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
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
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.