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Beyond Ideas

Beyond Ideas

There's always a good reason for failure but never a good reason to fail

There's no shortage of brilliant ideas in IT. On the contrary, we enjoy an embarrassment of riches. Ever faster, better and cheaper technology creates ever faster, better and cheaper choices for both CIOs and the enterprise. Even in the grip of a capital expenditures slowdown, we still have more innovative opportunities than we know what to do with. That's the good news about this business.

The bad news? Good ideas are easy; good implementations are hard. Very hard. But ongoing IT innovation is meaningless without ongoing implementation. We can publicly discuss the pros and cons of CRM, SCM, alignment and security till our tongues get tired, but the immutable business fact remains: the quality of ideas ultimately depends on the quality of their implementation. Just as actions speak louder than words, our implementations say far more about us than our plans. We are what we execute.

So this column begins with a simple premise: the future of IT is the future of implementation; the future of implementation is the future of IT. That means implementations increasingly need to be as creative and inspiring as the ideas that supposedly drive them.

Implementations built around slavish conformance to unchanging specs almost always fail. Implementation isn't about following orders on time and on budget; it's about getting things to work on time and on budget.

Anything CIOs can do to gain keener insight into how individuals and institutions translate ideas into actions - and actions into ideas - is worth the investment. Why? Because, in the real world, return on investment is contingent on return on implementation. The problem is that we overvalue good ideas and undervalue their execution. We honestly believe that if we define the problem - and the specs - just right, that implementation becomes straightforward. It almost never is. Anyone bothering to read this column has probably lived through an implementation or a rollout where they discovered that the very act of implementation changes the nature of the original problem and the spec. You discover what the clients really want when they interact with a prototype, or how suppliers really respond to that just-in-time scheduling system. As German general Helmuth von Moltke once observed: "All plans evaporate on contact with the enemy."

What many executives don't realise is that implementation is all about exploration and discovery. Unfortunately, too many of us treat implementation as a necessary evil that obscures the brilliance of our strategic IT concepts. Implementation is what gets delegated - or outsourced - to project managers and consultants who get paid to handle the dirty work.

That's a mistake. That's dangerous. We need to treat implementation more as a feature and less as a bug. There's a razor-thin line between delegating and abdicating the job of implementation, and the CIO community may be guilty of crossing it too frequently. We need to look only at the higher-profile ERP failures and misbegotten efforts at developing B2B Net-centric markets to identify this pathology.

Yes, we can round up the usual clichA©s about how companies "failed to get buy-in from top management" or were "bamboozled by their consultants" or "misunderstood how long it would take for employees to become comfortable with change". But that, too, would miss the point. There's always a good reason for a failure, just as there's always a good reason for success.

The issues here are more fundamental: how do we integrate the way we manage implementations with the way we explore strategic and competitive advantage? Implementation is as significant a senior management responsibility as strategic direction, but most companies choose not to manage it that way. So how do we treat execution as a resource rather than as a cost?

In other words, how do we create systems and cultures where the implementation of ideas is treated as seriously and respectfully as their inception? Shockingly, there are easy answers to each and every one of those questions. Not surprisingly, the challenge is in implementing those easy answers.

If that sounds a little coy, so be it. The truth is that effective implementation is an ongoing dialogue between the (inter)action you just took and the (inter)action you think you're about to take. This is not a static process. Implementation is about introspection as much as persistence and overcoming resistance. This regular column will be about these ideas and the people and stories behind them.

Michael Schrage is co-director of the MIT Media Lab's eMarkets Initiative and author of Serious Play

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