From the Sponsor’s Desk – Slicing and Dicing for Success

Change is all around us these days. Disruptive competition is the norm.

Organizations are frequently challenged to launch changes that are outside of their comfort zones, at odds with their cultures and beyond their skills and capabilities. So what should one do? Try slicing and dicing for success.

This case provides an interesting example of one company’s response to competitive pressures that were threatening its livelihood and longevity. It managed to implement an essential service in the face of long odds by applying some well-known, well-proven practices you are probably already familiar with.
Thanks to J.B. for the details on this story.

The Situation

This manufacturer and wholesaler made and sourced a variety of housewares and related products primarily for the domestic market. They had some regional warehouses to provide products to their retailing customers, either through pickup or local delivery.

Over the past five years, the company’s performance had been lagging. It was still making a decent profit, but it was not growing much, and the shareowners were getting restless. Senior management agreed to bring in a consultant to review their strategic plan and operating performance and get some recommendation to improve profitability.

The consultant examined the company’s operations and performance and their prospects going forward. He gave good marks to customer service, product quality, and operational effectiveness. Even marketing and distribution functions received good grades, with one glaring exception: Internet services. The consultant found seven web sites, one for each of their product lines. His assessment:

  • They were mostly brochure ware
  • They offered no or minimal e-commerce functionality
  • There was no cross lines linking
  • Each site had a different look and feel
  • It was difficult to update existing information and add and revise new products
  • The sites were based on outdated, unsupported technology
  • There was no tie-in to local or regional inventories
  • There was no tie in to customer buying habits and purchasing records

Essentially, the consultant discovered the company’s web services and infrastructure were afterthoughts, something which came in last when developing strategy and plans and delivering products and services. The company’s web offerings were not competitive. The company’s sales were not growing because the competition was beating them on the web services front.

The consultant recommended a complete replacement of the seven current web sites with a new, integrated offering based on current, up-to-date technologies. He suggested that such an offering could boost earnings by 30% annually. He indicated that failure to take action would put the company at an even greater competitive disadvantage and accelerate the company’s flagging fortunes.

The consultant also identified what he felt was a significant risk standing in the way of a successful web services upgrade – corporate culture. The business and IT groups were used to smaller, siloed, tactical projects, usually less than six months in duration. They used a typical waterfall approach and had limited project management capability beyond that. For the web services upgrade to make an immediate and lasting impact on corporate results, the consultant identified five essential requirements:

  1. The ability to assemble and manage cross-organizational teams
  2. The need to accelerate decision-making within the product lines and across the enterprise
  3. The use of rapid development and delivery practices, preferably including agile methods
  4. The development of a web services architecture to ensure a cohesive framework offering a superior user experience
  5. The need for a secure, high performance web services infrastructure to host the new offerings.

The company’s executives reviewed the consultant’s finding and recommendation and decided to act. The CEO charged the CIO with making it happen. The CIO accepted the mandate.

The Goal

The CEO’s goal was to increase the company’s earnings by 30% annually through the implementation of the consultant’s recommendations. On the advice of the consultant the CEO also set a target of eighteen months for full implementation with a budget maximum of $2.5 million, excluding capital expenditures for infrastructure.

The Project

The CIO knew his organization had never handled anything this big and this visible. He reviewed his in-house project management talent and concluded none of them had the skills and experience to do the job. He tapped into his industry contacts to find a PM who would be able to handle the challenge and received a number of resumes. After screenings, interviews and reference checks, the CIO made his selection, Diane, a contract PM. Diane had fifteen years of project management experience including a number of multi-million dollar, enterprise-wide undertakings. She also had four recent web-related projects to her credit. Previous employers raved about her direct, no-nonsense approach, superb collaboration talents and exemplary leadership skills. The CIO offered her the job. She accepted.

Even before she officially started the job, Diane knew enough about the obstacles facing her to make some demands of the CIO:

  • Set up one hour meetings with each of the key executives to discuss their expectations, priorities, issues and concerns. The meetings had to happen during her first week on the job.
  • Start freeing up contiguous space for the forty or so business and technology staff needed for the project, along with meeting and break-out rooms and the necessary technology.
  • Pull together an IT web services assessment team to start building the selection criteria and a list of potential candidates
  • Start a candidate search for a user experience lead, an agile development lead and a web services lead. These three positions would be vital to the realization of the projects goals.

