It’s always about changing the business.
There is, you’re probably tired of reading, no such thing as an IT project. It’s always about business change. Sadly, many IT organizations are stuck in the old way of thinking. Their life cycle is still waterfall: Feasibility, requirements, external design, internal design, construction, testing, and implementation. It’s up to the affected departments to figure out how they should run differently while IT goes about its business.
More enlightened organizations do it differently. In place of “feasibility” (a meaningless term: It’s always feasible; the question is whether it makes sense) they start with a business plan. In place of requirements, external design and internal design they undertake analysis, functional design, and specification. Much better: Analysis looks at the current state of the business; functional design is a high-level look at the desired future state that references the current state to make sure nothing important gets lost.
But it’s not quite good enough, because it’s backward. Analyze, then design does seem like the logical order of events, largely because it is the logical order of events. Logic, though, isn’t always what it’s cracked up to be.
What’s the problem?
Okay, we’re going to redesign the company’s whole order entry process. You’re on the team. The business plan looks good. The project launches, the team is pumped, and what’s the first task it undertakes? Not the fun stuff. Analyzing the current state sucks the energy right out of the team.
Sometimes, it never returns.
Design the future state first. Doing so will float all kinds of questions that can only be answered by analyzing the current state. The team will then dig into analysis of the current state with a solid purpose behind it. Logical, no?
So far so good. But there’s still one remaining issue we have to deal with: Most process re-engineering projects begin with a tacit assumption that the current state is a bad design. Usually, that’s just plain wrong. Also, it’s insulting to the process managers who must become champions of your project in order for it to succeed.
To explain, I have to reveal one of the deep secrets of the consulting gurus: It’s easy to make the current state look awful.
There’s nothing to it, in fact. All you have to do is move the boxes around so as many lines cross as possible, while including every logical branch and exception in a single flow chart. Compared to that ugly mess, the elegant concept that is your functional design is clearly superior.
Except, of course, that it isn’t. At some point in the proceedings you’ll have to build in provisions for every one of those logical branches and exceptions. The fact of the matter is that most “legacy processes” are nowhere near as bad as they seem. Many are really quite good, given the limitations of the technology on which they are built; even the worst are simply an accumulation of necessary decisions made one-at-a-time over a long span of time.
Take this reality into account when you formulate your business plan (or “Feasibility Study” if you insist). I’ve seen multi-hundred percent savings forecasts, produced by very senior (and expensive) consultants, simply evaporate during the slow march from great concept to hard reality.
So whether you’re leading the team or you’ve brought in outside experts, here’s some advice you can take to the bank: Assume everyone has been smart. That will force you to ask the really important question: What will your project bring into the situation that will enable serious improvement? Because there’s one thing I’ll guarantee:
Even the best process designers have a hard time improving on a process that works if they don’t change the rules.
Credit where it’s due: The recommendation that you don’t automatically assume something you don’t fully understand was done wrong came from Carlton Vogt, author of Enterprise Ethics (www.enterprise-ethics.com). Carlton’s opinions are always worth reading … including, I hope, the one here.