A Harvard Business Review article titled “When Employees Are Using Software That IT Hasn’t Approved” caught my attention. It includes an eye-opening story:
Digital transformation that starts in the CEO office often turns into a mega project that everyone has to be a part of. The trouble with this is that mega projects take a long time to deliver, and by the time they do deliver, what they provide may well be obsolete. Meanwhile, out on the front lines, real managers need something they can use today in order to defend the business.
A recent drama at a major retailer illustrates this dilemma: A few months earlier, the VP for a declining line of business found herself struggling to find digital tools to help her acquire new customers. In desperation, she used her personal credit card to pay for a monthly subscription to a cloud-based CRM that could help her start an online campaign.
Soon enough the CIO sniffed out the project and called her in to a disciplinary council. After listening to the stern CIO chiding the VP about the security breaches her initiative had risked, the CEO asked the VP why she hadn’t simply asked the CIO for help. The VP replied, “I asked our CIO for help months ago.”
The CIO admitted that he had been approached and explained that he had informed the VP that IT already had a project with SAP to deliver what the VP needed. “Yes, but that won’t be ready for me to use for three years, and I need something today,” retorted the VP. The CIO was silent.
This story is intended to illustrate why employees are using software that IT hasn’t approved, but there a few other things unpack here. First, mega projects that take a long time to deliver (3 years!) are a bad idea. Second, far too many companies default to buying products and services from companies like SAP when building a custom digital platform with an in-house team is often in their best interest.
Let’s start with the fact that many companies are still building mega projects. Having worked at a big company with thousands of employees and several hundred million dollars in revenue, I understand that a big ship can take time to turn. It turns one degree at a time, not 180 degrees instantly. Yet that’s exactly what mega projects attempt to do. Expecting a big ship to turn instantly after multiple years of preparation is not realistic. It’s no wonder that so many large software projects fail.
In a recent survey of 10,000 software projects completed between 2011 and 2015, only 3-18% of large projects completed successfully. In comparison, small projects completed successfully 44-58% of the time. Given those odds, companies should be rolling out new features weekly or monthly to incrementally deliver value to the business rather than trying to deliver it all the value at once after 3 years.
If the goal is to move quickly and deliver working software in small increments frequently, then cross-functional teams of software developers and business leaders need to work together in-house. Technology isn’t going away. If anything, the pace of innovation is only increasing. So why outsource what should be a core competency? Businesses should invest in building high-performance technology delivery teams that can continue innovating with business leaders for years into the future.
The flaw in the story from the HBR article isn’t that the VP is trying to do the right thing for the business by using software that IT hasn’t approved. The flaw is that the CIO in the story isn’t focused on engaging with business leaders to work hand-in-hand with in-house technology teams to deliver business value early and often.