When Diane arrived on the Monday of her first week, she found progress on her requests well underway, including the scheduled meetings with the key executives. In these sessions, she asked each executive a series of questions. She also asked them if they were ready to serve on her key stakeholder committee, which customers should participate in the project and what they thought of the current web services. She received some interesting feedback.

Expectations and priorities were all over the map. The CEO and two of the other executives she interviewed saw no reason to participate in her committee. Five of the seven saw no reason for customers to participate. Four of the seven had never checked or used the company’s current web offerings, even after the damning report from the consultant. At the end of the week, she met with the CIO and CEO. She reviewed her findings and presented her demands; all seven of the executives, including the CEO needed to participate actively and representatives from at least two clients needed to be included. Failing that, Diane stated she saw no hope for the project’s success and would not continue. The CEO and CIO agreed to her demands.

With the CEO’s backing, Diane penned a one-page key stakeholder committee charter for the CEO to send out covering mandate, roles and responsibilities and assignments. She also booked committee meetings every second week for the first three months. She then met with each of the executives again, reviewed the CEO’s message and their vital role in the project, listened to their concerns and committed to touch base on a regular basis. In fact, this approach was Diane’s secret sauce – frequent contact and dialogue to keep each executive in sync and smiling throughout the course of the project.

Diane then pulled together an initial Web Service delivery plan. It was more of an approach framework than a plan but it served to move the dialogue with the executives forward. It emphasized a couple of points that she needed the executives to embrace:

  • the primacy of the web services infrastructure to enable the rest of the business function delivery,
  • the necessity of a high-level architecture to describe the target enterprise environment and guide the development plan,
  • the dependence on short-term iterations to move them forward,
  • frequent planning and prioritization exercises to ensure the project accelerated business value delivery.

The approach called for an initial web services infrastructure delivery by the end of month three and the first function delivery by the end of month four. With a few tweaks, the executives bought in.

davison 054317 1

With the CIO’s help, Diane then pulled together the Web Services Architecture group with senior leaders from IT Architecture, Application Development, Operations, Security, the business and functional groups and Internal Audit. The mandate of the group was to identify and agree on the key web services infrastructure elements and their relationships to each other as well as the potential impact on business processes, corporate functions and delivery practices. She also wanted them to identify potential opportunities for agile practices. Diane selected an Application Development manager to lead the group. The CIO and three other executives had identified him as a trusted and capable facilitator.

The group met in an intensive four-day session to hash out the initial model with comings and goings of additional expertise to cement the consensus.

davison 054317 2

Again, Diane shared the model with each executive, explained each element and passed on any issues or concerns to the Architecture group to refine as needed. The executives bought in.

While the planning and architecture work was progressing, Diane oversaw the other priority tasks including facilities, specialty recruiting and the initial prioritization exercise. One of the key decisions during this stage came from a review of the target architecture by the newly contracted web services lead. He suggested they restrict their search for new technology platforms to outsourced providers only. That would take months off the delivery plan and ensure fully supported current state solutions going forward. After an accelerated review and vetting with the Architecture group, prospective vendors, and the executive team, the company selected an outsourcing provider to build and manage a turnkey in-house environment. The in-house solution had a major advantage at the time, providing superior performance and security interacting with the company’s back-end systems.

The user experience and agile leads worked their magic as well, starting as soon as they were in place. The user experience lead formed her UI team with subject matter experts from the business and selected customer organizations, software, infrastructure and testing staff. The team used the planned three iterations to deliver the full web interface the product line teams required. The agile lead also worked with the UI team to help it become familiar with and apply agile practices. By the end of the third iteration, the members of the UI team had the new agile way down pat.

As the PM formed the new product line teams, she gave each the choice of learning and applying agile practices or operating in a more traditional way, but still within the established time boxes. The UX and agile leads transitioned their efforts to help the new teams get up to speed quickly. In addition, as the UI team wound down its work, the team members were moved to the product line teams to provide and reinforce the UX and agile practice knowledge.

