Slow motion train wrecks

Slow motion train wrecks

Failed IT investments not only squander dollars, they also represent a significant opportunity lost. Avoiding such project 'train wrecks' requires a new approach.

I believe the ultimate success measure of all IT initiatives is whether they improve our human experience as well as our business outcomes. Too often they disappoint on both counts. Try to visualise a slow motion train wreck. Think of a large technology-enabled change initiative burning through resources and goodwill but failing to deliver real customer value. Not only failing to make a dent in the universe (as Steve Jobs might have said) but worse — creating a black hole that sucks in everything around it.

We have all seen some of these train wrecks. They build up their own momentum and once they are off-track, it’s nearly impossible to get them back on course. The longer they go, the greater investment they absorb in time, money and reputation. And the greater the investment, the more change inertia is created — even if it is clear that the project won’t hit the mark.

These train wrecks are far too common and far too wasteful, especially when they are government projects. Not only do they squander taxpayer dollars and erode public trust, they constitute a significant public value opportunity cost — the opportunity, for example, to upgrade a hospital ward, help a vulnerable Kiwi child, or provide export assistance to a promising start-up.

So what can we do about this? Most people would agree that there is benefit in gaining the customer’s perspective early on. But to be able to do this effectively, efficiently and consistently requires specialised practice and skills. This practice is called service design. What service design does is engage design thinking, experience modelling and service prototyping to define the functionality and form of services from the perspective of the user(s).

Blending proven service design practices that design human service experiences, with proven IT methodologies will go a long way to avoiding a slow-moving train wreck. For example, one of my colleagues has just returned from leading a rapid service design process for the Grameen Foundation’s AppLab in Uganda. He started by gathering insights from the villagers who would use the foundation’s micro-saver mobile app, creating concepts and quickly testing early prototypes with them. The result was a comprehensive and powerful service blueprint in two weeks.

Apart from fast-tracking the development of a desirable service, a service design approach early also helps avoid potential costly mistakes that often come to the surface too late in the development cycle, whether you are working on an app or an enterprise system development. Visualisation and low-cost prototyping upfront is a small investment that helps bring issues to the surface while they can still be addressed on the drawing board.

This is especially important in the public sector; it is full of complex human, operational and technological systems. You need to very aware of what is viable for government (or business), what is feasible from technology and most importantly, what is desirable for the users. The practice of service design intentionally seeks to strike this balance early and often. It applies techniques such as deep user research, experience mapping of pathways, empathic personas and service blueprints.

Technologists often gather user requirements from ‘the business’ before they go away and build a new system but as my business partner Leslie Tergas says, this is like going out to pick berries. If you’re tall you get more fruit, if you’re shorter, you get less. It is haphazard. You need a piece of work that gets the user truly involved. The mental shift is that you are designing a service experience for them and need to deeply understand their goals from their point of view.

It’s more than collaboration; it’s co-creation and co-discovery. It’s about using low cost methods early to define ideas, visualise ideas and then test them. As they say fail early, cheaper (or invisibly in the public sector) and learn.

This is especially important where multiple project streams are involved. You want them to converge on a common goal and not drift. I experienced this when I supported a large government transformation programme that was in danger of going off on multiple tracks. Everyone had great intentions but also had their heads down, they connected through inter-project meetings and had lost their connection with the end-customer.

We realigned the programme by connecting them with real customer experiences in the form of vivid customer journey maps. It was like different teams assembling a jigsaw in the dark with pencil touches. Showing them the customer journeys was like switching on a bright light. They reconnected at a more empathic and impactful level by refocusing on their difference that would make a difference for the customer.

A small amount of smart service design effort blended with solid IT methodology can significantly de-risk projects, ensure there are no train wrecks, and enhance success… if we are awake to the possibility. Where is your train heading?

Jim Scully is a partner at ThinkPlace

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