Bit-by-bit strategy works in dot-com world

How do you ask local government officials for millions of dollars to keep

pace with a dot-com environment that shifts its objectives every quarter?

This challenge is the punishment meted out to those of us who used to complain

that elected officials changed their objectives with every election. Now

that the business world changes at warp speed, elected officials feel left

in the dust. Providing them with a solid strategy will help in our task

of persuasion.

Application development is no longer expected to take several years. However,

technologists have trouble with the notion of creating software in increments.

From their perspective, dividing a concept into parts forces them to release

software before all the good ideas are incorporated into a final product.

Nevertheless, most vendors have recognized that software components, or

versions, are necessary. When it comes to the World Wide Web, this approach

is a powerful model.

This model dictates that something useful must reach the user within a reasonable

period of time. Successful project managers slim down deliverables into

comprehensible, useful, "doable" packages.

When our city decided to accept payments via the Web, we quickly discovered

that the decision was much bigger than our personal consumer experiences

had led us to believe. Our analyst discovered that there were different

technologies for fixed payments, bill presentment, shopping baskets, etc.

By suppressing our initial instinct to address all of these comprehensively,

we sliced the work into modules. The payoff came immediately. Pilots were

easier to identify. Smaller vendors could bid on the work. Approvals were

simpler to obtain.

Each scope was clear, so expectations were manageable. For once, we were

ahead of the client groups. The first product was delivered, and it worked.

Now we are ready to move efficiently on to the next module.

Some projects may not be so easy to break into modules. In those cases,

organizational commitment to the whole concept is necessary. For one such

project, we needed an upfront commitment on funding to attract a major vendor

that could deliver commercial expertise. But the stakeholders wanted to

be assured that research had been done to justify their commitment, so we

created a strategy document.

The strategy linked civic goals to the Web way of conducting business. It

also placed the new way of delivering services within the context of better

customer service and a high-tech image because those are two of our most

important goals.

Critical implementation issues were addressed — we estimated costs and explained

the need for an upfront commitment. We also identified specific intervals

at which we would make formal reports about pre-defined deliverables. This

took advantage of the modular approach without breaking the project into

unrealistic pieces for which individual approvals would have to be sought.

We created this strategy in stages that reassured managers and other stakeholders

of real progress. The careful use of the term "version" worked for us. The

impression that a document is endlessly in "draft" discourages participants,

who gradually despair of action on any recommendation.

As vendors have discovered, issuing versions of software can allow the release

of some functionality while other work continues. Versions of a strategy

can provide the same benefits. Using the Web as our model, we sought opinions

about each version of our strategy from as many people as possible. Acting

like Web authors, we accepted the initial commentary not as criticism but

as a contribution to the improvement of each subsequent version.

Each version needs to have a logical endpoint, such as a presentation. Contributions

that come in after the endpoint are included in the next version. Through

this mechanism, we were able to expand the audience at the conclusion of

each version — the first was confined to experts, the second sent to management

and so on.

The bonus from this approach was the increasing ownership of the strategy

by the steering committee as it understood and accepted its role in sponsoring

the recommendations. Instead of the old perception that staff members were

endlessly making revisions, the organization now perceived that improvements

would make the goals of the strategy more feasible and more successful.

—Umbach is the leader of the Web Business Office for Calgary, Alberta, Canada.

She can be reached at jumbach@home.com.

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