IMHO: Project Assessments: The Prognosis is Good

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How would you react if you went to the doctor’s office and were handed some pills without having first been asked, “Where does it hurt?” You would probably question your doctor’s ability to practice medicine. What if you raised objections and he reacted by giving you an in-depth description of the medication and even a demonstration of how well it worked? At best, you would run away from such quackery; at worst, you would sue for malpractice. If no one spent time analyzing your pain beforehand, then prescribing medication to solve the problem would be meaningless—no matter how good the product.

While it seems absurd that a doctor could practice medicine without even attempting to make a proper diagnosis, it amazes me how many IT organizations, be they vendors or customers, skip lightly over the assessment phase of technology solutions—the most critical phase of developing a successful plan of attack. Spending time diagnosing problems pays increasingly bigger dividends, especially in the world of the AS/400 and other midrange environments where solutions have become increasingly complex and integration has become exponentially more varied.

Diagnosis in the technology world is commonly referred to as a business or project assessment. Those in charge of a project assessment need to start off asking where it hurts and then reach deeper to find the origins of the pain. They may find that the real issues are often not technical.

One healthcare customer recently approached me with a need to implement a complaint-tracking system across the organization in Domino on an AS/400. The issue was that there were increasing numbers of complaints without an automated process by which to track them. The customer wanted a Band-Aid. But that was a superficial solution, one that would not effect a cure. The pain was complaint tracking, but my job was not to offer a help desk, complaint tracking, or a custom-automated solution. My job was to assess what the complaint process looked like and why the customer was experiencing difficulties with that process.

As it turned out, the customer was virtually hemorrhaging complaints because of a poorly managed vendor that was operating without asset management tools. By working with the vendor and my customer, we were able to create a solution that both improved the vendor’s internal management and communication with its customers and put into practice a complaint-tracking system for my customer that tied directly back to the vendor. Because I did not simply react to my customer’s initial request but, instead, forced the company to

evaluate its deeper issues, we implemented a solution that far exceeded client expectations and was more successful across the board.

Not all customers or vendors see the value of assessments, especially with the increase in the speed of application development and the corresponding decrease in the cost of Web applications. In a discussion with one of my mentors, I learned that some Web startups are advocating not doing assessments anymore because they feel that the cost (both in dollars, and especially in time) associated with assessments exceeds the value gained from just tossing content up on the Web as soon as it is conceived. In fact, the value of assessments has become a hot topic in the Silicon Valley startup world and other fast- company circles.

If it’s not apparent already, I disagree with some of the new wisdom coming from the paper tigers. As the AS/400 and midrange world becomes more and more intertwined with the Web, the significance of assessments, especially as planning relates to the enterprise, should increase exponentially with the increased number of variables that are part of connecting an enterprise to the Web.

Not only are the technical ramifications of enterprise-to-Web-to-the-world connectivity significant, but many of our customers are asking the bigger questions: Who will be visiting our Web site? What are and what should we be saying about our company to the world? How should and how does the world expect to be interacting with us? What is our company image and corresponding brand, and how should it be presented for the greatest impact? These are questions that take real time and effort to answer. They are also questions that require ongoing review and reflection.

The value of higher-speed and lower-cost development is neatly balanced by the responsibility of using more powerful tools. (I remember the embarrassment the first time I accidentally sent an email meant for confidential distribution to a group list.) Ideas have consequences, and the faster and more dramatically we can portray and promote our ideas, the faster and more dramatic the consequences. High speed can be your biggest benefactor, or your worst enemy. Assessing and planning will make the difference.

Assessments have radically increased in importance and have moved beyond good practice. Not only are assessments a useful tool in addressing projects, they are now more critical than ever for successfully positioning your company on the Web. If good road maps and clear vision were important when you were driving at 55 mph down a main freeway in your home state, what is the value of good maps and clear vision when you are pushing 110 mph down back roads in a country you have never visited?

Arguments about whether or not assessments are necessary with lower-cost and higher-speed development miss the point. The real questions we should be asking ourselves are these: What new areas should we explore and assess to keep our new, fast- moving projects on course? What problems should we diagnose before recommending a “cure”?