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Your IT Systems Can Use Some Spring Cleaning

0209_snow-carsThis has been a particularly brutal winter here in the Boston area. In fact, we got the highest seasonal snowfall in recorded history, racking up a whopping 110.6 inches. For those of you who don't live in a snowbelt, let me paint a picture for you.

Storms earlier in the season are charming. The snow flutters down, we enjoy the picturesque transformation of the landscape around us. We make soup, bake bread, put the shovels by the front door, and settle in to catch up on Netflix. We work from home if we can to avoid the slippery roads. We're all in this together.

After weeks of unrelenting cold and mounting snow, however, the regional mood changes dramatically. Commutes double in length as snowdrifts the consistency of cement narrow the roads and cripple the elderly infrastructure of our public transportation. Going shopping becomes a gladiatorial battle for fewer parking spots and short supply items like roof rakes, batteries and bottled water. Everybody including the family dog is depressed by the unrelentingly cold and gray landscape outside. We start reading post-apocalypse books for survival tips.

Eventually, after we've endured just about all we can, the spring arrives. We throw open the windows. We clean closets, attics, basements and yards. We embrace the shiny new weather and hope for the best.

Deciding to upgrade or replace your older IT technology is a lot like that transition from winter's miseries to summer's delights. Organizations will put up with a lot of inconvenience and outright lack of functionality rather than face the disruption of a technology project. Vendors sell not only against their competitors in this regard, but almost equally against the inertia of incumbent systems that are "good enough" to get by for another year.

But the moment inevitably arises when you can no longer avoid the technology project. Vendors stop supporting your old system, or your environment changes in ways that mandate new capabilities. You can look at the project with dread, or you can embrace the opportunity to make significant improvements in your business. As a veteran of both sides of this equation - systems buyer and seller - I'd like to offer the following strategies to make your next IT project predictably successful.

1. Be clear on your objectives. To paraphrase the Cheshire Cat in Alice in Wonderland, if you don't know where you are going, any road will take you there. Even the very best technology vendors don't know your business as well as you do. Technology enables wise process and policy decisions, it doesn't replace the need for humans to make those decisions. Before you go shopping for new technology, convene all of the key stakeholders to review what works and what doesn't in your current environment and establish a vision for what the new system needs to accomplish. Be very specific at this stage about metrics that define success. Not "X needs to happen faster", but "X needs to happen with 60 minutes of Y".

2. Take the time to plan your project before you begin. Sometimes buyers are unhappily surprised by the level of effort they have to expend on a technology project once it gets underway. If you are working with consultants or vendors, ask very detailed questions about the time and skills that will be required from your team. Identify all of the factors that will impact the timeline for your project: acquisition of data, possible integrations, third parties that need to get involved, availability of key people needed to make the project successful, other projects competing for the same resources, etc. Now is not the time to engage in magical thinking. Plan for the inevitable surprises and delays.

3. Be disciplined about communications throughout your project. Document what you're going to do, how you're going to do it, and who is responsible for executing every step in the process. Establish the channels and cadence of communication that will work for your organization to ensure you are executing your plan. Keep stakeholders outside of the project team informed about progress and setbacks.

4. Get insight from those who've gone before you. Ask your vendor for references you can talk to. Take it one step further and find ways to connect to references your vendor didn't provide. Those back channel sources may be even more candid. Many vendors host online communities where their customers can find and talk to one another. Many industry associations similarly provide advice forums. Forewarned is forearmed.

5. Start engaging your end users early in the project. Involve representatives of your end user community in validating project objectives, evaluating alternative solutions, and previewing solutions before they are rolled out to the larger community. Take their feedback seriously and use it to refine your approach. No matter how masterfully you manage a technology deployment, the win happens when people actually use it to drive better results.

This article originally published in the Huffington Post.

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