Build agile relationships that can change, invite innovation & grow

As is well established, the most successful IT projects are driven by business need, not IT approval.

Ploughing headlong into a complex, resource-hungry, time-consuming, expensive, high-profile software project without first fully understanding the principle strategic objectives supported by a solid business case would be little short of madness. Certainly, regarding retail planning, it would be quite unlikely that a demand-forecasting or merchandise-financial-planning project would receive executive buy-in without compelling evidence that the value outweighed the pain of the entire selection and implementation process, obviously.

Time to turn current thinking on its head?

Is it necessarily always the case that the processes that will be impacted by the selection and implementation of a software solution need to be first fully defined? Do all ducks really need to be in a row before the shooting starts?

Or to put it another way, can the implementation of an enterprise level software solution be used to drive out the right best practice process? Is it always true that the delivery of applications that consume big data must wait until the end-state data requirement of that project is fully defined?

Take, for example, assortment planning. So much can be achieved with relatively little data. Essentially, what was sold, where and in what quantity. Detail to which, it’s fair to assume, very few retailers have access. However, many projects of this type fail to get past the initial internal scoping phase often due to the determination to simultaneously define a set of requirements that meet the known “to-be” needs of the business, alongside the unknown, potential needs of some theoretical future state.

Paralysis vs. moving ahead toward not-fully-defined future states

Sure, it sounds cliché to say, but it’s really the case that consumer behavior is changing at an ever-increasing rate, and consequently, retailers need to look beyond the traditional “to-be” state toward a few potential “may-be” states. It was hard enough when we all knew what we were doing, now we’re potentially trying to predict what an unforeseeable future may hold, so it’s little surprise that a certain amount of paralysis can set in.

There is an understandable logic to the thought that doing nothing, however painful, is better than doing something risky. In manufacturing, achieving zero defects is mathematically impossible (over an indefinite amount of time), still algorithms are employed that continually drive processes towards, if never achieving, zero defects. The process shifts continuously to allow for new errors, new defects, automatically correcting course towards no defects at all.

Can this thinking be employed in the delivery of complex IT projects? Maybe a better analogy is the Facebook mantra “Move Fast and Break Things” (subsequently changed to the less snappy “Move Fast with Stable Infrastructure”). Can we enter the delivery of an enterprise-level implementation with shared, fully defined, short-term objectives; closely-defined, medium-term objectives and more flexible longer-term intentions? Like manufacturing, can we build flexibility into the delivery process with no defined end state, but work as partners continually improving the process?

Mindset change, projects that adapt, and true longer-term partnerships

It feels like a big leap, the shift from purchasing a product that is carefully defined through an extended requirements gathering phase — often extending into many months (or in some anecdotal cases, years) — towards building a delivery methodology that addresses the most pressing business need, and does so with the data and resources that exist today, and then moves forward constantly redefining the medium- and longer-term objectives as each short-term goal is achieved.

But, of course, there’s a problem. Too often, retailers and vendor partners are not really partners. When you think about it, we’re vendors, we sell stuff to people who need to know the unknowable (what they will actually need in 3 or 5 years’ time). And as the world turns, consumers will continue to react to change, to become ever more informed and empowered, so there is a growing need for increased adaptability, for longer-term projects to adapt a little, to accommodate new requirements without the accompanying sound of pencils being sharpened by people in shiny shoes and oversized ties.

Thankfully, the technology that’s driving so much consumer change is also driving extraordinary innovation within the industry, delivering a solution as a service as opposed to a product is increasingly the norm. Today, with long-term engagements that span 5 years or more and retailers actively participating in the development of the next generation of retail planning and category management technology, software vendors are increasingly being viewed as trusted partners.

This doesn’t apply to all manner of retail planning project implementations, but where it does, where the changing needs of the consumer is fundamental, it’s time to consider building relationships that can accommodate change, invite innovation and grow based on a constant flow of quick wins.

The technology is here now and smartphones are only going to get smarter, so maybe it’s time we moved away from “customer” and “vendor” partnership to real partnerships.

Read more about solutions for Category Management that enable a truly innovative, agile partnership.

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