I saw a shooting star the other day, a meteor streaking across the sky as it burned up in the atmosphere. A lot of IT projects are like that meteor: they briefly get a lot of attention, they brighten the lives of the people who observe them, but then they fade into oblivion when they’re done, having no real impact on anything. Only a few meteors survive their trip through the Earth’s atmosphere to arrive on the ground as meteorites. And only a few wildly successful IT projects that are done each year make a significant difference to the business.
How do you tell which IT projects are going to make a significant difference? For the answer, you have to look at the business itself. What’s holding your company back? What’s the biggest limitation to your company’s business? Or, to put it another way, what’s stopping your business from having ten times the revenue, or ten times the profit, or, if you’re a non-profit organization, ten times the effectiveness in accomplishing its mission?
Business is about dealing with limitations, and any business grows until we encounter one of those limitations. It might be a limit on the number of customers we can find and support; it might be a limit on our ability to manufacture products; it might even be a limit on the number of good product ideas we can come up with. It could be a tangible limit, like a limit on the capital we can raise and invest, or a limit on the space our business occupies. Or it might be a mental limit, like a limit on the number of people we can manage, or a limit on the number of new employees we can hire in a certain period of time.
When a business bumps up against one of these limits, its growth stalls. Slow growth may continue, but not at the rate that could be achieved without the limit in place. Various strategies may be employed to circumvent the limit: heading in a different direction, acquiring another company that has found a way around the limit, or even breaking up the organization into pieces so that each piece can attack the limit individually. For example, W. L. Gore and Associates, Inc., creator of Gore-Tex® fabric, doesn’t like the idea of creating complex organizations. so it has a large number of plants each made up of a few hundred employees or less, with the work in each plant done using a “lattice” team structure. Gore has grown by adding more plants rather than by making any one plant bigger.
Most significant limitations are considered immovable
You’ve probably heard about elephants in India who are trained to do heavy lifting and construction work. When the elephants are just babies, they’re kept from running away by chaining them to small stakes driven into the ground. The baby elephants struggle against the chains, but they’re not strong enough to pull the stakes out of the ground. Gradually, the elephants accept their fate and stop struggling. Later, as the elephants mature and grow stronger, the same size stake is still used, even though the mature elephant could easily pull it out of the ground. But the elephant doesn’t realize this; it continues to recognize a limitation that no longer exists.
Businesses are like these elephants. I’m constantly amazed when I talk to executives and business owners and I hear the assumptions they make. They’re restricted by limitations that haven’t been tested in years: certain kinds of products don’t sell, certain sales techniques don’t work, customers won’t use self-service tools, automation can’t be used for certain processes. The executives think they’re right, at least until someone (usually a competitor) comes along and proves them wrong.
Remove an important limitation, and you’ll have a significant project
The most significant projects performed in a business are the ones that remove a critical business limitation, or drastically reduce the impact of that limitation on the business. Projects which don’t address business limitations are fluff: they may make business life better for a few people, but they don’t make a significant contribution to the business, and they’re not likely to be remembered in the long term.
Unfortunately, most IT projects are fluff, because most IT projects make improvements in relatively trivial business processes. And while there’s nothing wrong with such improvements, there’s not a lot that’s right about them either.
If you want your IT organization to make a real difference, if you want to get the national recognition that you feel you deserve, then you’ve got to earn that recognition by removing an important limitation in your business. For example, in the mid-80’s I worked with a financial services company which performed a very labor-intensive accounting service for its customers. Since labor was the most important limitation to the business, we did a study on how the information workers spent their time. We discovered a result consistent with the 80-20 rule: 80% of the labor time was spent on 20% of the processes. We rank-ordered the processes that took the most labor hours and focused our IT efforts on improving the ones that would make the most difference. Within less than a year we increased labor efficiency by over 200%, enabling the same workers to handle three times the volume. We didn’t spend a lot of money, and we didn’t use any “bleeding edge” technology; we just applied common IT principles to the processes where they would have the biggest impact.
And we didn’t stop there; we continued to focus on the limitations of the business and make progress in making things better. When efficiency was no longer the primary limitation, we focused on the other limitations of the business: quality, keeping the customer informed, providing good financial controls. The journey never ended – it just shifted direction – as the business grew, got past one limitation and then another.
How do you know what significant business limitations are?
Here are some tips:
1. Look at your company from the outside-in. What limitations are imposed on you from the outside? How might those limitations be overcome? What do your customers want that you don’t offer? What do your competitors offer that you can’t provide?
2. Look at your company financial statements. Where is most of the money going? Is there an opportunity to make drastic cuts in expense by applying technology?
3. Challenge the idea that certain business limitations are immovable. It’s important to periodically test “hard and fast” assumptions. Technology evolves and becomes less expensive, and customer circumstances change over time. For example, online access to certain kinds of data was impossible several years ago because of bandwidth limitations and because of people’s reluctance to use the Internet for critical tasks. But attitudes change, and now might be the time to do something that couldn’t be done a few years ago.
4. Use fill-in-the-blanks statements to help you think of ideas. For example, use the statement “My business would be _____ [better, or faster, or more efficient, or more profitable, or whatever] if only I could _____, or if only we didn’t _____.” Brainstorm a hundred ideas for each of the blanks, and then pick the best ones to pursue.
5. Although larger meteors are more likely to make it to Earth as meteorites, the reverse is true for projects; larger projects are more likely to fail. So even when you put together a project to eliminate a huge business limitation, break the project into small chunks which can be accomplished one at a time. The smaller chunks will be easier to fund, and will have a much higher likelihood of success.
There’s a tradition of making a wish when you see a shooting star, but it takes more than wishes to create a wildly successful project. If you identify significant business limitations, and overcome them by applying process improvement skills and technology, then you’ll be assured that your project will get more attention than the brief light of a meteor streaking across the sky. And succeeding at such a project can make you a star in your own right.