Protracted Campaigns

Protracted Campaigns

This is the first of what I hope to be a series of blog articles in which I attempt to share and reflect on my experience as it relates to the world of ERP (Enterprise Resource Planning). Jazz in the 50s and 60s tended to let the improviser “stretch out”, so to speak, or take an extended solo where he could really develop his entire idea as opposed to the bottom-line, clipped business tweets we’ve evolved into utilizing just to survive our daily information bloat.  So, time for my first solo…

One of my favorite passages from Sun Tzu’s The Art of War involves the idea around protracted campaigns. I really think about this a lot when I see the tremendous amounts of resources, customers, partners, and vendors engaged in an ERP purchase and subsequent deployment. The stakes, risks, and tension are at an all-time high.

“In directing such an enormous army, a speedy victory is the main object.

“If the war is long delayed, the men’s weapons will be blunted and their ardor will be dampened. If the army attacks cities, their strength will be exhausted. Again, if the army engages in protracted campaigns, the resources of the state will not suffice. Now, when your weapons are blunted, your ardor dampened, your strength exhausted and your treasure spent, neighboring rulers will take advantage of your distress to act. In this case, no man, however wise, is able to avert the disastrous consequences that ensue. 

“Thus, while we have heard of stupid haste in war, we have not yet seen a clever operation that was prolonged. There has never been a case in which a prolonged war has benefited a country.  Therefore, only those who understand the dangers inherent in employing troops know how to conduct war in the most profitable way.

“Hence, what is valued in war is a quick victory, not prolonged operations.”

I will leave commenting on the state of our nation to those more knowledgeable and qualified, however, in the microcosm in which I find myself,  I have seen this situation recur and disaster ensue. This Sun Tzu passage is a real gem on many levels and it may take a few dives to really appreciate everything it has to offer.

Mid-market ERP Software implementations have been known to crash and burn at many different points, but it’s seldom the one or two week engagements that become the classic “we spent 1.5 million and had to throw it away….” stories. It’s only when you see these really long (and overdue) projects with hot and cold running consultants, stakeholder churn, starts and stops, poor project management, leadership and organization, poorly understood requirements – the list goes on – where it really goes off the rails.  This is the stuff that keeps tempers hot and results in many a sleepless night. It would seem that it’s almost a miracle when an implementation goes right – one sales rep at a recent conference referenced the “Sell and Pray” method, where after all your hard work, time, effort, and client’s money, you pray that delivery successfully occurs.

Well, what we’re really talking about are risks and constraints, probably just a cut above plan for the worst and hope for the best.  The first thing to understand is that an ERP implementation with a moderate amount of customizations and add-ons has a lot of moving parts, reminiscent of my visit to the Boeing Plant in Everett where they build commercial aircraft from head to toe.  Those planes have something on the order of 6 million parts and the building, actually the largest in the world, is like a miniature city, technicians, admins, Oompa-Loompas and all. You wouldn’t build a plane or fly one for that matter without a plan. To get from here to there, there must be stated goals and objectives. You need adequate fuel to make the journey and a lot has to be understood in between for it to be a viable activity.

In opposition to how a lot of mid-market ERP software gets installed where users randomly tell the consultant how’d they’d really like to see this or that functionality work or mirror how they used to do it in their old system, but with your new technology, it’s easy to see how you could end up in a myriad of different directions with no real product at the end of the day to show for all your effort; or worse yet, you might end up with a frightful Frankenstein looking system that’s less of a solution and more of a monster.  The other end of the spectrum could involve the ultra-planning, where you try to figure it all out up front and then have a byzantine change management process that requires an act of Congress to make the tiniest alteration or adding a field without someone crying foul.

So, how do you mitigate the risks and breathe a little easier?  First, take a deep breath in, the sun is shining; long breathe out, the grass is green. I have come to appreciate two technologies that really complement the core capabilities of developing and implementing software: Business Analysis and Project Management.  Following standard BA practices should yield comprehensive understanding of the business goals, objectives, requirements, and conditions of satisfaction.  Business Analysis comes with its own set of tools and techniques practiced by skilled and sometimes certified professionals to accurately capture the requirements for the system the customer actually needs, not what the customer thinks they need, and not what the vendor feels comfortable delivering.  Project Management takes care of the classic budget, time and resource constraints and ensures that plans are created, communications happen and you arrive at the desired destination.

Furthermore, I really like the concept of Agile as it applies to Project Management, because it allows you to achieve objectives (“victories”) in shorter cycles, encapsulating all the activities of BA, Development, Testing, Issue Resolution, and Retrospectives all in short sprints (2-4 week cycles) that deliver business value all along the way while providing opportunity for rapid course correction if things should veer off a little, not to mention the expectation – wait for it, wait for it – okay, that change is going to happen. Yes, people will change their minds or present new information or refinements (shock, surprise), usually accompanied by one of the following: “We didn’t know that before”, or “Oh, yeah, I forgot to mention that we….”, or, “We thought you understood that….” Agile expects all of these scenarios and more as par for the course and recognizes that you can’t predict every possible weather and terrain condition from 4-6 months away.

You may ask, Won’t adding Project Management and Business Analysis add cost? I would argue that it will actually mitigate risk and run everything more efficiently while increasing your ROI in a shorter time frame and reducing the cost of rework in the future. After all, we’ve all seen the costs of not having the right team and tools for the job.

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