What the Tech?

10 Rules for Ensuring Success of Your Innovation Projects (Part 1)

Turning a large company into an innovation powerhouse is quite a challenge, particularly if that organization has been in business for close to 100 years and has grown by acquisition. This was the case with a client of ours. Their legacy architecture had grown to be so sprawling and complex that it was severely impacting their ability to respond quickly to market challenges. The competitive landscape was changing fast, and they realized that in order to foster innovation, they first needed a better foundation.  

But our client’s situation was not unique. In large, established organizations, the infrastructure is likely to be sprawling with many unconnected legacy systems that may not share a common data structure or perhaps not even common nomenclature. 

So how do you ensure the success of your innovation projects? While the technical team is focused on planning for improved scalability, faster deployment cycles, better fault tolerance, API and microservice development, and easier debugging and maintenance; the organization itself may overlook the need to focus on organizational readiness for change. 

Based on our experience with many architectural modernization and cloud-migration projects, we’ve prepared a primer on what it takes to make your innovation project successful.  

1. It’s a marathon; not a sprint. Enterprise modernization is normally a multi-year process. The timeline varies depending on a number of factors, but energy and commitment at all levels of the company need to be sustained for the duration of the project. While senior management has a right to expect the most brilliant project planning, it is impossible to fully predict all the technical challenges that could impact the timeline, particularly for an organization that has never regarded its technical architecture as an integrated whole. In short, management needs to be prepared for a long-term journey rather than a quick fix.

2. Stealth or visibility? While it is possible to jump into technical planning on an enterprise-wide basis with fanfare and an official kickoff, the opposite approach can also be successful, particularly at the beginning of a project. In one instance, our client was a highly compartmentalized, large organization that wanted to upgrade its payment systems. They had their eye on Google Pay, Apple Pay, improved point-of-sale systems in stores, and a totally revamped customer service portal that would improve issue resolution by making all applicable historical and other purchase information available at a glance to the customer service team. 

They decided on the stealth approach. Working with one person who provided all the information about the “as is” architecture, we produced a detailed set of “to be” plans. No development took place, and the information was only presented to a small group of executives. It was a unique approach, but a successful one for this large organization because it more clearly defined the level of effort and the challenges of the project, and it provided executive leadership with enough information to define the path forward without prematurely upending the status quo.

3. Highlight and promote your goals. Rinse and repeat. Whether the plan originates at the departmental level or from the CEO, once the project is announced, it needs to be highlighted and promoted as a company goal for the duration of the effort. Shining a spotlight on the goal and achievements along the way is essential to keeping the innovation strategy front and center in the midst of other business priorities.

4. Deliver value. Often. Nothing promotes enthusiasm like visible improvement in terms of time saved, money earned, or some other return on investment. Planning the project so that business benefits are realized incrementally will help to ensure that enthusiasm can be maintained for the duration. In one of our recent projects, our customer wanted to focus on data migration first, which meant a very long time before any convenience or visible benefit from the new data organization would flow down to the rank and file users. This not only creates project fatigue but also makes it easy to discontinue funding a project with business benefits so far in the future as to seem an illusion.

5. Dedicate sufficient resources. A modernization project often means rebuilding the plane in-air. Work cannot stop on day-to-day projects, but the modernization won’t progress without constant attention. So how do you do it? First, understand that a dual workstream needs to be in place, and a set of decision makers at the appropriate levels are going to need to decide what is actually a day-to-day need in the context of the larger framework. Second, in a large organization, there tends to be latitude on how, when, and how thoroughly tasks and initiatives are addressed. If a team is juggling immediate needs and longer-term product development tasks, it is possible the hard work of dismantling and reconfiguring legacy systems will be ignored or at least not given priority, in favor of the immediate needs. Even small acts of avoidance can snowball into big delays. Don’t let this happen.

6. Change can be painful.  The technology org chart may look substantially different after a large business transformation project. Along the way, department managers may be reluctant to share information due to concerns about continued autonomy, and, in fact, there may be a real need to adjust job descriptions and/or assignments as manual processes may become automated. Without sustained leadership, change can be ducked or delayed in many ways.

7. Clarify decision-making process. An enterprise-wide transformational project where all decisions are consensus-driven will probably not succeed and will definitely suffer from an extended timeline. Why? First, in a consensus-driven environment, it is likely that no one has decision-making power which can lead to a culture of endless meetings. And second, people have an investment in the status quo; power and autonomy are valued by individuals and no one likes uncertainty. However, the people affected are integral to the success of the project. They have first-hand knowledge of the problems with the status quo, and the impediments to change and their store of practical and historical knowledge would likely be impossible to elicit without their enthusiastic help.

In our experience, everyone reacts to change better when they know how the decisions will be made and how they fit into the big picture. For each situation requiring a decision, communicate how decisions will be made or what authority a given group has to make a decision. The ideal setup, in our opinion, is a form of democratic leadership with some decisions decided by a small team and handed down as guiding principles. Other decisions can start with recommendations developed by a group and decided upon by a leader, and finally, a third set of decisions may be reached by consensus. The key is to have a project management style that engages everyone, clearly communicates how decisions will be made, and utilizes internal expertise and historical knowledge in an effective way.

8. Communicate clearly. Lack of guidance = lack of progress. A company may communicate the grand vision from the C-suite but then neglect the progressive elaboration that translates the vision into achievable steps. In this situation, the implementation teams are left without guidance which may mean the easiest and quickest path is chosen. Further, if those choices are not communicated back up to the executive level, the end result will not be what was expected. Clear and timely communication across departments and teams ensures that everyone understands the vision and knows which steps to take in order to achieve it successfully and on time.

9. Adopt new software and processes. Old habits die hard, particularly if users are in a time crunch. On one project, our customer wanted to retain parallel technology stacks, which would tend to tempt users to stick with the familiar and avoid the learning curve of new software. Over time, if the new functionality is not used, any enthusiasm for change is likely to evaporate, putting the whole transition plan at risk. 

Of course, the devil is in the details. Every use case needs an individual migration strategy handled through secure channels with appropriate measures to guarantee availability and reliability. Legacy software that cannot be easily replaced due to regulatory or extreme security requirements may need to stay in the ecosystem connected by wrappers. Other software may need to be significantly upgraded, but it may be better to “shift and lift” and upgrade after migration, taking advantage of enhanced CI/CD provided by the new environment. Making informed decisions that incrementally move the organization toward the goal is helpful to keep the momentum and the buy-in intact.

10. Stay engaged. Initiating the project may be a project in itself, so it can be tempting to sit back and let the results unfold. The push for infrastructure modernization may come from the CTO or may bubble up from the developer teams who see re-imagined infrastructure as the answer to overly long development cycles and tedious maintenance. Regardless, the rewards go to companies that accept the complex business and organizational challenges and successfully transform into nimble organizations able to maintain competitive advantage by reacting quickly to changes in the marketplace.

Next up: Tips on how to work with a strategic partner on your next innovation project. 

Conclusion

While modernizing IT architecture and overhauling your organizational infrastructure to replace sprawling, hulking legacy systems and creating a vibrant, agile environment that fosters innovation may seem daunting - especially for a large, established organization – it is well worth the investment. In order to stay competitive, it is often necessary. By following these 10 Rules for Innovation Success, you can get your innovation project off the ground in a way that’ll have everyone in your organization on the same page so you can bring your project to a successful and timely conclusion.