There is a tendency to try and rationalize all complex decisions made in a business. Businesses are, after all, in the business of making money. Justifying a large expenditure is often done with lots of time, care and analysis.
The trouble is, many well designed projects run into problems. This is especially true in the technology world. A recent series of articles in IEEE Spectrum looked at a decade of IT failures and found that most of the projects did start with strong decisions, careful deliberation and long term planning.
When looking at complex projects in particular (much larger than most accounting firms would be involved with), this quote stands out:
“…cost overruns, delays, and reduced functionality are so common that even self-proclaimed success-stories have them.” (http://spectrum.ieee.org/static/overcomplexifying-underdelivering)
Why is it so hard to make complex projects go well?
Here’s a second quote from the same article:
“You first must have a clear understanding of what you’re trying to accomplish.”
I would like to posit that many good projects lose their way along the road to completion because they lack proper guidance. In fact, I think most projects that are started with a technology component gain too many conflicting goals along the way. In our firm, we jokingly call this “analysis-paralysis.”
There is a better way to start a project; a way that should alleviate much of the drama that comes from large technology or process related projects. Simply stated, make the project a good idea from the start.
Starting from the right spot
The IEEE Spectrum article referenced above uses two examples: IT modernization projects (bringing some system into a new technology age); and consolidating many systems into one.
For a relevant example in an accounting firm, let’s look at consolidating a number of disparate systems into one practice management solution. I won’t be giving too many specifics on the final solution but I can use this example to highlight how to approach this project using a different process.
How would you approach this problem? One method would favor taking an inventory of all of the systems you want to replace. Another might be looking at the features you want in your new system.
Before any of this gets going though, you should align everyone on a project with a solid mission or purpose. This helps the team see if the project is falling outside of scope, losing focus, or most importantly, missing deadlines or going over budget.
There are a number of methods to develop this mission. I believe that many overlook the value that comes from something simple. This is very important if the team involved in moving a project forward is multidisciplinary.
My method? Finding a statement that everyone can agree is a “good idea.”
What is a good idea?
In this context, a good idea is something you hear, see or remember and say "Wow, that's a good idea!"
Developing something that can be categorized as a good idea is much harder than it looks. I think this is why the process is often shortchanged. It takes time to boil down complex information into a simple formula for success.
All good ideas share these characteristics:
- They are relevant to the group or team (and hopefully, everyone that gets impacted)
- They are understandable (often at a glance)
- They are repeatable
I think the concept of a good idea goes a step further than a simple purpose statement. Let’s look at the three characteristics of a good idea and consider why this concept can help align teams and build consensus on complex projects.
Reverse engineering a good idea
If we use the practice management consolidation example, we can start to look at how the consolidation can become a good idea. In order to find the right mix of characteristics, we are going to reverse engineer the good idea and present it to our team.
Question 1: Why is this complex project relevant to our team?
In a large scale infrastructure project, you should be able to answer this question without hesitation. In addition, there should not be a long answer forthcoming. Imagine yourself in the midst of this project. How would you answer the following questions from a coworker who is not directly involved in the project?
- Why would consolidating 23 systems and spreadsheets into one consolidated system be a good idea for our firm?
- Why should we spend $1.2 million over the next three years to do this project?
Here is my suggestion:
We will combine our client information to make more effective decisions.
Why is this a good start? It is relevant to our clients. It means we are combining disparate sources. And, we need to make effective decisions from this information.
Question 2: How can I make this complex project understandable at a glance?
Imagine that you are explaining this consolidation project to someone who is not directly involved. Now, let’s take our first stab and present it to the individual.
We will combine our client information to make more effective decisions.
Is this understandable to someone not on the team? It will definitely generate more questions. But what is missing to make it understandable?
For one, how will we combine this information? What about the information that the listener is responsible for? Also, what decisions need to be effective?
We will consolidate valuable client information to make more effective business decisions.
Question 3: How can I make this complex project simple enough to explain so that anyone could do it?
This question is a tricky one. The goal is not to make it so someone could run off and complete the project. The goal is to make it simple enough that your listener could repeat it to someone else and they would both understand what the project was about.
So, in review, let’s say our listener from Question 2 is talking to a coworker. In response to a “what are they doing?” question, he or she responds:
They will consolidate valuable client information to make more effective business decisions.
This is getting very close. But at this point, no one with direct project knowledge is in the discussion. How can this be a good idea to someone who is not involved?
Here are some questions that will likely be asked at this point:
- Where will this information be?
- How will I be able to use it?
- Will the business decisions affect me?
In order to make the good idea work in a removed case, you cannot add more words. In fact, fewer words may make the project easier to understand at a high level.
Here is my final suggestion:
We will remember valuable information so we can make more effective decisions.
There are a number of changes here that are important to distinguish:
- They becomes we. The result will not be isolated to the team doing the work.
- Combine becomes remember. Combining does not show action. Remembering means we have the ability to store and retrieve information.
- Remove client. The information here may be internal and not client specific.
- Add so we. Again, this is a company-wide result.
Aligning the project to the good idea
How does this simple statement help us define, proceed and implement a complex project? For one, we can use our team’s good idea to ask the question “Is this a good idea?” when looking at a possible solution. This is code in the project team for “Does it align with our good idea?”
In addition, people outside of the team have something with which they can agree. It would be a good idea to be able to remember valuable information. It’s an even better one to use it to make effective decisions. In a project briefing, the listeners should be able to use this statement to review progress and ask questions.
In fact, I propose that at high level briefings this statement should be posted somewhere obvious. At regular intervals the people in the room should be invited to match what they are hearing against the good idea. If it does not match up, discuss why.
Using good ideas to define your projects and decisions
Simplifying a complex project down to one statement is hard work. It may even feel like wasted time to people who like to roll up their sleeves and dive in. However, the effort will pay off down the road as you are able to compare what you are doing against an aligning statement.
Also, you can refine your goals and milestones as you look at your statement. If a timeline starts sliding, ask if that is a good idea. What happened to make the timeline shift? Is there another option to address the problem? If a new option is presented, should it be added to this project? Is that a good idea?
Match each new challenge to your good idea. Each suggested solution should be able to answer the question “Will this help us remember valuable information so we can make more effective decisions?” If not, you should adjust until it does.
The projects we take on often proceed past the point of being a good idea. The amount of time and effort invested is taken into account and with that comes the “cost” of backing out or looking at an alternate. Hopefully, using an aligning good idea statement will trim this type of logic early on. Hopefully, it makes the project, when completed, a good idea for the entire firm to use.