In a recent series of posts on HBR, Susan Cramm talked about the problem of getting IT leaders and business leaders to agree on how to approach system redesign projects. That led naturally enough to a discussion about Big-Bang versus iterative approaches, and how the latter make some business leaders nervous. The paradox is that an iterative approach sounds open-ended and difficult to control, but a well thought-out iterative approach often delivers value to the organization more quickly. That begs the question, what does a well thought-out iterative approach look like?
Most system implementation projects involve groups of people learning to work in new ways, so a better way to phrase it might be what does a ‘learning approach’ look like? Defined that way, visible success would be people using the new software tools to work in ways that are more efficient and effective than what they did before. Adults usually learn best when new things are set in a context that matters to them and then broken down into incremental steps that let them to pace forward in cycles that build on what they have learned. The implementation process should be structured the same way — give the people who will work with the system a context for understanding the changes and then equip them to learn in cycles.
In practice this means starting with a short term goal (say 8 – 12 months) that people can easily see as a foundation step toward the benefits that originally prompted the resign initiative. Was it finance, customer service, order management or something else? That goal should be big enough to deliver tangible value but it should not be too big either (that just sets people up to fail, and creates a bigger hole to dig out of than doing nothing). Renting some expert help early in the game helps to make sure that initial scope definition doesn’t lock in mistakes that could be expensive to fix later.
With a first stage implementation scope in hand, the people working to make it happen need the time and resources they need to do the job right. Also, senior managers need to reinforce the message about what is changing and why at every opportunity. That includes requiring the sponsor to stay visibly and intimately involved with the project team. Celebrating the success of achieving the first milestone helps everyone start to see a long process of change as something positive.
One outcome of first-stage success is that some of the internal team become experts who can support the rest of the redesign process. Dividing the change road-map into 4-6 month cycles will help the change process to keep pace with the rest of what is going on in the organization, and keep use of the system focused on things that actually matter to the business.