Technology can be a tremendous asset to a business. From automation to tools and data accessibility, technology has the potential to improve both client experiences and organizational efficiency. But getting there is no slam-dunk.
Choosing and implementing technology is a tall order, and whether you realize it or not it will have a direct impact on your organizational culture.
Over the course of my career, I have been directly involved in many large-scale technology-based projects aimed at improving operational efficiency. From point of sales systems (a bunch of cash registers talking to each other and to accounting), to liquor control systems (a big deal if you dispense large volumes of alcohol, they also speak to your point of sales system and usually to an inventory control system), to intranet (a private network within an organization) and enterprise resource planning systems (ERPs, that’s when you find a platform to integrate the various applications you use in your business)—been there, done that, got the T-Shirt.
I estimate the overall success of the projects I was involved in to be around the 50% mark. Not really bragging rights here and still above the 30% average success rate of IT project implementation. But, ouch!
That’s a lot of money being spent on investments that fail over two thirds of the time, even before evaluating the project return on investment, if there is one.
Companies that make these big investments expect significant results and improvements, yet most projects become horror stories of runaway budgets, unresolvable bugs, and awkward workarounds, which impact productivity, employee engagement, profits, and often create organizational chaos.
To help you avoid these pitfalls, I’m going to share with you the most critical lessons I have learned from such initiatives.
First, let’s talk about choosing a product. Start with a clear and objective understanding of your business’s needs. Beware of shiny objects and bells and whistles. The first lesson: do not buy things you don’t need or will never be able to use, even if it’s cool.
Another lesson learned is do not believe the salespeople (sorry sales peeps). Be diligent and verify promises being made through references. In most cases, once a contract is signed, the salesperson is nowhere to be found and a battle begins with the implementation team. That’s when you find out what is really possible with the system.
One way to mitigate these risks is to hire a trusted partner early on to support you throughout the process. Obviously, you need resources knowledgeable about the technology. Another lesson: first and foremost, choose a provider who is keen to understand your business and operational needs.
This is not an exhaustive plan, but rather key basic considerations. You’ll find a lot of resources online to help guide your approach.
Will this type of planning be enough to reach a successful outcome? The short answer is no. Based on my experience, the key contributor to your project success will be your users’ involvement. Leaders, often being motivated by the prospect of saving time and moving faster, minimize users’ consultation, and by doing so undercut their project’s success. Did I say lesson?
I cannot put enough emphasis on this key differentiator—it is absolutely critical that you ensure the system’s users are involved in the process from beginning to end. Yes, from beginning to end. Users’ involvement will vary depending on the project stage, but they must be involved from beginning to end. Full stop.
Besides selecting the right technology, user involvement is without a doubt the most important differentiator and predictor of successful implementations.
Let me give you an example from my food and beverage career. As we were building a hospitality complex, we needed to choose a point of sale system to install in our restaurants and bars. The first step was to look for a system sturdy enough to support the many outlets and significant sales volume and also capable of transferring the data to the accounting systems. The research and evaluation took several months of rigorous inquiry by a multidisciplinary team.
Once the choice of system was made, the work continued with direct involvement of all users: restaurant and bar managers, accounting team, payroll team (the system also served as clock-in and clock out for hourly employees), wait staff (how to key in orders), kitchen staff (how do orders print in the kitchen), bartenders, and the IT team (how does it fit with the overall infrastructure). At times, it seemed we spent endless hours discussing the details. But clearly, that’s where the devil was, in the details of users’ experiences.
When we opened the doors, we had only minor issues to deal with, and all stakeholders and users were generally very satisfied with the system’s performance. It was pretty smooth, especially considering the project scope.
A few months later, a decision was made to replace the same system at a sister property. Given how well things were going for us the decision was made to implement the same platform. However, the implementation process did not engage stakeholders in the same manner. A few key individuals made most decisions.
The result was frustrated users who disliked (or hated) the system and thought that it was a poor choice. To be clear, this was the same type of operations with the same requirements. We received rave reviews at one property, awful feedback and frustrations at the other. The only difference between these two implementations was the amount of user involvement during the programming and implementation stage.
I’ll be frank—involving your people is not optional. It takes time and willingness to truly listen and understand the needs of all users. It also takes humility.
Why humility? Because you’ll find out that your people know things about the business you don’t, because they are closer to the action and to your clients’ experience. Yes, leadership requires humility. This is a bonus lesson—you’re welcome.
If you approach the implementation with your ego in check, an open mind, and a commitment to hearing what is being discussed, I have no doubt that you will find additional opportunities for improvement, things you never thought of before. I call this the messy middle. It’s messy because it can get tricky to reconcile the various inputs and agendas. To be honest, it can be frustrating, but if you learn to navigate this, you will have mastered the power lesson: this is where the magic is, in the messy middle. Every. Single. Time.
And there is another benefit to user engagement. Besides making the system and processes relevant and efficient, engaging users means they get excited about the upcoming change and become positive influencers in the change management process, which is another key component of such major initiative. This fosters a collaborative environment that gives rise to super users, who assist colleagues with their learning curve and can be go-to people for first-level troubleshooting. This is very helpful—trust me.
Choosing to dedicate time to users’ engagement is one of those “slow down to speed up” paradigms.
It also has a positive impact on a company culture. How? Think about the messages it sends: You matter. We care about what you do, what you think, and we want your tools to be as efficient as possible. Who doesn’t want to feel that way at work? Try conveying this with a poster on the wall.
Humour me with the following analogy. When you buy a vacuum cleaner, it comes with a variety of accessories best suited for various types of vacuuming needs. To me, implementing technology without heavy user involvement is like using the vacuum without the accessories. It brings very poor results—it just sucks (pun intended).
Bottom line? Talk to your people.