Executive support and rabbit stew

When IT advice is being handed out, by frameworks and books or by the chattering internet, there is much talk about the importance of having "executive support". It is tossed about in lots of contexts that involve cultural change or process improvement - my own one just happens to be ITSM: ITIL V3 etc. This is one of the most repeated glib statements in the IT world. What if you don't?

In my experience it is more often the case that the business executive don't give a toss - ITSM is internal IT stuff that they are already paying for: it is expected process improvement. And the modern CIO goes along with that: he/she is focused on business peers not day-to-day operations. Even the IT operations manager is so harassed that ITSM is but one of many concerns - it is a tick-the-box and lip-service to the troops. The true case of the ops manager being passionate, the CIO focused and the CEO convinced is the exception.

I'm reminded of the old cookbook recipe for stew that began with "First catch your rabbit". That is easy to say, harder to do.

I suspect this is another instance of that syndrome where the gurus get a distorted perspective because they only get invited in to sites where there is enough money to contemplate engaging them, and so that in turn implies that most often the executive already have their hands in their pockets. The sites they talk to tend to already have a rabbit in hand.

So the advice tells us that if executive support is absent, then change can't be done. You must sell the idea first. If you can't get the executive on board, then give up. You are too brilliant: they don't deserve you. Walk away: don't take the contract, find another job. Without executive support you are doomed. It seems to me too easy to say. This is an even more glib response from the pundits. For most of us, we either work in the place, so quitting is a bad option, especially in 2010. And/or we want to make a difference anyway, to hell with the unsupportive execs. Or the family is going to starve if we don't take the contract.

So instead of designing approaches to cultural change on the assumption of sound executive support, I wish the pontificators would start from a more realistic position of assuming executive support is NOT there and isn't going to be any time soon.

Instead of theory being a recipe for rabbit stew, based on the unlikely case that we have access to rabbits and are any good at killing them, we need recipes for generic stew, cooked with the ingredients to hand. Most of the time, those ingredients don't include rabbits or committed executives.


Rabbit Stew

If you cannot sell the executives, then sell the staff even harder. Staff really can benefit from some time put into improving processes, most can see that and will participate with the Carrot and do not need an executive stick.

To influence staff, just like executives, you need to look at motivation and ability. Lot's of staff are motivated, even may have heard of ITSM, but lack ability in terms of tools and even processes clearly documented. Executives have the ability (staff - go do this) but split up motivation among many topics, most of which are more important unless an audit has provided executives with motivation.

Good article and good point - Thanks!


I'm doing a CSI exercise right now that is consuming about 10% of their FTEs. It is hard to hide that from management. Without executive support you can only twiddle.

A Tougher Road Without Exec Support

First, I believe that you're generally right that the actual business execs don't care about ITSM efforts - although I've seen a few that do. But eventually, senior IT leadership must care if you want to exact significant change within the organization. You'll need budget to keep funding the activities (even if it's just internal resources) or you'll start smacking into their pet projects.

So if you don't want to fight for executive support - or just can't get it, then you need to shift strategies. First, you'll need to recognize that you need to focus on smaller, more localized change. Second, you'll need to prepare for a much slower pace of adoption as you will be relying on your ability to convince others to join you in the effort, without any top-down mandate for change. That's a lot of resistance to overcome and why purely grass-root efforts typically don't get too far or have much impact.

I agree with another commenter that the best way to handle this is to stop talking about "ITSM implementations" and to put the efforts within the context of the leadership team's top priorities. In my experience, they are typically very willing to support these efforts once they understand how they will support their own goals and ambitions.

raming it in their terms

Yeah good advice and a good point(s) about framing it in their terms. I blogged about that long ago - I should have brought it up here

People, Process and Technology, yeah right..

What a great topic and set of responses thus far!

I feel like what we've done, whether it be us consultants, practitioners, tool vendors or castle ITIL itself, is made a bunch of great lofty statements, provided great depth on process guidance, trained people on that process guidance, developed very deep tools, and then expected everything else to fall nicely into place. What ITIL touts, right from the start, is that to be successful it is going to take "People, Process and Technology" and that the primary goal of Service Management is to foster IT and Business alignment. How do you foster IT and Business alignment when you first need buyin from that relationship that we've just admitted isn't aligned...???

The frameworks note that you need People and Tools to ensure the Process and Practices presented are able to be successful. Yet none of those same frameworks were built or meant to solve the PEOPLE and/or the TECHNOLOGY. Without going much deeper, I believe the Process focused Technology arena is pretty well spoken for, but the PEOPLE side? Not even close.

"Framing it in their terms"? Talk about a lofty goal. It is absolutely the right goal, but our collective IT organization is nowhere near ready, able, or skilled at this point to frame it and communicate it effectively in our stakeholder's terms. Let alone knowing what the message is or needs to be. This is exactly what's keeping success hamstrung and keeping us from truly fostering that alignment that is so desperately needed!

ITIL versus ITAM

My management is fully committed to ITIL, so we are going to continue to pour effort down the rabbit hole. For years now I have been trying to convince them that the CMDB behind our Service Center incident, problem, change, and service request management ITSM is fine, but to gain ROI on the asset management and related ITIL processes we would be best off to have a procurement to grave ERP system that sits in the middle our IT financial processes of procurement, accounts payable for hardware, sofware and maintenance, accounts receiveable (will bill for most CI's) from our customers so that to buy assets or sell services the transaction would be posted in our ITAM ownership repository. If we pay for it or sell it then it will be there. Now this is not the universal CMDB containing all configuration management and everything else. This ITAM repository would just record all of our variable expenses and revenues. For a profit center that could be all that you really need to do to follow the money. Then for service offerings that lose money an IT financial analyst would determine how to change the equation and for service offerings that return the most profit we would accelerate the service order deployment process. Its hard to improve your bottom line when you cannot tell winners from losers.

