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Matt Meakins
Contributor: Matt Meakins
Closing the gap between planning and implementation

A 2014 Panorama Consulting study of ERP software projects found that more than 50 per cent of them ran over budget, while 72 per cent were delivered late.

It’s a problem familiar to executive-level IT planners everywhere, with a 2012 McKinsey report finding that, on average, large IT projects tend to run 45 per cent over budget. So how can IT planners resolve the tension that often exists between the scope of their vision and what their technical people can realistically deliver?

To explore this topic, ThinkFWD asked two IT experts to share their experience and insights. Bridie Letford has spent over 15 years in the IT industry and currently works within the financial sector as a business analyst specialising in digital systems, processes and customer experience. Karin Hollands has spent 10 years in the IT industry and currently works as an analyst and project manager at Comunet.

ThinkFWD sat down with Bridie and Karin to get their perspectives on what causes IT plans and implementations to fall out of step, and how companies can address this problem.

Why do gaps exist between plans/strategies and implementation?

Bridie: Sometimes the strategy is outdated and no longer aligns with the current needs of the business. Often strategies become static or stagnant, while the business doesn't. Another risk lies around the communication of the strategy – do the people designing the solution understand the strategy in detail?

Karin: [Even] the best-laid plans don’t survive contact with the ‘enemy’. Traditional waterfall planning stages are full of optimism and assumptions, with all stakeholders certain that they have a good idea of what’s going to happen during development.

The implementation phase then has a way of showing up these assumptions and generalisations as developers start to interpret ideals into requirements. Everyone is after a speedy and cost-effective solution to be delivered, so decisions are made quickly, rather than with due consideration or consultation.

What challenges have you observed in getting senior management and technical staff to agree on what needs to be done and/or how to do it?

Bridie: Issues can arise when senior managers are not given enough information to fully understand how the solution will work. There may be assumptions or misconceptions that the technical staff have made, in isolation from the people who understand the bigger picture. Technical staff may also experience frustration in detailing hard technical constraints to senior managers in a way they can understand.

Karin: Maintaining an appropriate level of detail for both groups, in communication of the design and development strategies, can be a big issue. Senior management may or may not be ‘details people’ but they are time poor and are often not the best personnel to make decisions about what needs to be done in specific subject areas.

Technical staff generally live in the detail, as small changes can mean a big difference in time, effort and cost. They can also focus too heavily on the technical or perceived outcome, which can blind them to the business drivers behind the requests of senior management.

What are the biggest benefits of aligning plans/strategies with implementation?

Bridie: Alignment has the capacity to not only support the strategy, but to identify other areas of opportunity. There is also the added benefit of improvement to staff morale. When staff feel that they're working on tasks that matter, and that they're having a direct impact on the potential success of the business, they are often more engaged, and they feel free to suggest improvements or identify possible areas of risk.

Karin: No system has ever been remembered for its flawless and scrupulously detailed plans. The goal of any strategy is to serve the implementation process to achieve the best outcome for the project. As such, the benefit of aligning strategy with implementation is that the project reaches implementation and beyond – not stalling along the way due to a breakdown of communication, goals or a difference between the dream and the reality.

What steps can organisations take to help close this gap?

Bridie: Firstly, ensuring that the people planning the solution have a detailed understanding of not only what the organisation is trying to achieve, but why they feel that a particular goal is important.

Secondly, allowing technical staff to engage with the business so they can develop an understanding of areas of opportunity and risk.

Thirdly, when gaining sign-off on a solution, it's important to ensure that the business understands its full impact – what will change for them, what risks they need to consider, any changes in resources and so on.

Karin: Keep the dialogue between both groups open at each phase of the project so that the goals of each are transparent to all.

Keep the developers aware of the context of development requests so that they can understand the business drivers and make informed decisions or suggestions to help.

Communication should be relevant to the individuals so that people aren’t bombarded with the minutia of a project, which can result in them only glancing at the contents of a lovingly crafted status report email.

What advice do you have for organisations still struggling in this area?

Bridie: Most businesses find that they have to deal with a misalignment between strategy and solution at some point.

Businesses would benefit from ensuring that all their staff are working to achieve the same high-level goals. Methods and tools to allow the business to communicate openly, clearly and respectfully will assist in effective validation of a solution, which will also ensure that people understand the full ramifications of a change.

Decisions made in meetings on longer-term projects need to be documented – what you decided, who was there and why you made that decision. This will allow the project team weeks or months down the track to trace changes in requirements, if so required.

Karin: The best analysis phases are done with an understanding of methodology that will be used during the implementation phase. Too little detail is useless for a waterfall model implementation, and yet too much can be a waste of time when plans change in a more agile approach.

All projects, clients and teams work differently, so they should be the starting point for assessing what strategy to pursue. Play to the strengths of your team and methodology.

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