The Why, How, What of Implementing IT Systems

November 28, 2012 Appirio

By John Gorup (@appiriojohn)

Photo courtesy of startwithwhy.com

Simon Sinek uncovered a simple, yet profound bit of wisdom, “start by asking ‘Why?’ Sinek uses a simple illustration to make his point, called The Golden Circle, which “…explains why some people and organizations are more innovative, more influential, command greater loyalty and are able to repeat their success over and over.” If you have 18 minutes to spare, grab a cup of coffee and listen to Sinek’s TED Talk: How Great Leaders Inspire Action. It will be well worth your time.

After I first listened to Sinek, I started to think of how applicable his ideas are to the world I live in – helping organizations implement IT systems. The cloud has revolutionized the speed at which systems can be implemented, but organizations still struggle. From my perspective, the main cause of these struggles are not technical problems, but are organizational change problems. Weighed down by legacy systems supporting complex business processes, organizations need a better framework to achieve more successful results. We can borrow Sinek’s ideas to make the puzzles a little less puzzling.

Why?

An organization needs to establish a clear answer to why it is implementing a new IT system. An answer might be:

  • To increase revenue
  • To decrease costs
  • To improve customer satisfaction
  • To unify information across business units (to get better data)
  • Because some guy on Twitter said it was a good idea
  • All of the above

Actually, the last two answers are bad ones. As great as social media is, it has also accelerated the proliferation of buzzwords and IT trends. Be careful pursuing an IT trend simply because it is a trend. (I call it the ‘some guy on Twitter’ approach.)

Also, the “all of the above” is a tempting answer, and may in fact be true, but is unhelpful. The answer to the “why question” serves two purposes: first, to establish a large vision that inspires action. Secondly, this answer gives a framework for future decisions. So, choose one answer to the “why question,” or at the very least rank them from most important to least.

An organization shouldn’t need consultants to answer this question; it should come from key decision makers. In fact, when engaging with consultants, the answer to your “why question” should be one of the first things that you tell them.

How?

“Fast, good or cheap. Pick two,” is the old project management cliche.  Despite the gains in efficiency brought on by cloud computing and agile development, the truth in this cliche still holds, and it is a useful way of looking at IT projects.

When answering “how” to implement an IT solution, pick two of the three choices. Most organizations could benefit from implementing several solutions, each with a different “how” approach. Start with some fast-cheap projects, move on to a good-cheap project or two, then do a fast-good project.  Let me explain how these approaches differ.

Fast-cheap: A fast-cheap project helps you understand the capabilities of a platform. The purpose is to get some basic functionality or a prototype completed as quickly as possible.  This solution may not be scalable, but can give your users something to use right away that may inspire other ideas you have not thought of. Fast-cheap projects can be done by your IT staff, by a consulting partner in a fixed-fee fashion, or by using a crowdsourcing platform like Appirio’s CloudSpokes. One of the great benefits of cloud computing is that it makes fast-cheap projects more economical than ever.

Good-cheap: A good-cheap project is a longer-term effort to ensure the quality and scalability of an IT system. A good-cheap effort could be lead by an internal team, and involve in-depth use case analysis, the establishment of standards, and a robust user-acceptance phase. The idea of a good-cheap project is to set up a slower-paced effort to increase code quality and handle a wider range of business scenarios. A good-cheap project is a great follow-up to a series of fast-cheap projects, by building on the lessons learned.

Fast-good: Save fast-good projects for your most important IT efforts. These are the projects the organization will most benefit from a consulting partner, in order to gain from their depth of experience. Of course, “fast” is a relative term: a global accounting system for a large company, for example, will take some time. But the point is to move as fast as possible while maintaining a high-degree of user acceptance and code quality.

Making the decision of “how” to implement an IT solution will help your organization utilize your resources effectively, and help set your expectations appropriately. Also, when looking for a consulting partner through an RFP, make sure the bidding firms are aware of which approach you are looking for. If you have one firm making a fast-cheap bid, and one making a fast-good bid, you will be comparing apples and oranges. Also, consulting firms will tell you that they can do a project fast-good-cheap, but that untrue. Some may be better than others, but ultimately, a consulting firm that promises to do all three will fail to meet expectations

What?

As you can imagine, once the “why” and “how” questions are answered, the “what” question is easier to answer. Many times I have seen organizations start with the “what question” and try to retrofit themselves back into the other two questions. Falling in love with a specific technical approach or pre-built solution can sometimes work through good fortune, but can often lead to frustration. The answers to the “why question” should be ensconced in the brain of every person making specific technical decisions: such as to buy or to build, to use out-of-the box, to customize, how to configure, and so on.

Sinek’s ideas cover grander subjects than an organization’s IT systems, but the way he looks at the world also explains why some IT efforts succeed while others flounder.

John Gorup is a solutions architect at Appirio. He has been helping organizations implement CRM, e-learning, and custom business IT solutions for more than 15 years. John has an MBA from the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business.

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