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Tired of Your Implementations Failing? Get a Toe Hold

Tired of Your Implementations Failing? Get a Toe Hold

Over the last 15 years, I’ve seen a lot of large software projects fail in bricks in mortar companies. One would assume that the majority of these failures were the result of technical issues – that is either the software was too complex and riddled with disfunctionality or it didn’t address the problems it was designed to solve. But the truth is, the primary reason these projects floundered was because those responsible with implementing the software failed to acknowledge one simple and irrefutable truth: people don’t like change. 

 Allow me to explain.

The Traditional Approach

Generally speaking, internal IT and development teams have a tendency to implement systems that make large changes to business processes in one fell swoop. The order of events usually looks something like this:

1) Upper management highlights a business problem that needs to be fixed. They plan a comprehensive solution, present it to the users to get them to buy in, and then start planning.

2) The software is built to create the desired result. The team assumes implementation will be a breeze because the project is anointed with top-level buy-in.  

3) The software is implemented – any mistakes are fixed and the users agree to use the system. The team declares victory and moves on.

4) A few months later, the development team circles back around only to find that people aren’t using the new system.  For some reason, they’ve reverted back what they were doing before. Lots of excuses are flying around – glitches, no time to learn the new platform, etc. The users even agree the new system is an improvement to what they were doing, but it still isn’t being utilized. It just doesn’t make sense.

So What Happened?

Well, human nature is what happened. Pulitzer Prize winner Charles Duhigg probably said it best in his book “The Power of Habit”:

“When a habit emerges, the brain stops fully participating in decision making. It stops working so hard, or diverts focus to other tasks. So unless you deliberately fight a habit—unless you find new routines—the pattern will unfold automatically.”

In other words, people are stuck in their ways. Sure they can change, but most of them aren’t going to do it on their own. The first step in executing a large-scale software project is to acknowledge that. Then it’s time to get a toehold.

What Does Getting a Toehold Look Like?

If you want to avoid the all-too-common scenario outlined above, stop trying to build the “silver bullet” of software solutions that solves all of your users’ problems. It’s just not feasible. Instead, start by talking with the users to gain a better understanding of what tools they are currently using and where they fall short. Then start working toward a solution that delivers some type of noticeable improvement. In other words, identify a very specific part of an existing business process that is a major pain point for users and fix it.   

 Spend the time to implement that improvement. This includes getting feedback from users and going back to fix what you got wrong.  You’ve now earned the users’ trust by proving that you can deliver a product that helps solve their problems.  Chances are they’re so used to being on the losing side of the traditional development / implementation process that this is going to be a breath of fresh air. 

Now that you’ve gained the user’s trust and had success implementing a small change to the way they actually do their job, you’ve created a toehold.  By toehold I mean you actually have the users using your new system in their day-to- day process.  You can now start building on that toehold by iteratively adding more functionality that brings you closer to the end goal—and implementing that functionality as it is finished, in effect expanding the footprint of your toehold and weaning users off their old way of doing things.

Why It Works

The toehold approach works on two levels. First, it takes into account the simple fact that people don’t like change, especially when it’s widespread. The great Warren Buffett once said: “Chains of habit are too light to be felt until they are too heavy to be broken.” Gradual transformation is the only truly effective way to address this.

Second, you’ve successfully laid the groundwork for something you can build on. The combination of the users’ good will and the fact that they are now happily using your system/platform is the foundation.

All of this was made possible because 1) you acknowledged the simple fact that people are inherently resistant to change and 2) you designed with implementation in mind. Now you can start iterating towards an even bigger solution that’s advantageous to both your users and the company’s business objective(s).  

Good luck and happy hunting!


Luke Janger - Director of Technical Services

Mr. Janger has more than 15 years of domestic and international experience in the electrical submersible pump industry related to project management, application engineering, well surveillance engineering and software development.