Real-World Service Management:

Ivor Macfarlane on Persuasion 101: Selling new technology
to skeptical business leaders

In pitching new technology, mind the gap (the context gap)

Service Management in Action.

As someone who has watched IT “revolutions” come and go for many years, I’ve noticed a pattern: If you’re an IT professional and you want your organisation to get behind something new, you’ll probably need to think very carefully about how you pitch it.

Even if you really think it’s amazing—especially if you really think it’s amazing—you’ll probably want to keep your pitch at a very practical, everyday level.

The reason for this is simple. IT revolutions usually appeal mostly to IT people, because we have the technical background needed to figure out whether this new thing really is a revolution.

But getting internal support (and funding) for the new thing will typically require approval from people who don’t have that background.

What they have, instead, is a clear idea of what kinds of current business problems need solutions (or at least better solutions than are in place right now). This creates a sort of contextual gap separating them from you.

So, if you want their approval, you need to find a way to cross that gap safely. To do that, you need to avoid talking in terms of IT techno-babble or – the very worst thing you can do - sounding like you are suggesting innovation for innovation’s sake.

Instead, try to pitch to their needs - how their practical business problems can be reduced (or even made to go away altogether).

Interested in cloud? Here’s how to get business leaders to take it seriously.

Let’s take the recent case of cloud computing. Cloud is the biggest thing in the industry at the moment—every other tweet extols us to listen to yet another expert’s view on what it is and why we have to buy it from them.

I sometimes feel there must be a law that no one told me about requiring all IT sales or marketing people to say the word “cloud” at least once every 42 seconds.

Now, I don’t mean to suggest cloud isn’t a big deal. It is. But if you’re really going to convince your organisation to get behind the idea of cloud, it will usually be best to pitch it as a pragmatic fix to current problems. Not the cure for everything from toothaches to world famine.

"Most of the time, the people in a position to approve financing have a very different set of perceptions from yours. What those people are after are savings—in money, time, carbon footprint or whatever else matters to them."

Whilst you might feel it wrong to undersell new technology that you feel is clearly superior and genuinely ground-breaking, you will typically wind up making much more progress that way. That’s because it will -quite simply- make you sound credible.

People who understand a really novel technological innovation get so excited by its prospects that they can’t help themselves and have to talk (arguably to fantasise) about all the clever things it will be able to do. Things so amazing that most people can’t even begin to imagine them. You even hear this phrase a lot: “you won’t believe what this will do.” And it’s true – they won’t.

To non-technical people, it all just sounds like so much hype. Most of the time, the people in a position to approve financing have a very different set of perceptions from yours. What those people are after is savings—in money, time, carbon footprint or whatever else matters to them.1

Here’s a more general way to think about this issue:

Doing new things. Doing things you couldn't manage before. Doing things you can't even imagine yet. Quicker. Faster. Cheaper. Greener Easier. Doing the old things differently. Doing things in new ways.

If you work in IT, and you want to get non-IT people to support something new, focus first on the box in the lower-left corner.

Try to show that, if you adopt the new thing, you will get clear improvement in something you already do (which usually means you are doing it in a less expensive way). This will often be enough to get support (funding) for it.

Then, once the new thing is actually in place, is better understood, and is trusted, it will have more credibility.

And at that point, you can build on your old pitch. You can gradually walk people (in terms of how they think about the new thing) toward the top-right corner, where you’re not just doing old things better, but doing fundamentally new things. Things that are so new, they aren’t even a blip on the radar right now.

That top-right corner is, no doubt, where innovation starts to create the most benefit...but unless you aim your initial pitch at the lower-left box, you’ll probably never get to the top-right corner at all.

Successful cloud pitches today already reflect a very pragmatic outlook

It’s been interesting to me seeing how these ideas have actually been leveraged in certain recent cases—and here, too, cloud is a good example. There has been a remarkable change over the last 12-18 months in cloud marketing, with practical solutions now being offered on a cloud platform, and more emphasis on delivering initial savings and ROI based on current services.

One good example is software test and development. This is now a very common pitch for cloud, as in: “If you’re interested in cloud computing, test and dev is a great place to get your feet wet.” And usually this pitch is for a cloud-based service, not a full-blown private cloud created and managed by the company.

You can see the logic here: If you’re a business-focused executive, you’re perhaps a bit nervous about making major investments in new technology—especially in the middle of an economic downturn.

But you’re also worried that if you don’t keep current with modern solutions, like cloud, your organisation could fall behind competitors.

So, this being the case, you can use a service as a sort of test drive of cloud computing.

Your investment and risk levels are both really low, because you don’t have to build the cloud—you only have to use somebody else’s, only for a period of time you choose, and only in a limited area.

Then, you can see for yourself, right away, if you’re getting a better outcome from a cloud approach or not.

Ok, so that’s a practical way for cloud providers to pitch their wares. Because for test and development purposes, people probably will get a much better outcome right away.

Clouds can create dozens of new test servers in a matter of minutes...instead of taking a matter of days, which is what a team of IT employees would probably need to do the same job manually.

Minutes instead of days! That is a powerful example of strong improvement in something you already do (lower-left corner of the Boston box) —setting up systems so you can then test new builds of applications.

Based on those undeniably impressive results, your executives will gradually become much more receptive to the possibility of using clouds more aggressively, in more ways (top-right corner of the Boston box).

Pitch new solutions not in terms of better technology, but better services

Another subtle point here has to do with the way pitches for new tech will have to change in a different way—becoming not just more business-centric, but also more service-centric.

Already, in cloud architectures, so much has become automated and virtualized—beyond the direct purview of IT team members, by design—that the focus has shifted to the services being provided. Gone are most of the technological jargon words and the complex jiggery-pokery that may fascinate you as an IT professional. Today, they’re all but irrelevant in discussing clouds, because the cloud is doing that work, not you.

So this, too, is something you’ll need to take more into account, in making such pitches. What you say should revolve not around the low-level, technical speeds and feeds, but the holistic improvement in the services, because in a cloud, those are all that should be visible anyway.

This contextual gap between tech-informed IT pros and business-centric management will, I suspect, always be an issue. IT people simply see tech in a different way from business people: as something fascinating in itself, rather than as something that is only a tool for business purposes.

We got involved in IT in the first place to play with interesting toys and see what they could do—and innovation is usually what made the toys interesting. Innovation is also obviously essential for progress—of people, companies, humanity, and maybe even the survival of the planet. We’ll always need to be able to look over the horizon and investigate strange and wonderful new ideas.

But we also have to get things done in a pragmatic way today—and that is the purview of business. So, if we want business leaders to take us seriously on the subject of new technology, we’ll need to sell it not based on the value as we perceive it, but as they perceive it.

By doing so, we not only increase the odds of getting the tech we want, but we also gain credibility likely to pay off down the road—the next time we want the organisation to get behind something new.

1 - I ventured my opinions as to why we have that legacy of cost-saving priority in a previous article in this series (http://www.ibm.com/software/tivoli/governance/action/01132011.html).

About Ivor

  • Ivor Macfarlane's photo.

    After 23 years working for the UK government, moving from forestry to IT Service Management via prisons, stores and training, Ivor now works for IBM’s Tivoli organization helping customers understand and improve their Service Management. Ivor was an ITIL author (versions 1, 2 and 3), part of the panel that wrote BS15000 (fast-tracked to ISO/IEC 20000), an ITIL trainer and examiner since 1991 and active in itSMF since 1995, having spoken for them in 33 countries.

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