Technology initiatives rarely fail because of the technology. Software and other technologies can and often do work as intended for thousands of users. So why does the degree of success vary so much from one implementation to another? Why do some businesses struggle to merely install a solution, while others successfully and profoundly transform?

Those who succeed usually adhere to key guiding principles, among them:

  • Understand why a technology change is needed
  • Evaluate benefits honestly, and focus all efforts on realizing them
  • Empower the right talent in the organization and maintain effective governance
  • Assimilate early the business changes imposed by the new solution
  • Recognize the role corporate culture plays in successful transformations

Understand why a technology change is needed.

Frustration with aging software isn’t in itself a good enough reason to invest millions in a new solution. There has to be a “better” reason: existing systems can no longer support the business, have become unstable or there is no knowledge left on how to maintain them; or the need to simplify process complexity, process higher transactional volume or expand in new markets. No matter the reason, business transformation is not about maintaining the “business-as-usual” status quo.

As it turns out, technology-based transformation is mostly NOT about technology. It is about a conscious undertaking to implement the critical, forward thinking changes a business needs to get to the next level; it is about simplifying processes, streamlining information, increasing accuracy and efficiency where it matters most.

Much of the prep work should actually begin before the new solution is introduced: optimizing processes and developing a clear understanding of current challenges and their root causes will help make better informed decisions down the line, and deliver a clearer strategy upon which to anchor new technology decisions, leading us to guiding principle number 2:

Evaluate benefits honestly, and focus all efforts on realizing them.

There are many challenges to getting this right.

First, new technology investments are often backed by the claim that they will increase sales or decrease payroll. Easy to sell, but how often do these predictions come to pass? Improvement targets are often derived from wishful thinking rather than rigorous analysis. Metrics such as "Sales" are affected by many variables often indirectly related to the project, when at all. Success criteria should be directly traceable to the initiative, and improvement targets based on reasonable supporting analysis.

Second, management can be reluctant to acknowledge that technology-based transformation may not equally benefit everyone in the organization. Those who see their job functions adversely affected (or eliminated) may resist or actively oppose the change. Management must communicate early and openly about why change is needed and what impact it may have. Transformation initiatives often succeed or fail thanks to the collaboration - or steadfast opposition - of those affected by them.

Third, as implementation efforts get under way and long-term objectives fade out of view, focus can easily shift toward more tactical discussions that can lead to scope creep, unplanned customizations, increased costs and delays. Leadership and governance are necessary to bring focus back to core objectives and valid concerns.

To remedy the pitfalls discussed above, follow guiding principle #3:

Empower the right talent in the organization and maintain effective governance.

Transforming a business is not for the faint of heart. Consequences are far reaching and will be felt for years. Why then is it so difficult to get the best and brightest resources assigned to the initiative to ensure its success?

“We have a business to run” is the classic line used to keep the best talent focused on day-to-day execution. But as they prepare to transform, businesses should leverage their best talent to define their future. High contributors should be made part owners of the transformation process, and increasingly become responsible and accountable for it. Through their involvement, high contributors will not only consolidate their position, they will also make the transformation more successful over the long term by ensuring key employees are motivated and retained.

If involving the right talent is key, so is managing and controlling it through effective governance. Governance limits the amount of time spent off-topic, keeps project teams focused on objectives, and ensures the project keeps moving at all times.

Which leads us to guiding principle number 4:

Assimilate early the key business changes imposed by the new solution.

A new software solution or technology typically comes with its own set of structuring constraints (i.e. locations or merchandise hierarchies in retail). To fully realize the benefits of the solution, a business may have to change historical structures which could significantly disrupt well established practices and processes for itself and its partners.

Such decisions are understood to be critical and impacting, but they are also complex and rarely addressed before the new solution is committed to. To make matters worse, technology vendors have become experts at pre-sale show-and-tells that highlight benefits and avoid exposing potential challenges. Businesses should limit painful surprises down the line and take time early to understand key details and impacts.

On a different but related level, a commonly held view is that new solutions may be viable if they meet 75% or more of requirements. But today, market leaders will likely do so out of the box. In my view, a more relevant question is whether or not the solution can meet the 25% of requirements that makes the company fundamentally different and unique. They may also be the ones that give it an edge and make it successful.

Once structuring decisions are made and their impact understood, the question is: can the business and its people assimilate and internalize those changes? Which leads us to guiding principle number 5:

Recognize the role corporate culture plays in successful transformations.

Culture is usually not a central consideration in technology-based transformation initiatives. New technology solutions are usually evaluated from the cold-hearted perspective of functional and non-functional requirements. But this approach fails to recognize the relevance of the human dimension.

Culture in a business is both cause and consequence, and it shapes nearly everything a business does. Some promote formality, rigid controls, hierarchies and organizations; others feed on informal relationships, creativity and flexibility. Some work hard and play hard, others are all work and no play. Transforming a business goes deeper than simply moving boxes and arrows on a page: it deals with the pride people take in doing their work, and the way in which they have evolved what they do and how they do it.

Culture should be a key determinant in evaluating the degree of suitability of a new solution. A solution that depends on rigidly defined workflows may not be a fit for a business that is creative and impulsive. A solution that offers limitless configurability options may not be suitable to transform a business looking for guidance on how to introduce greater operational control and standardization.

In closing.

For most businesses, transforming through technology is an ongoing and periodic necessity. With a clear strategy and adequate preparation, it can also be profoundly beneficial. Together, the factors discussed here provide a foundational framework to ensure that the transformation initiative is justified, a suitable solution is selected, and the right people are involved to make it a success.

I welcome your comments and thoughts. What other factors would you consider or add to the list? Do you feel other considerations are more or less critical than the ones discussed here?