Can you trust your implementation partner to manage scope?
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By Tom Schoen, president, BTM Global
When a technology project fails spectacularly, it usually makes headlines. Recently we've seen a few of these projects that have gone wildly over-budget – like by a factor of 10 or 20 or more. While there are many parties involved, the key players are generally the retailer (the client) and the implementation partner. Rarely do we find out exactly what went wrong in these situations, but it's probably fair to say that both parties earn some of the blame. This could be due to unrealistic expectations on the part of the client, over-promising on the part of the partner, or perhaps an error in judgment or lack of the right skillset.
Regardless of exactly what went wrong and when, it boils down to the fact that the implementation partner is responsible for managing the client and not letting the technology project get out of hand. However, dealing with large public or private organizations can be difficult and "control" can be a nebulous concept. Whether you've been on the partner side or the client side, you probably have your own experience with a project that felt like it had a mind of its own.
Defining and controlling scope
A project that has gone far over budget or schedule often has a poorly managed scope of work. In retail technology implementations, "scope" usually includes requirements scope, technical scope, deployment scope and other kinds of scope.
Whichever components make up the scope, they all need to be actively defined, controlled and forecasted. Defining scope, although difficult, is the most important of these three steps: You and your implementation partner determine what's needed, when and who is responsible for controlling it.
Controlling scope can mean that project objectives stay top of mind, ensuring they are in alignment with the day-to-day work. It can also mean hearing a "no" when you request something. For example, a project goal may state "no custom modifications." But as the project goes on – especially if the timeline is long – there are always little things that come up and require small mods here or there. The next thing you know, your project is off-track or your budget is blown because those small changes have added up dramatically. A good implementation partner will be able to give you a respectful "no" and explain why your request is out of scope.
Predicting or forecasting changes — which also help control scope — are key. Forecasting is your implementation partner's plan to save you (the retailer) from yourself.
Forecasting best practices and expectations
When your implementation partner forecasts a scope change, they are predicting scope creep, including worst-case scenarios if scope gets out of control.
A change in scope can take many forms: new requirements can come in, requirements can change, technical requirements or financials can be altered, and so on. Your partner should have the foresight to predict certain changes based on the nature of the project.
For example, if you can't decide on a set of requirements or frequently change your mind about them, then your partner should recognize that there's a good chance that functional requirements will change during the project. They can determine how much time it takes to set a certain number of requirements or the number of changes a set of requirements has already gone through, and then forecast costs associated with those types of changes as the project progresses.
The ability to make these forecasts and then have honest conversations about them comes down to the nature of the relationship between you and your implementation partner. If you trust each other, then the partner should be able to talk frankly with you about escalating forecasted costs – and that's a big motivator for you to get functional scope under control!
Likewise, your partner should be closely watching the financial spend against the plan; if the spend is off-plan without a predicted reason, the partner can forecast the increased total cost of the project early. Of course, both of these examples assume that your implementation partner has a complete spend plan to begin with – something that you should require them to have.
In an extreme scenario, the implementation partner must be prepared to tell you that the project will fail unless something changes — failure in terms of budget, timing and/or objectives. That's a tough conversation to have, but it's one of the best services your implementation partner can provide.
Again, you should expect those conversations to happen early before things get out of control. Some partners think they can get more revenue out of the project in the short-term and deal with the problems down the road, and some take a "we just do as we're told" approach. Neither serves you or your project goals. If you're not having scope conversations with your implementation partner regularly (whether there are issues or not), request them. A good implementation partner would rather provide their expertise and have a tough conversation with you than have the project become a true failure because of overruns.
Each partner will have their own methods when it comes to forecasting, but the bottom line is that they should be able to warn you early on if the project is heading in the wrong direction — and lay out the consequences. Work with a partner who has proven they can manage scope and, if needed, have the tough conversations.