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A cure for the chronic delays in IT projects has been found: Deploy a modern system with business sprints

Many like to plan and specify IT projects in a very exact manner. After all, careful planning reduces uncertainty. This does not always serve its purpose when the result turns out to be an overly complex system shadowed by budget overruns and delays. The actual business need and the actual technical solution often really meet in joint sprint review and demo sessions, and not during the planning phase, says Sofigate expert Matti Saari.

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Traditional IT implementation projects fail with a 50-70% probability, academic and market studies tell us year after year. This could already be called the chronic pain of IT industry.

The surest way to fail is to make a go decision based on only a technical implementation effort. Renewing a core business platform, such as an ERP platform, is almost always a larger change. It involves the renewals of practices, processes, and roles as well.

Why do these failures happen? What are the prerequisites for a successful renewal nowadays?

A cross-section of a failed project: implementing what is requested

Let’s think of a traditional, slightly exaggerated example where a company has spent a lot of time defining the requirements for its future system. There is obviously a need to introduce a system that solves all the company’s problems in a year’s time. Each required feature is prioritized on top level, meaning every feature is considered mandatory to implement.

The solution providers surely promise that everything can be done. From a technical perspective, all the required features are possible to implement – in one way or another.

A lot of time was spent in defining the vast number of requirements, so reaching the intended results in a years’ time requires a lot of effort. Unfortunately, the challenges of reality strike back too often.

The company’s business and needs are constantly changing. What the company imagined they wanted from the new system does not apply when they first see the system in use a year and a half after the project started. Progress has stalled and motivation has declined when results have not been seen often enough and at an early stage during the project.

When the system is finally up and running, people will not want to or know how to use it. The original system is seen in a much better light than the new one, which is said to have too many functionalities anyway.

It can be difficult to blame the solution provider if they implement what was asked. Changes can and will be handled during the implementation project, but the schedule and budget will be then be stretched.

And exceeding schedules and budgets are things a company would not want to communicate to its owners.

However, eventually one of the three reasons for failure is brought up – one way or another. The budget was exceeded when additional system functionalities, training sessions and change management was needed. The schedule was overdue as it took much longer than planned to implement, train, and deploy these new functionalities. Or, if no changes were made, the system did not respond well enough to the actual needs of the organisation.

This created widespread resistance to adapt the new system. In the worst-case scenario, the new system posed a threat to the continuity of the entire business.

The shortcut to success: themed business sprints deliver results faster

When you want to succeed in renewing your digital core, do not try to solve all the problems of your organisation in one fell swoop. Divide a complex entity into smaller, more manageable parts. This has not always been possible tech-wise, but it is now ─ thanks to modern, modular solution platforms. New systems can be implemented with logically selected, themed modules, one or several at a time.

Implementing changes and delivering tangible benefits is much faster. Deployment and change management are easier when people do not have to learn the complex entity in one sitting.

Divide a complex solution implementation and its deployment into themed sprints. Begin, for example, with normal financial operations. After finance move on to sales and marketing functionalities, and eventually to HR functionalities.

On the other hand, after deploying finance into production usage, you may realize it is more helpful for your business to move on to implementing HR before sales and marketing. Based on the feedback you have received from users, you may also wish to make few fundamental modifications to the solution entity before taking sales and marketing into usage.

It is good to note that from a technical perspective, many modules may be ready for deployment at quite an early stage. In such cases the bottleneck is not the technology, but the people of the organisation and their readiness to adapt the solution into daily use.

This is how you get the most out of your sprints

Start with the smallest possible solution useful for business, which you can quickly test in practice. This is called Minimum Useful Product (MUP). An example of this could be a solution for order-to-payment process with one product type and one pricing model.

When planning sprints, use your limited resources for two things: first, to design Minimum Useful Product with a business mindset, and second, to identify and prioritise broader themes to be implemented in business sprints in an order that best serves the business.

Not everything should be planned at once and in detail. The planning should not be a one-off thing to begin with. During a larger renewal, it can be perfectly normal that the theme and details of the last business sprint has not even been decided when the first sprint is in deployment.

It should be noted that the intention is not to run two solution entities in parallel for a long time. Thanks to a business sprint model, you can move to the new solution environment in a fast but logically justified manner.

The actual business need and the actual technical solution often really meet in joint sprint review and demo sessions. For this reason, it is important to balance between sufficient planning and efficient progress.

Broader stakeholder groups are eventually engaged with competent communication and inspiring presentations. It is good to remember that renewal is not always met with optimistic expectations. In such cases exceptional change leadership and communication capabilities are needed.

A business leader’s checklist for successful deployment

Motivating and easy-to-manage business sprints, deploying the solution early in logical themes, and getting early feedback from users is the way to a successful business core renewal.

Here is a checklist for a business leader in charge of a solution implementation project:

  1. Do not try to solve every problem of the organisation at once – modular solution platforms allow you to deploy the solution one logical theme at a time.
  2. Divide the renewal project into motivating and easy-to-control sprints – made possible by modular platforms.
  3. Gather the best experts around you. The renewal is a major business investment. If successful, it will lead to a significant improvement in competitiveness. If it fails, at worst it will turn into a major wasted investment.
  4. There will never be a good time for deployment. Financial quarterly reports, ongoing budgeting, closing of accounting periods, summer vacations, winter vacations and so on all serve as excuses for postponing the deployment.
  5. Ensure that all work done for the renewal is aimed at achieving business outcomes. Be involved already during the design and do it with a business-oriented mindset. Without your presence, it will be difficult to make informed and fast decisions later during the implementation and deployment of first sprints.
  6. Remember to create a culture of continuous improvement after a successful deployment. Only through continuous improvement will you reap the full benefits of your investment.

This paper is part of a series of stories for business leaders in which we present four important cornerstones of ERP renewal. In this story, we addressed cornerstone number 3, “Divide the renewal project into motivating and easy-to-manage sprints”. Other parts can be found here:

Opening section: Four cornerstones of a successful ERP renewal project success 
Cornerstone 1: Businesses must own the renewal project 
Cornerstone 2: Utilise a world-class business platform 
 Cornerstone 3: Divide the renewal project into motivating and easy-to-manage sprints 
Cornerstone 4: Continuous development guarantees the full benefit of the investment

About the author

Matti Saari works as a passionate coach, project manager and concept designer in Sofigate’s Business Core Renewal unit. Matti specialises in visualizing and simplifying complex topics related to business technology management.

Matti Saari, Sofigate

Matti Saari