I’ve developed a sixth sense for failed enterprise software deployments. Yes, it’s an odd superpower to have — I’d much prefer the ability to stop bullets in mid-air or to leap tall buildings — but it’s one that served me well when I was a consultant.
In previous jobs, I’d be the technical expert brought in to help at to crucial moments in the enterprise sales cycle: pre-sales and post-sales. These are the points immediately before and after the handshakes and the signing of the check. These are the moments when all eyes in an organization are focused on the new, shiny software and hardware. These are the make-or-break moments for a technology vendor.
But these moments of heightened attention don’t usually make or break a large-scale IT implementation. Those happen long before or long after the vendor has disappeared from the scene. Really, my job was to spot any additional opportunities during the pre-sales period — or to help identify ways we could stand apart from the competition. Or it was to clean up after the sales guy had deposited his commission.
But although I’m fluent in geek and can cut code with the best of them, the source of my super power rests in political science 101.
Yes, that’s right. I was a liberal arts major.
If you want to understand a physical system, it helps to understand the forces that affect it. If you want to understand a human system, you need to understand the groups at work.
There are four groups at work in any large enterprise software project. There’s the software vendor, the organization that bought the software, and the consultants that implement the software.
Whoops. I said four, didn’t I? That’s because within the organization there’s actually two main groups involved: those who use the software and those who provision the software.
The secret to sniffing out a rotten enterprise software implementation is recognizing these groups and identifying how well their interests are aligned. In successful implementations, all the key players have complimentary goals and objectives. In failed implementations, these groups are working at cross-purposes, if not actively trying to sabotage each other.
Sabotage is a harsh word, isn’t it? But what else would you call:
Even in cases where everyone agrees to the broad objectives and goals of a project, the competing interests of groups and individuals can slow or block an implementation. The old political science adage for this is “where you stand is where you sit”. Some examples:
And if all that sounds dysfunctional, you should see what happens to the projects!
Yes, technology is hard. Breaking old habits is difficult. Not everyone enjoys learning new stuff. But these things can be addressed with planning and communication.
But changing the way people work — changing the way that a company does business — that’s a wicked problem.
To address a wicked problem, you need more than fancy tools. You need leadership. You need pioneers. And you need a mission.
Because without those things, these competing groups — and the interests that drive them — will pull your project apart.