You have troubles with your data and you are not sure where to start and how to start.

It is a confusing task and we can get lost in analysis, with meetings and brainstorming sessions. Sometimes, we try to solve everything in one shot, with some kind of big bang project. Sometimes, we end up not achieving anything. Experience taught me a simple approach: pick a fight that you can win, win it, then conquer from there.

Find your cause

Identify the priorities of the company. Then look for the issues or opportunities that relate with those priorities.

Say you work in a manufacturing company. It faces increased competition and seeks to go faster to market with new products. Can you help going faster from “concept” to “on the shelf”? What sort of data initiatives would facilitate it? Most answers involve changing processes and tools and data in many different teams. Such endeavors could support deploying workflow solutions, starting a data clean-up effort, etc.

Doing this will relate the investment required in your project to the needs of the company. In your role, you may see lots of issues. But those might be transparent, or negligible in the eyes of other people in your company. You need twenty databases to manage the product life cycle? So what? Your plan to go down to 1 might still not be persuasive enough if the issue is not strategic to your company.

Whatever you do, you should only fight if you can win. It’s easier to say than do but there are options. Start by breaking down the scope and building a roadmap. In my example above, it could mean to merge one or two key databases. Such plan could reduce maintenance and license costs. And also indirect costs! For example, the time lost by your colleagues if they work with too many different applications.

With each success, you build credibility in your company. This will help you gain sponsorship for further initiatives. As we all know, we’re more confident risking some money to people who proved what they can achieve with it.

Scout the field

As you zoom onto the cause that you might fight for, you need to do some scouting. Why? To ensure that you indeed have a chance to win! But it does not need to be a complicated process of its own. You need to get a sense of the work required and the best way to achieve this is getting out and talking with the people who have a stake in the topic. But be careful, the typical mistake I see is to speak only with the people who participate to the processes or applications that are in the spotlight. Major flaw! You must talk with the people who depend on the results of your potential efforts. These are the people who, if convinced, can become the stronger sponsors because they feel and live the pain of the current situation. On the contrary, the people involved in the current operations might feel threatened and if that happens, they will limit their support or even fight back.
What information do you need? Above all, you need the pain points. What is it that is not working as well as it could? But be careful not to take those opinions literally: A. they are opinions, not facts so you want to balance them with actual facts; B. Remember that quote from Mr. Henry Ford: “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” so think further ahead.

Coming back to my example of the product lifecycle, you might have a lot of options and you need to sort them out. By running discussions with people from sales, marketing, customer service, etc. you can discover what the most burning issue is. It might be the tools or the process, but it can also be that the organizations involved are not the right ones. My experience is that coming into a situation like this with an “IT” proposal is like walking barefoot on burning coal.

To summarize my message: get out of your office and speak to people from all functions around you and involved in the topic you are investigating. It will not take as much time as you might think and you will cheaply gather priceless information.

Build your project

By now, you should have narrowed your options down to a few. Unless you have a « no brainer » option on the table, try to limit the choice to 3 possible projects. It will help you limit your investigations and it will help your management to make a decision.

It is time at last to prepare for action. Your scouting efforts revealed what needs to be done for maximum impact. Now, you need to determine the resources you require to achieve the work in the right time frame for a reasonable price. Yes, it is a project indeed and you need to define the right balance: scope, time and price.

But we are in the real world, so be ready with options and alternatives. You know about maximum impact…but does your company needs that or can they get ahead with « positive » impact? Again, it is a matter of finding the right balance. And as you select your resources, bear in mind that you will need more than people and computers… You will need support: from your prospective users, from your managers, perhaps even from customers or suppliers. That’s stakeholders management.

Finally, stay ready for a change. Imagine your company switches to another strategy, or a law changes, or that you have a new board of directors that will not support your project anymore. It might never happen, but do take the time to think of your options in such an event.

And win!

You are now set for success. All this work will position you to gain support for your project and to kick it off. But the effort only begins here. Rely on your plan, on your people, and of course on proper project management practices to achieve the results you sought. Make sure to define your methodology and to leverage it.

I hope the above will help you launch successful projects.

Parting notes

A software is only as good as the people who use it, or “a fool with a tool is a fool”. But simple tools used smartly will do wonders. A giga software used with more hopes than expertise will just cause chaos.

Most probably, 80% of the answers to your problems are already known by someone in your company (unless you are a small company). Leave your desk and go talk to people.

“Waste is any human activity which absorbs resources but creates no value.” James P. Womak and Daniel T. Jones, Lean Thinking (Free Press)

Picture of Jean-Francois Minsart
Jean-Francois Minsart
Jef is a veteran SAP data consultant with over 20 years experience. His career took him around the world to support initiatives as varied as mergers, systems integration, upgrades, software development and roll out, etc.​