Skin in the Game

Five strategies to establish buy-in and accountability for a more successful, speed-to-value software implementation

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"You're only as good as your weakest player," is a phrase often used by coaches of team sports. This statement also rings true when readying your company for a major software deployment. A few unprepared individuals can result in a costlier and lengthier project, leaving your company with a poor return on investment, a lack of end-user acceptance and the potential for operational mishaps.

To ensure a successful project, everyone involved in a software engagement — from the company's chief executives, business users and IT staff to the software provider and implementation team — must have skin in the game or a stake in the outcome. There must be consensus on overall project vision, and each person should be held accountable for their role and responsibilities at each stage from planning, design and delivery to end-user training and adoption.

My company, JDA Software, has developed the following list of "go-to strategies" to ensure success through a skin-in-the-game implementation. Based on more than 25 years of experience, these strategies have proved to be beneficial for engagements at companies of all sizes and in all industries, with varying budgets, timelines and internal resources to dedicate to the deployment.

1. Confirm a shared understanding of how the software drives your corporate objectives.

First and foremost, ensure that everyone involved in the implementation agrees upon the expected outcome of the project. Failure to do so may result in miscommunication, setbacks and costly measures to get the project back on track. Therefore, it's crucial that everyone understands why the software is important for your company and the impact it will have on customers, employees, vendors and business partners.

Mike McAbee, vice president of merchandise planning and replenishment at Hibbett Sports, has led many successful software rollouts and believes that top-down buy-in is critical. "Before investing in the software, we took a long, hard look at where we needed to be as a company in the next five to 10 years and the software that could support our corporate goals," says McAbee, speaking of the retailer's merchandise planning solution implementation. "From our senior management team to our store managers, we've all got one direction and one vision in terms of a localized market strategy. We all understand that without our new software, we wouldn't be able to maximize that strategy."

2. Build a team with all of the right players.

To capitalize on your investment in technology, make sure you have the right people with the right skills on staff to use the application effectively. An organizational change expert can perform a strategic assessment, ensuring that you have the appropriate roles and levels of experience on your team. You should establish a core set of power users who appreciate the importance of mastering the new software — even becoming certified — and are empowered to knock down any barriers along the way. This team should also include end users; the people who use the business processes and whose tasks will change need to be a part of the program from the beginning.

To support this end-user aspect, companies often recruit staff with prior experience using a software solution to help champion the new capabilities. According to McAbee, enthusiastic buyers and planners were handpicked to help champion new solutions during the software rollout. "We identified an experienced buyer who was excited to use the software," McAbee explains. "As this buyer started to see improvements when he went to market with his assortments, he became a flag carrier and raved about how the new software was improving his planning processes. When we rolled out the software to other areas of the business, we had a long list of people who were eager to use the solution."

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3. Keep on schedule and find ways to minimize costs along the way.

An implementation can easily derail when unexpected expenses or delays drive the project over budget. At the start of the engagement, your project leaders must schedule and mandate attendance at weekly or biweekly meetings. Everyone can use this session to stay on the same page regarding the project's progress while agreeing on tactics to address any outstanding issues or threats. Additionally, project milestones should be established throughout the implementation and beyond the go-live date. All too often, solution implementations or upgrades are planned with only the end result in mind. By establishing interim benchmarks to measure progress, major issues can be uncovered proactively to ensure that the go-live date is met. Frequent and measurable milestones will help keep the implementation on track to deliver the expected results.

You can also consider ways to cut costs from the start of your implementation. At a privately held U.S.-based food company, project leaders worked with their software provider to allocate implementation tasks in a manner that maximized the skills of the company's power users. The team also kept consulting hours to a minimum by relying on its own internal associates to handle much of the detailed coordination onsite. Another factor that kept costs down was tapping into the software vendor's offshore resources for the highly technical aspects of the solution upgrade.

4. Consider managed or hosted services.

For some companies, selecting the software solution is easy — it's the implementation scope and timeline that prove to be difficult. A managed services or hosted solution approach can be ideal for companies that do not want to make a capital investment upfront. Other companies want to rely on managed services for the operational aspects of running systems, such as ensuring capacity and plans for disaster recovery, business continuity, maintenance, network and infrastructure upgrades. Further, by aligning with the right managed services provider, your company can gain rapid time to value, more innovative capabilities and the flexibility needed to establish a strong foundation for growth.

For example, The Sun Products Corporation, a leading laundry-care manufacturer, faced an aggressive deadline to establish a new IT environment as a result of a merger — yet the company lacked the internal resources to make it happen. Joe Manco, director of IT business applications at Sun Products, says: "We decided that a managed services approach was the best choice for handling our looming deadline and ongoing day-to-day IT requirements. It would enable us to stay focused on our core business strengths, while we trusted our vendor to do the same. We had full confidence that our solutions would be up all of the time and that our vendor could support us for the long term on a 24/7 basis."

5. Make sure your implementation consultants have skin in the game, too.

Whether you just licensed new software or are planning an upgrade, be certain to partner with an implementation provider that has a stake in the outcome of the project. Some companies choose to use independent consultants rather than the implementation services offered by the software vendor. However, one of the best ways to ensure accountability is to get a total solution from the software vendor. This proximity can make all the difference in meeting your project deliverables on time and on budget.

"Rather than giving my team a bunch of test scripts and telling us to 'call if anything fails,' our software vendor's consultants sat right next to the Hibbett Sports team and watched them physically test the systems," says McAbee. "Because of this arrangement, we achieved quicker and better results. Our services consultants could see if a problem was surfacing and would articulate any issues back to the vendor's product developers or support team for fast resolution."

Success is a Combined Effort

With IT expenditures being scrutinized and slashed, it's simply no longer acceptable for companies to launch a software implementation without the right forethought, plan and experience. Simply handing over the reins to third-party consultants or taking a hands-off approach can lead to marginal results or worse.

It's critical that companies planning a technology implementation form a team in which everyone understands the rules, comes prepared and plays to win. Companies that adopt a skin-in-the-game approach to their software rollout — allowing associates at various levels within the company to take ownership of the project from the beginning — will realize bottom-line value. With this winning combination you will invest in the right combination of people, processes and technology to deliver real results.