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09:48 AM
Steven Callahan, Robert E. Nolan
Steven Callahan, Robert E. Nolan

5 Keys to Fast, Successful New Tech Deployments

While many companies are approaching moving new technologies to market under the umbrella of pilots, the short-term characteristics of those new capabilities require a more diligent approach. By following straightforward guidelines, greater success with less pain can be achieved.

The acceleration in new technologies and associated business needs is creating an almost plague-like spread in an accelerating use of pilots. The relative calm – or at least the managed chaos – of recent years' large scale implementations, conversions, integrations and in-or-outsourcing projects has recently been broken by the increasingly loud buzzing of social media, predictive analytics, big data, social mining, mobile technology and cloud computing "pilots". Unfortunately, unlike the governance and oversight that typically comes with large projects, this flurry of pilots is occurring under mixed circumstances.

A conversion or integration or outsourcing clearly takes several years; putting up a Facebook page, building a mobile app, announcing a Twitter account for servicing, moving select simple processes to the cloud, or contracting with experts to discover social data for claims adjudication all can occur in a relative blink of an eye. And in most cases these "blinks" occur very inexpensively, putting them below the radar. Structured methodologies and project management offices can be confounded trying to address the combination of volume, diversity, and velocity of new project demands. Market pressures amplify the demands for immediacy while proven simplicity erodes the barriers of control.

For those who have been in the industry long enough to remember, the inevitably rapid onslaught of structural and operational change is a diversified equivalent to the introduction of the business PC — but at an extremely abbreviated run rate.

Customer service is critical, and technology adoption inevitable. The challenge rests with management of the many concurrent efforts. While many companies are approaching moving these to market under the umbrella of pilots, the short-term characteristics of these technologies require a more diligent approach. By following straightforward guidelines, greater success with less pain can be achieved even at faster rates.

  • Even if a miniaturized version is used, make sure there is a steering committee, executive sponsor, business and technology partners, and a well-communicated purpose and scope. The other important element, particularly when working with pilots and proofs of concept, is to timebox the project with a relatively short horizon. Absent the parameters of a timebox, these smaller projects can run forever as they multiply with retries and new technologies. Discipline and rigor should be used early to set a firm timebox for the project to work against.

  • Determine early if it is a pilot, a proof of concept, or a controlled rollout. This single decision, often missed, has major downstream implications on the eventual outcome. Rollbacks do not work with controlled rollouts, and are difficult to apply to pilots that are not tightly managed; that means some major function or customer block is now resident on a system with no place to go. Knowing early if there will be a rollback plan and if so what it will be helps tremendously. Deciding what to do with the 120 customers on the broken system is best not done at the last minute.

  • Spend a brainstorm session or two early in the process discussing end-of-project "what-ifs". What if it doesn't scale? What if it doesn't do everything desired? What if the vendor experts disappear? What if it works but the customers don't want to use it? If you know what you might do, you can incorporate hooks along the way that will make doing it easier and faster.

  • Here is a difficult one. If at all possible, go through the various transactions and features that are planned and decide which ones are show-stoppers, which ones are needed but can come later into production, and which ones are just "nice to have." It is often difficult to create this list early given the project usually is, by definition, only the "must-have" items. And yet projects that start with everything in the show-stopper category that run into issues moving to production suddenly are able to reprioritize some features and functions as not required for production. More often than not, the reprioritization is an end-of-project rush; however, if it can be done up front it will be a calmer and more reasoned process. Worse case, the project runs its course, the timebox is exceeded, and there are still show-stoppers. What to do?

    1. If there is a rollback strategy, use it. Yes, money was spent, but if the overall assessment is less than ideal, consider it a learning experience, and exercise the rollback. Use the experience to approach a new project on a more informed basis versus patching the broken one.

    2. No rollback is more often the case than not. The team must take a disciplined look at every defect, missing feature, or absent function. Not only must each be reprioritized, but the defects must be rated by criticality, impact, time to fix, and alternative (manual or another system for example).

    3. The elements of criticality, impact, time to fix, and alternatives have to be combined into a resourced plan to move the project to a minimal level of acceptability as defined by the sponsor and business. Achieving this baseline, regardless of how low compared to initial plans, is critical to gaining the necessary foothold for next steps.

    4. Hands-on, extremely detailed project management focused on progress to plan, new defects, prioritizing and reprioritizing as things change, negotiating with the business, and brainstorming alternative means to solving each issue is all required at this point.

  • Upon reaching the initial milestone, whether for a pilot, controlled rollout, or proof of concept, another often missed but key step is the development of a project review document. For some projects, less than 5 pages may suffice; for others, it may need to be a bit longer. The important point is to capture the successes, shortcomings, remaining known issues, updated cost and scale data, and next steps with a rough prioritized timeline. It is also important to get the sponsor and business involved to learn what else is functionally needed and the desired next steps.

Much of likely sounds familiar in one form or another. Most companies have matured considerably over the last few decades since the influx of PC's and Infocenters and all the accoutrements of the time. Yet with that maturity have come a number of changes in the marketplace and with the workforce. Service expectations in the field and with customers combined with continued challenging economic conditions are together putting immense pressure on executives and CIO's to leverage any possible relevant and applicable technology. The industry is more technologically dependent than 10 years ago, has growth and margin pressures, and is facing a veritable flood of advances in tools, platforms, and even environments like virtual worlds and social networks.

Slippage and errors are inevitable in such a fast-paced and challenging situation – they also seem to be less easily forgiven. Anything that can be done to bring coherence and rationale to the process of meeting the demands for rapid adoption and deployment should be shared, discussed, and leveraged wherever possible for mutual benefit. Think of it this way: in the end, Denzel Washington did indeed stop the train in the movie "Unstoppable"; however, I would not have wanted to have been a passenger! Avoid the wild ride with tools, techniques, and practices that help the industry continuously improve technologies adoption rate and speed of deployment.

About the Author: Steven M. Callahan, CMC is a practice director for the Robert E. Nolan Company, a management consulting firm specializing in the insurance industry. He can be reached at [email protected].

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