Formula For Failure

by | Jun 9, 2014

A large department store retailer was launching a major initiative to revamp its stores’ technology infrastructure and streamline operations. At the project’s kick-off meeting, the chief information officer stood up, walked over to a chalkboard and wrote: 

OP + NT = EOP

He turned to the assembled team from store operations, finance, logistics and technology plus the software vendors and consulting partners and asked who knew what this formula meant. After a few moments of uncomfortable silence, he explained the formula: an old process (OP) plus a new technology (NT) equals an expensive old process (EOP). The team’s job, he said, was to avoid this formula for failure. The team’s job was not to automate what the company was already doing but to reinvent the way the company did business. It needed new processes supported by new technology to drive efficiency and to better serve the customer.

This simple idea set the tone for the project. It became a touchstone for the team. It was a constant reminder of their mission. It gave each team member permission to ask “why do we do it this way” and “how can we do better?” It allowed them to challenge the phrase “that’s the way we have always done it” which abounds in so many projects and is the ultimate innovation killer.

For most project teams, asking why and looking for ways to improve is important but it does not guarantee that they will avoid the Formula for Failure. There are many factors that can drive a project team to turn an old process into an expensive old process, and it’s common to experience more than one at a time. Here are 10 of the most common reasons. Perhaps, you will recognize a few:

  1. New Team, New Focus. After a project has been funded, ownership of that project typically shifts from the business person or team that has the need and created a business case to a delivery function or team. This could be the information technology department or a project management office (PMO). The previous owner typically stays involved as a project sponsor or subject matter expert while they continue to do their day job. The team running the project may not understand why this project was funded to begin with or simply assume that delivering a technical solution will deliver business results. They don’t realize that they need to change the old process.

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