IT purchase approved”

  1. I followed your link on the comments on my blog here. Good stuff. I think that we IT folks are passionate about our jobs, and sometimes it’s definitely easy to confuse what we want with what the business needs. I do often have to step back before asking for something and ask myself, “do we really need this?” Often, the answer is “no”. However, sometimes it works out that a legitimate business need for – whatever it was – pops up. Then, I have no trouble proposing it because I know it will help the business.

    Anyway, I’ll definitely have to give this another read next time it’s time to buy something big at work!

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