Scary Times for IT

In honor of Halloween, I thought we might take this opportunity to scare our information technology colleagues, as well as those knowledge management folks who have been unable to rise above and beyond technology. Let’s start with an interesting piece by Susan Cramm entitled IT Project Funding: Less is More. In it she confronts the reality that IT budgets are likely to be slashed during the downturn, and proposes a new way of working in face of this reality. She suggests that the old “boil the ocean” approach of grand projects based on years of painful analysis is not going to cut it any more — especially in light of her assertion that while “only 1/3 of IT-enabled business initiatives deliver as planned, project success declines dramatically as project size increases.”

Continuing with her theme that bigger is not necessarily better, she recommends the following alternative approach:

Given that only about 20% of applications functionality is typically used (and which 20% is unpredictable), it’s impossible to figure it all out in advance. The key to bringing the future forward is getting tools in the hands of the users as quickly as possible. If they use them, you are on the right track. If they don’t, find out why and give it another go.

This stumbling and bumbling, learn-by-doing approach may seem a little chaotic, but it’s reflective of how organizations, and people, change and grow. Mistakes will be made, but it’s better to make a series of small mistakes and mid-course corrections, than it is to make one huge, multi-million dollar mistake from which there is no way to recover.

Without a doubt, this approach will be infinitely more successful if you have the kind of corporate culture I described yesterday in my post When Failure is Fine. However, even if you don’t yet have that culture, take advantage of the constraints imposed by the economy to manage and change the expectations of your users. Since your law firm is unlikely to set aside unlimited funds for a large technology or knowledge management project, dial down expectations and ask your users to join you in a journey through the land of perpetual beta. They trade the possibility of perfection (which rarely is realized) for the actuality of functional and timely technology. Even the most demanding users will come to realize that having the technology in use is better than having unfulfilled paper plans.

Being a kind and generous person, let me offer a treat to offset the trickiness of the fast-delivery approach advocated by Cramm. She recommends that you have the following in place if you wish to maximize your chances of delivering the right technology quickly:

  • Executive leadership: Don’t confuse sponsorship with leadership. Sponsors show up at steering committee meetings when invited, leaders demonstrate passion and commitment by showing up in cubicles and conference rooms uninvited
  • Clear definition of success: Use process measurements that impact financial performance and baseline them at the start of the project
  • Predefined kill switch: Take the emotion out of the decision making process by defining what defines failure, so that the project can fail fast and be restarted when conditions are more favorable
  • Small, experienced team: Wait to start your project until you have a seasoned project manager supported by a small team (less than 12) of full time, subject matter experts
  • Laser sharp focus on critical requirements: Avoid defining requirements by committee by using the success measurements to manage scope
  • Respect for the future and the past: Factor in the implications of existing business and technology plans while accelerating progress by leveraging legacy systems and existing infrastructure
  • There you have it — a cautionary tale for Halloween. Scary times are ahead, but a willingness to adapt (together with some nimble footwork) should allow you to make useful advances with respect to your firm’s technology despite the economy. In the process, you’ll shed the tendency for bloated IT and knowledge management projects, and adopt a sleeker, streamlined approach that is more in keeping with the times.

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