Five steps for making and keeping IT resolutions.
It’s a trade secret among yoga teachers and fitness instructors: January brings a surge of eager customers signing up for classes, and paying their memberships in advance. By February, the studios recover their quiet, as so many people drop out early. But those memberships have still been paid!
Of course, committed trainers want their students to succeed and work hard to find ways to help them keep their resolution. I am hardly flexible or super fit, but I do want you to keep your technology resolutions. We all know how easily we set intentions and let them slip. What we learn from the yoga studio is that merely investing money in our plan rarely keeps us on track. So what can we do?
Here are some suggestions that may help.
1. Choose the right resolution
Let’s not talk here about grand strategic plans. ERP replacement, mobile strategies, enterprise single-sign-on: these all need significant strategic commitment for planning, implementation and tooling across many teams. Instead, I will discuss projects we can start simply and efficiently within a typical IT organization’s own resources. Then you can take responsibility for your own success and still continue with your commitment even when organizational priorities change, as they inevitably do. Here are some examples:
- Improve your data quality
- Delegate self-service visualization and dashboard tools for business users
- Move legacy file servers to cloud storage
- Reduce travel with remote collaboration
Notice that I do not say Resolve all your data quality problems or Move your entire business to the cloud or Slash our travel budget by becoming a virtual organization. I’ll deal with this issue of scope more in step 4.
For now, just choose a well-understood, useful, area where you can make progress without being too radical. Choose something that already on your wish-list, but not a top priority.
2. Focus on the benefits, not the costs
Remember the yoga teachers? Even well-intentioned customers may give up quickly, despite paying in advance. Costs alone are not a great motivator. After all, you can find many greater costs in your business which you cannot control. Sure, you started that data quality project and bought some software tools, but what is that compared to the bill for the annual company conference? Easy enough to let the project slide, then.
Instead, think more about the benefits of a successful project. Weight loss coaches often focus their clients on secondary benefits rather than making weight itself a primary goal. Can you climb those stairs without losing breath? Will you fit into those new clothes? Can you comfortably tie your shoes? In the same way, look at the business and personal advantages of your project for those affected and focus on those.
For example, there are some well-understood advantages if you delegate some of your current dashboard and report creation to business users. Modern visualization tools are easy to learn, and many users enjoy being more hands-on with their data: this alone can help the business to more data-driven decisions. Especially in finance and marketing, you’ll find users today increasingly data-literate and can tackle simple dashboards without constantly coming back to IT for improvements and changes. You can even help users take a low-cost first step with cloud subscriptions or free desktop editions.
3. Take small steps
Try to quantify expected benefits modestly: don’t set your goals too high. A sure way to give up on your New Year diet is to resolve to lose 40lbs in a month.
Similarly, when delegating visualization tools, don’t throw out the data warehouse just yet. Find some champions in the right departments, offering them tools and carefully provisioned, sanctioned data sources to work with. Watch the technology land and expand, monitoring the usage and checking in regularly with your business advocates.
Or take the example of reducing travel. Don’t expect to replace all internal meetings with web conferences. For one thing, although the technology is improving, it simply isn’t good enough for that today. And human contact is still critical to building and maintaining cohesive working relationships. However, you should find one or two teams, distributed across convenient time zones, who can experiment with some of the latest conferencing technologies. No need to commit to a company-wide roll-out of some supposedly full-featured system: small agile teams often prefer simpler apps (there are numerous ones available for mobile platforms) compared to enterprise systems.
There’s another important advantage of taking small steps: you can iterate quickly over the project. You can then assess successes and failures earlier. The failures are more easily corrected. The successes ensure the business asks for more, and keep project sponsors happy and engaged.
4. Do, don’t talk
If you are going to improve data quality, go ahead and improve data quality.
Most of the time, here’s what you’ll do instead:
– You’ll read about different data quality techniques.
– You’ll hold a lot of meetings.
– You’ll decide you need more training, or new tools, or a consultant.
– You’ll write specifications and – if you even finish them – review their details in more meetings.
– You’ll decide to take action, only to find another priority now has your attention.
Why do we go through this endless talking, instead of doing? Mostly because we’re afraid of failing. As Leo Babauta has said: Failure is a necessary step in learning. However, if you take the first three steps seriously, you have already mitigated the worst failures. You clearly understand your project. You know it’s not too ambitious. You believe it’s valuable to the business.
If you already understand the problem, you know enough to make initial progress. At that stage, with some small success under your belt, you may start to broaden the scope and demands of the project. But you’ll not get there by talking.
Call it an experiment, a prototype, a trial run, an agile sprint. Call it what you like, just do it!
5. Commit to people, not to numbers
You’ll often hear people suggest that successful projects must have quantifiable goals. If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it, as the cliche goes. Remember this variation of Goodhart’s Law: What you can measure, you can manipulate.
For sure, metrics have their uses, especially when it comes to reporting back. We moved four file servers to a single cloud storage service and saved these specific hardware and maintenance costs. Great, but don’t get hung up on these numbers. They will not help you keep your resolution.
What will keep you on track is to commit to other people. I don’t mean committing to your managers: we manipulate those commitments more than metrics! Instead, commit to your peers. Social motivation is remarkably powerful. Having a made a public resolution you will not want to back down easily.
Publish and communicate your project, however small in scope. Tell people about the benefits – they will see better data soon, there are great new tools coming, storage will be accessible anywhere on any device.
A resolution is, in effect, a promise to keep. Make promises to people who matter to you. You’ll not break them easily.
Get started, don’t stop
These simple five steps are not just for the New Year. Having completed a first small iteration of a well-scoped projects, you’ll want to do more and more. So stop reading, and get started!
Originally published in The Economic Times of India.