Bob goes to the next board meeting with an overview of his vision for a supermarket e-Trolley and the effect it would have. He puts together a few slides for his colleagues to outline the idea. He is able to identify loads of benefits in terms of customer satisfaction levels, fewer check-out counters and therefore staff, more shelf space, fewer queues, reduced breakages at the check-out stage and so on. Of course at this stage these benefits are only expressed in words, there are no numbers.
He asks that the Retail and IT Directors come back to the next board meeting to outline their thoughts on this idea.
They do come back but make a pretty poor job of responding. The two directors have ganged up and decided that this e-Trolley project is a crazy idea that will never work and, more importantly, would lead to a great deal of extra work for them and their teams. They figure that if they come back with negative feedback the idea will get dropped and they can return to their normal quiet lives. They don’t yet know Bob.
The Retail Director outlines the worries he has about theft and of customers trying to scan their own goods using a barcode reader. He also talks about the way customers worry about laser scanners shining in all directions. Some are bound to be concerned that they will be blinded or made impotent or get cancer. Bob nods agreeably. The IT Director outlines the technical problems his team would have with the internal systems and databases and drops in all sorts of acronyms and technospeak. Bob continues to nod sagely but says nothing.
Both of these senior managers feel that they are winning this battle and that the e-Trolley project will die a quiet death almost before seeing the light of day. They both talk about how their resources are committed to all sorts of on-going projects so they ‘couldn’t really look at this idea seriously at the moment’.
Bob quietly asks how these other projects stack up in terms of the benefits they will deliver.
The two directors glance at each other and the first frisson of doubt is clearly visible in their eyes. They waffle away about benefits. The IT Director talks in very general terms about the reduced support costs of rolling out Windows 10 to the head office staff and the switch to an Oracle database. He is excited about the expansion of the existing on-line shopping system that is ‘being looked into’.
The Retail Director talks about the new warehouse and transport racking system, the proposed store in France and the study absorbing a seemingly immense number of resources all of whom have been involved in the possible takeover of a smaller supermarket chain.
Bob begins to suspect that they do not have a proper system for selecting the best projects to do – something he has seen many times before. He politely and quietly asks ever more pointed questions and the two directors begin to feel less and less certain about the firmness of the ground they are metaphorically standing on. Bob receives a load of management babble but as many facts and figures as his bathroom mirror gives him, i.e., none at all.
Bob becomes convinced that they do not have a proper system for selecting projects nor any kind of vision of the future except one in which they keep their own jobs.
It soon becomes clear that they have no real system for running projects either.
The directors get a growing feeling that the e-Trolley project is sitting on much firmer ground than some of theirs, their own projects’ foundations being on the liquid side of quicksand. In this mood they adopt a very human approach – they rationalize their failure to stop the project by talking about how the new CEO forced through his own pet project which may be a fine project but which never got the chance to be studied properly.
Bob stops asking questions and makes a statement: ‘I think we have to know exactly why we plan to undertake any major investment.
’We have to be as sure as we can that the projects we choose to undertake are within our capacity to deliver change, do not bring about more change than we can absorb and deliver a sensible return on our investment. Is that reasonable?’
This is the point at which everyone present except Bob begins to nod. The more perceptive Retail Director feels a slight cold wind blowing up his trouser legs. Some members of the board closest to the quicksand make a leap for the solid ground alongside Bob who stands there like Indiana Jones ready to save anyone who wants to be saved.
The Chief Financial Officer (CFO) nods more rapidly than most and thinks to himself that he is going to like working with Bob. The CFO has had the idea for some time that the senior players all have their own pet projects which they push through for often very unclear reasons. He knows for example that the Retail Director has a ‘place in France’ which is ostensibly for him and his family but which occasionally sees young female visitors who are very unlikely indeed to be a part of any director’s immediate family. The proposed new store would create very a convenient need for him to visit France regularly.
Bob expected this interplay. He didn’t know about the ‘place in France’ but anticipated that many investments were being made with very little support and even less investigation. Most projects in the past relied on the eventual investment/return calculations being lost in the mists of time.
The worst possible case in Bob’s mind is the IT department that has an annual budget it is quite determined to spend.
So strong is this desire to spend every last penny of the budget that it invests large sums on technical improvements that people outside of IT can detect only through the raft of new faults, attendance at a large number of IT conferences and an incredible sum on budgetary control hardware and software. The training and consultancy budget makes Bob wince.
Thanks to Geoff Reiss for contributing this book