I understand all of the pie in the sky ITIL would be great if it could be done with a positiver ROI, but IT professionals can be successful for their enterprises by being good at business. The CA take on ITIL does lean in the direction of a separte ITAM ownership repository loosely federated with an ITSM CMDB. But what I don't see anywhere that I search is a simple guidance that each enterprise needs to look at their own bottom line issues and implement just the ITIL processes that most directly support their own needs. Relating back to this tract, Would not that be the best way to get executive management buy in?

Well, in my case it is not because my chain of command is a bunch of IT professionals deeply committed to ITIL even if the effort is expensive, time consuming, and will never show a positive ROI. We will continue pursuing ITIL nirvana even if much is just pro forma eyewash with no true process improvement.

a tool's turn

I'm 100% with you on "each enterprise needs to look at their own bottom line issues and implement just the ITIL processes that most directly support their own needs" and so are most true ITSM professionals these days.

I also agree that there is tremendous ROI in ITAm for most organisations. But I think you are taking a technology-centric view of ITAM. ITAM is about process - the data usually exists in procurement already. yes maybe you can improve on that data, but only once you understand your requirements, which means a team of actively participating people and a set of well understood processes. Only then is it a tool's turn.


Interesting post. Just finished a book on quality management and one of the main pre-requisites is stakeholder (i.e. CEO, CIO etc) buyin. What happens if they don't buyin do you walk away.
Or is it more the case of they do buyin but don't want it to interfere with how the company runs already..

Because it doesn't last

Perhaps other people have had the excellent luck to have executives keep not giving a toss over the entire span of their employment, or perhaps they are working on initiatives that aren't intertwined somehow with the grander schemes of the organization (although, if not, why then are they doing it in the first place?) but in my experience, sooner or later you need someone on high to buy in to keep your efforts from being overrun or reversed. If you think it is depressing to bang your head against the wall to convince executives to back you in the first place, imagine the torture of going through and doing all the work without that buy-in, then seeing it tossed out at a whim after a honey-tongued vendor does get the CEO's ear and convinces them to go a different route.

The guerilla approach has one good use, though, and that is as step one of going out to get that buy-in. It is easier to ask forgiveness than permission; you shouldn't expect your efforts to live forever without executive support, but if you can nurse them along long enough to prove your point, achieve your goals, and get the heavy lifting out of the way so that all you need from the CEO is a nod, then that can be a powerful way to get executive support eventually. You can look at the amazing proliferation of the iPhone in the enterprise as an example; adoption has been so broad it has been presented as fait accompli to many IT execs, and quite a few have had the good grace to rubber stamp it more or less after the fact.

let the company rot

OK so you do the guerrilla tactics and get a few good early wins and you run those wins up the line to show what a great job you are doing. The execs all make the right noises then go back to whatever they were interested in before your 30-minute meeting.

Now what? Don't do anything? let the company rot?

A big question

I think, Rob, that you've touched on a massively important issue here.

I'm about to give Wizard style advice...

My gut feel is that senior management are interested in what they are interested in. The biggest influences over them is that what their peers are doing/saying, what vendors say, and what analysts convince them is a safe idea. Safety and confirming what they already think are key when dealing with senior management. I remember a few years ago presenting to the CIO of a newly privatised enterprise who actually said in a briefing to his staff "I want cutting edge solutions that will give us a competitive advantage and have at least a four year long record of proven benefit elsewhere." and couldn't understand why all his direct reports sniggered.

IT wins by re-interpreting the basics of universal best practice in a way that fits the idea du jour. You want Lean IT? Do ITIL but call it Lean. You want governance of IT? Do ITIL but call it governance. You have a new CIO? Keep doing what you used to do but call it something new.

As for the CEO and CFO...

I'll tell you another story.

I used to work for a fabulous guy whose role was analogous to CEO of an incredibly complex organization. 32,000 staff doing very diverse activities. My only chance to influence him was a ten minute slot at his Monday morning prayer meetings where I wasn't present and could only provide him with a single sided A4 sheet of paper. His golden rule was if he had to turn a sheet of paper over.. well actually he wouldn't turn a sheet of paper over. We needed to prioritise what we told him, and we had to be intelligent enough to tell him something that made sense in the context of the other briefings he was getting that morning. IT needs to start doing that.

Good management practices and ITIL

I have been trying to do some research on the effect of using ITIL. This relates also to the ITIL ROI question on LinkedIn but I'm not going to jump there.

My conclusion is a bit disappointing. Yes, there is a correlation between ITIL and maturity and good results. Unfortunately it seems that it is not a causal correlation. My hypotheis is that there is factor which makes some organization able to use good practices and get results. The most likely candidate for it is management capability.

To put this simply (I apologize for the i-word): Good management is able to implement ITSM practices succesfully, but implementing ITSM does not make management good.


Be positive!

Seriously I'm not sure I find that result so disappointing. It goes to show that a fool with a tool is still a fool. That capable organisations can realise benefits suggests that it might be using ITIL that provided the benefit, whilst their underlying capability was a critical success factor.

James Finister
Wolston Limited


presenting to the big dogs

my ex-boss sheep dipped us through a dvd "Speaking to the Big Dogs". going in i thought that it was another american management buzzword-fest, but actually it was among the best 2 hours I've spent on professional development.

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