Know What Problem You’re Solving–Before Buying Technology

I admit it.  I’m part of the problem.  Or used to be. Mea culpa. Guilty. I apologize.  Ah, that feels better!  Always helpful to unburden ones’ self.  So, what heinous acts have I performed that requires a public apology?  I’ve spent most of my professional career trying to get you to buy technology that may or may not have been what you needed.  Sure, I made you want it, sometimes really, really want it, but that doesn’t mean it was right for you or your business.  As an act of contrition, and in the public interest, I’m going to talk about avoiding the irresistible, the shiny object, the unicorn of technology.

The dirty little secret of the technology world is that business executives and owners have been conditioned by the market to make decisions based on technology first and the business needs second.  In the hardware world that usually means more horsepower than is required (with the requisite too-high price tag), or less capability than is needed (to get a “deal”).  In the world of software, the very backbone of any business today, it means succumbing to pretty screens, cool-sounding TLAs (three letter acronyms) and sales pitches which focus on features and functions, not on exploring your needs. The bias is often toward the “what” not the “why” of a buying decision.

In small to mid-sized companies in particular (but believe me, multi-billion-dollar companies are not immune either) systems may seem a perfect fit at the level at which purchasing decisions are made, when it gets to the operational level, the choice often becomes a bad one; the system turns out to not be able to match your business processes so you wind up contorting yours to match the system instead.  Often you lose information fidelity, that is, reports and data you had painstakingly tweaked your existing systems to provide, turn out not to be available in your new system (“but it will be available—in the next version…”); or, the new system does what you need it to do, but it takes an expensive resource to manage the care and feeding–someone you have to hire or contract with to feed the beast.  So, what to do? You still need new tech, you just need the right tech.  Fortunately, there’s a relatively easy way to avoid disappointment and pain (if only we could apply that to our personal lives) by following these steps:

Step One–Before even surveying the market for, say, a new financial or ERP or CRM software package, spend the time to map out the problem you’re trying to solve.  Draw diagrams of your workflow if it’s a process problem, map out the pain points your users and management are experiencing and make sure you’ve got root problem, not the symptoms.  Just doing this one step starts you off with better directional accuracy, and keeps you from grabbing the first cool tool you find on Google.

Step Two—Make sure the problem you’re solving is worth being solved.  A recent analogy ripped from the headlines: in spite of Rt 95 coming to a grinding halt on the July 4th weekend, highway authorities said there were no plans to widen to road to accommodate the problem. Why? It happens 4 times a year.  The rest of the time all is acceptable.  Spending millions to save 8 days of inconvenience a year for motorists makes no sense.  Carry that thinking to your analysis—make sure you understand in the most quantitative terms possible, what the problem is costing the business.  You may find that hiring a part time person, or replacing a low performer may solve the issue without you having to put a nickel down for a new system.

Step Three—Match the magnitude of the problem to the requirements of the solution.  Once you know what the problem is costing you and what changes to your processes need to happen, then start looking at solutions.  Key here is to understand what needs to be different once the implementation is done.  Take the time to develop a set of requirements, from the user perspective and the management viewpoint—what needs to happen to streamline the process, and what information is needed for decision-making, and test any solution against those needs. This way you’ll only spend what you need to.

Step Four—Do the math.  Make sure to calculate the total cost of ownership, not just acquisition costs.  Include staffing needs, supplementary fees, support, etc.  Then figure out how long it will take for the new solution to pay for itself and provide a return to the business.  If it’s too long, rethink the solution or review the problem!

Step Five—Make sure you’ve got the expertise at hand to guide the implementation.  More projects fall apart because the people tasked with driving the implementation don’t know enough about the processes being revised, the vagaries of the technology, and/or the capabilities and use of the new system.  In other words, even if your cousin Murray has the time to help on the project, if he can’t meet those three criteria then you should find him something less risky to do.

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