Overcoming the obstacles to find your firm’s “water line”

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It can be one of the harder things for an organization to do, but it is also one of the keys to running a successful IT organization; that is, to find one’s water line.  I’m not really sure how common that phrase is, so I’ll explain it briefly; in naval parlance, it means the level of water against the ships hull when it is floating normally.  Too low, and the ship’s stability is affected; too high, and well, you’re sunk.

For IT, it means finding a technical philosophy that fits in with your firms resources – fiscal and personnel.  Time after time, I see companies purchase extremely expensive equipment that is utilized to 20% of capacity or feature-set.  Or alternately, put extremely cheap equipment in places that required mission-critical levels of uptime.  But cheapness (or excessive frugality, if you’re writing a report) has a hard-money factor relationship.  People who overbuy tend to do so for psychological reasons, rather than for practical ones.

There’s three very common reasons that firms tend to overbuy, and each has a solution.

The first and foremost reason that firms tend to punch above their weight is when an inexperienced staff runs into an experienced salesperson.  A bit like wolves falling on a flock of sheep.  We all have certain areas that we know a lot about, but every once in a while, for any number of reasons, we’re forced to purchase a technology that we really don’t know much about, and in those cases, there’s an over-reliance on the salesperson to give us the straight scoop – to size a solution that meets our needs.  If you’re lucky enough to have an ethical salesperson, you’ll be fine.  The other 99% of the time, that salesperson is going to get every penny they can from you.

So what do you do?  There’s a few things.  First, leverage your connections.  If you participate in round-table groups, odds are someone you know has touched that tech before and has some knowledge.  Second – get references – and actually talk to them.  Don’t take a canned press release, and don’t let the salesperson set up a conference call.  Speak one-to-one with the other customer.  Third – any time that what you’re buying has optional features that can be added at any time, wait until after the original purchase, when you have familiarity with the product.

The second reason has to do with overreaching, or just plain old scope creep.  Marketing comes to you and says “we need something to consolidate our contacts”.  Before you know it, you’re googling the differences between SFA and CRM.  People are spending exhaustive hours on needs requirements and comparing 20 online vendors because someone in Marketing mentioned “the cloud”.  Then you’re talking about integrating the CRM into your existing project database, and so on, and so on.  Here’s a tip:  stop.

When you introduce a new tech, or more importantly, a new process/solution into your firm – be it helpdesk software, CRM, whatever – you should fight your natural instincts to provide a great, all-encompassing solution that will make everyone love you.  Instead, take a staggered approach.  Start with something *extremely* simple and easy to implement – which is usually something very inexpensive.  When you’re entering uncharted territory, it rarely makes sense to spend a lot of time, money and political energy on a “big” solution.  Get something cheap, in the door, and up and working quickly.  Don’t worry about how you’ll upgrade to bigger and better later.  Getting the technology *in*, and getting a degree of familiarity with it, will pay off in spades when you do go ahead and make a bigger investment.

The last reason just comes down to us IT folks being dazzled with shiny shiny.  I’ll admit it – we like neat stuff.  We like features.  We like gee-whiz.  No shame in that.  But when you’re in a decision-making position, or a “key influencer” – part of your responsibility is to spend your firm’s money in a responsible, effective manner.  Does that switch in Boise need layer 3 routing for 6 users?  Maybe it does.  Probably not.

It also goes to capabilities.  We can implement Solution X, but do we have either the staff, or the technical ability, to take advantage of Solution X?

Psychologically, it is much easier to say “yeah, we can spend that” when it’s someone else’s money, when you’re not working against a hard budget.  If you can get to the place where you spend the company’s money as if it were your own, it’ll be easier to establish that desired “trusted partner” status with the other leadership in the firm.

Don’t play the “keeping up with the Joneses” trap.  Just because another firm is using Solution X doesn’t mean that it is a good fit for your firm.  Sometimes that pressure can come from other places in your firm, but it must still be discouraged.

So just some key tenets for this subject; simple is *almost always* better. Trust, but verify. Don’t let your ego influence your purchasing.  There is no shame in not having the biggest/best/shiniest.  What’s most important is what is a good fit for your company.