IT Leadership


5 Questions to Ask IT Before a Project Kicks Off

It’s often useful to interview customers to understand their perspectives about their suppliers. In these discussions, open-ended questions about supplier “success stories” and “horror stories” can prompt enlightening replies. Answers in the latter category invariably connect to some supplier failure to deliver, an implementation problem that had implications for the customer’s business. And a surprising number of these problems were traced by the customer to some change in the supplier’s IT and business systems that rippled through to impact on the customer organization.

So it is highly worthwhile for executives to ask questions of their enterprise IT management teams that can help them collectively avoid becoming the subject of a future “horror story” told by customers. The following paragraphs outline the top five questions that should be asked of every enterprise IT management team.

As a preface to the full list of five questions, I note that if the organization only has the capacity to ask one question, the first one on the following list is the one to ask. Knowing the answer to that question and addressing its implications in the project plan is absolutely critical. Question #1 defines an action that must be on the roster of mandatory elements of a project plan. This is not to diminish the importance of the other four entries on the list, but #1 is the one of critical importance.

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  1. Do you know when and how this project might impact our customers — under not only the scenario where it goes smoothly, but also under the various scenarios reflecting project risk and uncertainty?

    Any change to a supplier’s business systems will inevitably impact customers, sometimes in direct ways such as requiring them to use a new process to place orders, other times indirectly by changing the cadence of the supplier’s response to customer orders and requests.

    Best-in-class companies do a detailed mapping of which of their processes are explicitly customer-facing, and they put into place a game plan to inform and involve the customers in the implementation plan. They also examine all processes to identify when and how they will (or could under certain situations) impact on customers, and plan ahead to ensure that in the best case, the transition is a “win” for customers — and in the awful cases, the changes are controlled and never an unpleasant surprise for customers.

  2. Is the project team as skilled at implementation as it is in technology strategy development?

    This observation doesn’t only apply to IT project teams; it’s one that organizations can learn from in general. Most organizations hire people that are superbly qualified in their technical disciplines and then augment that with ongoing in-career education programs to ensure their skills are current and sharp.

    But only a few organizations make an equal investment in project management and implementation skills, despite the fact that execution is equal in weight to strategy when the final accounting is done. Investing in the implementation skills of the organization and its employees is a secret to success that can be learned from best practice firms. It applies here as well.

  3. Are Plans B and C in place?

    When discussing implementation challenges, senior executives often invoke Murphy’s Law — if something can go wrong, it will go wrong. Their prescription is addressing that inevitability in advance, getting to the point where problems encountered during implementation were ones that had been game-planned in advance. Among the best advice given is “make sure the implementation process is never an adventure.” Few firms can foresee all the possibilities — that’s why Murphy makes an occasional appearance even in the best-run firms — but the more possibilities that are anticipated and planned for, the better.

  4. Are the departments outside IT aware of their roles and responsibilities — and particularly as to how they will have to change their own processes — so that they become contributors to the project’s success?

    No plan of any type, and certainly no enterprise IT plan, is implemented in isolation. It requires a lot of involvement of other departments and functions across the organization, and often from outside the organization’s walls (think suppliers, sales channel partners, etc.). Part of the planning process involves identifying the roles that each of them has to play and the changes that each of them are going to have to make and be ready for, at a “What-Who-When” level of detail.

    And once the changes are understood, the next challenge is that of getting them on board and ready to make those changes.

    Far too many implementation problems can be traced to some version of “I never understood that we were supposed to … “

  5. Does everyone — from top management down — agree upon the metrics (both the variables and the target levels) that will be used to evaluate this project, and do they agree that it these targets are hit, it will be a reason for celebration?

    One of the saddest outcomes of a project is an after-the-fact expression of disappointment in the contributions that it generated. Most such situations could have been avoided by a pre-implementation focus on outcome metrics and targets.

    Too often, the pre-implementation discussion is technical, with many of the organization’s executives and internal customers either unable to meaningfully understand the discussion or choosing to tune out during the discussion. Focusing on metrics and targets in a language that makes sense to the company’s senior executives and the other departments throughout the organization is a route to allow post-project celebration of real contributions that delivered value to shareholders.

Asking these five questions — and working as hard on the answers to them as is done on the technical elements of the enterprise IT strategy — can be not only a route to avoiding becoming the subject of some customer’s “horror story,” but also the means of elevating the project internally.

Enterprise IT projects can make significant contributions to improving your corporation’s business position, but like any major investment that involves change and the potential for disruption, an aggressive effort to address the themes suggested by these five questions can help to ensure a positive outcome on your firm’s next project.

George F. Brown, Jr., is CEO and cofounder of Blue Canyon Partners. Along with Atlee Valentine Pope, he is also coauthor of CoDestiny: Overcome Your Growth Challenges by Helping Your Customers Overcome Theirs.

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