Putting some thoughts down while waiting for conversions to run this weekend as an ERP project goes live, on original budget and original schedule (wish I had never tipped off to senior management we were actually aiming for an early go live for much of the project).

In 25 years of experience working with great companies across a variety of industries, I see IT leaders engaging with business leadership to shape project commitments in four ways:

  1. Some answer “Yes,” to all requirements, work heroic hours and under-deliver
  2. Some reflexively just say “No”
  3. Some answer “With enough time and enough money… (meaning No)”
  4. Some engage in a discussion starting with “Yes, and…”

You can guess which type of leader has a great relationship with their business partners.  There are many other prerequisites for a great IT / business partnership, such as the right organizational design, great people, great planning, and great project management.  But it all starts with how you engage your business partners.

Almost all of us in IT start off in Stage One.  IT is a service function, and most of us want to deliver good customer service.  As an IT leader, anytime you are in an initial meeting and find yourself agreeing to scope and either cost or timeframe (or worst case, both), you know you’ve fallen into the Stage One trap.  Saying “yes” up front feels like you are delivering great customer service.  If you have not done the work to understand what it will really take to deliver under real world conditions, you will invariably underestimate – and no one else in the room will remember the caveats given with that initial estimate.

Out of our two dozen or so core team members on my current project, four had jury duty in the last eight weeks leading to go live, and seven (7) had visits to the emergency room between Integration Test and production release!  Try incorporating that in a project plan.  An off-the-cuff estimate almost never properly accounts for the complexities and vagaries of a real-world project of any size.

No matter how early the team recognizes the over-commitment and tries to make it up by working harder, there is no number of all-nighters that can make up for a schedule that is off by a factor of 2 to 10, and the business is disappointed at the delivery time and cost even if they like the end application.  If revenue goals or headcount reductions have been based on delivery of the project, the business IT relationship is off to a rocky start.

Some IT leaders then fall into the “Just say No,” trap.  Having been burned by over commitment in the past, they try to compensate by never committing, or setting dates that are so far out they know they will beat them handily.  Two things quickly happen once this pattern sets in:  the business demands results anyway, and when IT finally delivers, these same leaders are just aggravated at the effort it took to cajole IT to get there.  Even successful delivery builds no good will between business and IT groups.

“With enough time and money…”  Once an IT leader reaches this stage, she is almost to the point of building a positive ongoing relationship with the business.  The full phrase goes “With enough time and money, we can build anything.”  This can just be another screen to hide behind — when do you ever get enough time or enough money, much less both?  Getting a realistic estimate is a necessary foundation for getting back to ‘Yes’, but it does not take you the whole way.  The important thing to recognize is that this is where the creativity starts.  If the IT or business leaders start treating the plan as if this as an arm’s length vendor negotiation to drive to the lowest price, they are both missing a big opportunity.

“Yes, and…”  The real power of the partnership comes through when both sides start taking a “Yes, and…” approach.  The ERP project may cost millions of dollars and thousands of lives, but can some of the benefits be delivered far ahead of project completion, with a big effect on ROI?  If Finance wants a nifty automated posting interface from one system to another, can you get them 90% of the benefit with an upload-able spreadsheet and have it done in a tenth of the time?

I always approach these discussions as additions, at least at the start.  The first objective is not to cut scope, it is to creatively meet a crucial part of the business need even faster than the business is asking for.  This drives three big positive outcomes for your financial and operations stakeholders:

  • If the business decides that that solution is actually all they need – terrific, and you just freed up resources for other projects
  • If the original project is still needed, you have at least increased ROI since some benefits are being realized sooner
  • Finally, if the full project will take longer than the business would like (which it always does) the impact of that timing is softened

Sometimes this also serves as a mini-prototyping exercise for a crucial part of the project, allowing some adjustments to be made in the end solution.

Once an operation has reasonably competent management, the richest opportunities for out-performing the competition come from optimizing the edges:  your interaction with your customers and/or your vendors. The same thing is true within departments of a given business, and in many organizations the IT / Business partnership is the most fertile partnership to examine to begin unlocking this value.

For more information, please contact FSI at Info@FSI-Services.com