Win purchase decisions

Knowing how to Play the Game

“Good morning, boss.” said Malcolm, one of my new staff, as I settled at my desk. He was holding out a piece of paper. “Barry said that we ought to have a couple of copies of this thing, so could you sign off a purchase requisition?”

Barry was my predecessor as IT Director. He had left about six weeks ago, presumably before he could authorise whatever it was that Malcolm was now talking to me about. I looked at the piece of paper. It was an order form for some software tool, purchase of which just happened to entitle the company to one place on a training course in Seattle. I smiled. It was my first morning in the job and I had not yet even had time to switch on the PC.

Looking back now, how do I characterise Malcolm’s attempt to ambush his new boss? Devious? Naïve? Probably a bit of both, but I tend also to think of him as simply not understanding the way these things work. It was and is a common problem, one I regularly encountered throughout the dozen or so years I have spent in senior management positions in the IT industry. On many occasions, I have been confronted by members of my own staff who wanted me to purchase some new software tool. Yet, invariably, their approach was flawed; they just did not know how to play the game.

So, what then should you do, as a software engineer or tester or whatever, to persuade your boss when you want the company to invest in new software? Well, like it or not, one of the first reactions many managers have when a member of their staff comes forward with such an idea is suspicion. Unfortunately, people in IT have a not entirely undeserved reputation for liking new toys to play with and your boss’s initial instinct is probably to be wary of your motives. After all, toys are an indulgence, not a business necessity.

The other main cause of suspicion is potential CV enhancement. Having experience with a new software product can seriously improve your résumé and make you far more valuable in the marketplace. Lesson One, therefore, is to be ready to prove that your intentions are pure and honourable. This may include having to convince your boss that this new gizmo is not a plaything and that you are not recommending its purchase for self-serving career reasons.

Having overcome that hurdle, there are likely to be plenty more. Before we look at what form these might take, perhaps it is worth exploring for a moment exactly why, in these situations, managers like to make their staff negotiate an obstacle course on their way to the Holy Grail of a signed purchase requisition. Many managers actually see this as an integral part of differentiating themselves from their staff. They do it to demonstrate and accentuate their authority. They also do it to show that they are not a soft touch.

All of this is rooted in the manager’s psychology and although it might betray much about his or her ego and sense of security, it has to be handled. Thus I would commend you to buttonhole your manager in a way that says, not that this new product will be good only for me or my team, but for all of us, for the body corporate. There will be kudos for all those who have championed it, including you, dear manager. Naturally there must be subtlety in this approach; the formula of words you use must not be overtly manipulative. If you need a paradigm to follow, just think of how your manager talks to you when he or she wants you to work overtime or write the online help!

And so to those other hurdles. The first and most prevalent is “We don’t have the budget”. This is often a knee-jerk response, a catch-all, sometimes an all-too-easy smokescreen behind which an unimaginative manager can hide. The issue with budget is a simple one. You and your manager both work for a business. Even if you are employed in the public or charitable sectors, you still have to operate in a commercial setting, which means that, in theory, every penny spent must be used to improve profitability and/or productivity. It is essentially irrelevant whether or not there is any allocation in the budget for your desired purchase. It is idiotic not to consider a purchase for, say, £5,000, that would save the company £20,000.

The message, then, is to think commercially. Prepare a business case, however rudimentary. In devising that case, think broadly. On the cost side, consider not just the licence fee and the annual maintenance, but also the time it will take to install, the cost of training and the time spent doing that training, the time needed for setup and data take-on, the possible need for additional hardware, networking or security. On the benefit side, look at time savings and the potential for greater throughput, as well as less tangible advantages like better deployment of human resources, staff motivation, compatibility with partners and customers and even the possible cachet for the company derived from using such a product.

Even if you feel you have a watertight business case, be ready to answer questions, to support your rationale with measured and informed argument. This may be particularly important when you meet the next hurdle, which usually comes in the form of “We don’t have the time for this”. Believe me, requests like this from staff never come during slack periods and it is often difficult to fit the time needed to install and implement new software into existing project schedules. If you encounter this hurdle, it might pay you to offer up a sacrifice. Suggest that you come in on a weekend to get the product set up. This shows belief on your part (maybe helping further to overcome any initial suspicions) and you may well gain pay-rise points for your commitment. One other tip is to suggest a limited implementation, maybe a trial project, which will not require as much time as a full deployment and which will cause only minimal disruption. The key point, here, is to be ready to trade.

Being prepared is crucial throughout this sort of dialog with your boss. Every hole he or she finds in your reasoning diminishes your chances of success. The hurdles I have already mentioned may be the most common, but there are lots of others that might spring up and forewarned is, of course, forearmed. Watch out for: “Don’t we already have something that does the same thing?”; “Why can’t we just use Excel and Outlook?”; “Isn’t this just a solution to a short-term problem?”; “How do you know it’s the best such tool available?”; “What sort of cross-product evaluation have you done?”; “How widely is the product used? Are we in danger of going down a technical cul-de-sac?”; “Is this the best price we can get?”

All good managers will welcome their staff taking the initiative and coming to them with ideas for improvement. The best will actively encourage it. Nobody should be afraid of making such an approach, nor should they be intimidated or disheartened if their boss responds with gentle interrogation. It is, perhaps, rather flippant to describe this as a game, even if it sometimes feels that way and even if elements of it are driven by your manager’s psyche. In fact, it is an important process, designed to establish the commercial validity of any proposal, not just the purchase of software.

The message is simple, then. If you want to influence your boss successfully, expect to be challenged. Do your homework, be objective, be business-like. And definitely avoid Malcolm’s first-day-on-the-job trick.