The Results

The project was declared complete after almost two years and a cost of $2.8 million. While the project took longer and cost more than originally allocated, the executive team approved every dime and day along the way. And they did it with big, broad smiles on their faces. Earnings were up 20% after year one and in excess of 40% at the end of the second year.

Diane used her secret sauce of executive and stakeholder engagement to keep everyone informed, involved and satisfied. The project executed over seventy iterations, supporting the core infrastructure, core interfaces and bridges and all the line of business functionality. At the beginning of the project, less than half of the teams chose to learn and use agile practices. By the end of the first year, all the teams were agile.

Perhaps the project’s most significant impact was on the corporate culture. By pushing the executives into the prioritization and decision-making exercise at the project’s start, the collective mindset was transformed from parochial to enterprise. In fact, the first product line iteration selected was a “Company Specials” service on the new web site that would be used by all product lines.

How a Great Leader Succeeded

This project could have easily been just another one on that long list of failed ventures. Yet the organization made a successful and dramatic shift from a product line focus with small, tactical projects to a broad-ranging enterprise solution. How did they do it? There were seven factors that contributed to their success:

  1. It’s a business project – The company’s executives got the ball rolling by hiring the consultant to address their concerns about business growth. The consultant kept the emphasis on the business with his findings and recommendations. It could have easily morphed into a typical “IT project” when the CEO tossed accountability to the CIO. Fortunately, he hired Diane as PM. She made sure the project stayed in the business’s court.
  2. Culture watch – The consultant’s observation about the company’s culture and limited capability to run an enterprise wide program was very timely. Fortunately, the CIO and his PM took the necessary steps to shift and shape a new cultural viewpoint. Remember Peter Drucker’s sage saying – “Culture eats strategy for breakfast”. Fortunately, this company’s strategy managed to avoid being eaten.
  3. Skills are paramount – The right skills at the right time turned out to be the game changer. Diane had the right skills for the time. So did the UX and agile leads. They knew what they had to do and how to do it. They were the force multipliers. They helped the organization move with them.
  4. Priorities need to be clear to everyone – The iterative priority setting cycle was a wonderfully effective trap. Once the executives had a taste, they couldn’t get enough. Once they got involved, they had no choice but to embrace an enterprise view.
  5. Think big, do small – The initial draft plan and target architecture established the big picture for all involved. That allowed the slicing and dicing that followed, to incrementally deliver to the priorities and to change the priorities as needed.
  6. Agile practices work – Diane’s decision to allow the product teams to self-select agile was a stroke of genius. She built organizational knowledge and expertise with the UI iterations that was visible to all. Staff gained confidence in the agile practices and that rubbed off, creating a groundswell of support.
  7. Communication is the tie that binds – Diane’s “special sauce”, touching base with executives and stakeholders, having a conversation rather than sending a report, or in addition to a report, created a rapport and level of trust that yielded honest, straight-forward understanding. Diane’s approach made everyone feel special.

It is always nice to tell a happy story. This is one such. The seven success factors described above are well known but often forgotten. Please don’t forget them anymore. Be a Great Leader. Put these points on your checklist of things to consider on your next project so you too can achieve great results. Moreover, remember, use Project Pre-Check’s three building blocks covering the key stakeholder group (including the key stakeholder roles), the decision management process and Decision Framework best practices right up front, so you do not overlook these key success factors.

Finally, thanks to everyone who has willingly shared their experiences for presentation in this blog. Everyone benefits. First-time contributors get a copy of one of my books. Readers get insights they can apply to their unique circumstances. So, if you have a project experience, good, bad and everything in between, send me the details, and we will chat. I will write it up and, when you are happy with the results, Project Times will post it so others can learn from your insights.


Drew Davison

Drew Davison is the owner and principal consultant at Davison Consulting and a former system development executive. He is the developer of Project Pre-Check, an innovative framework for launching projects and guiding successful project delivery, the author of Project Pre-Check - The Stakeholder Practice for Successful Business and Technology Change and Project Pre-Check FastPath - The Project Manager’s Guide to Stakeholder Management. He works with organizations that are undergoing major business and technology change to implement the empowered stakeholder groups critical to project success. Drew can be reached at [email protected]