ANOTHER VIEW: Move projects from possible to practical'and then, inevitable

Charles Havekost

In any discussion of project success, there is the central question of uptake'the ability to ramp-up transactions or market share or coverage or profit. Sure, some projects have an unequivocal management hammer that forces adoption by an entire organization; but most have to build a user base in order to succeed.

Sometimes, project managers in government aren't as facile as we should be at sales and building market share. The need to build a user base is common among many kinds of projects. Those include e-government projects to replace legacy paper processes; consolidation projects requiring participants to abandon long-used legacy systems; and cross-servicing efforts that aspire to build a customer base across organizations.

So how do you get there? How do you go from no users to a healthy cadre of customers? I believe each project has to reach three thresholds: proving a service is possible to use, demonstrating that it is practical, and then convincing folks that uptake of the service is sufficient to make success inevitable. Possible. Practical. Inevitable. Let's talk about these thresholds.

Proving that a service is possible to use is, if anything, the hardest step. Getting that first user'and getting the 'number of customers' meter off zero'can certainly test a project manager's resolve. If you ever studied physics, you'll remember that it takes more effort to make a stationary object start to move than it takes to keep a moving object in motion. Proving that a service is possible is what starts the process. You need to do whatever it takes to process the first transaction'call it a proof of concept, a pilot, a trial offer'because once that first one is processed, nobody can ever again say such a transaction is not possible.

After you've proven that the service is possible, the next threshold is to prove it practical. In other words, demonstrate that the service can handle a variety of transactions for multiple customers while providing a credible value proposition.
Typically, the practical step is not a test of capacity, but more a test of functionality and flexibility: Can the service handle the needs of a real user community? The goal should be to process a couple of dozen transactions from a handful of customers, thus attaining the first rung on the utilization ladder and along the way demonstrating that a previously dubious (in the customers' minds) service is actually quite doable.

The practical threshold is truly met when a group of customers no longer perceive business with your service as requiring heroics and workarounds, but simply as how business is done. Once the service is embedded in the business of a couple of customers, the focus (in addition to keeping those customers happy) can move to ramping up usage.

Offer a carrot

My favorite way to do this is to find incentives for early adopters. They face the risks associated with early adoption, so why not offer explicit benefits. Sometimes an early-adopter discount or specialized service can be a powerful incentive. Try to incite the technology version of a gold rush by identifying a limited-availability feature or service offered only to early adopters'an update on the old 'Order Before Midnight!' sales pitch on late-night television. Maybe early adopters receive specialized service, or on-site migration support or extra initial services that later would be for-fee only. As the utilization curves show growing numbers of transactions and users, potential customers will at some point start to think of the service no longer as a question but as an answer; not an 'if' but a 'when'; no longer a gamble but a strategy. At that point, the inevitability threshold has been reached and crossed.

It's true that prospective customers may perceive the service as inevitable at different points along the curve, but the momentum of perceived inevitability builds on itself like a rumor until everybody gets the feeling. A colleague in industry has rightly noted that, for many commercial endeavors, profitable might replace inevitable as a threshold, yet for many government cross-servicing efforts, the perception of inevitability is the best indicator of durability for a project.

As you think about these three thresholds'possible, practical and inevitable'look back at some of your successful projects (and the less successful ones as well) to see if there is a pattern. You're likely to find projects that quickly prove possible and practical are most successful in reaching the nirvana of being inevitable.

Charles Havekost is CIO of the Health and Human Services Department and co-chair of the Federal CIO Council's Architecture and Infrastructure Committee. E-mail: charles.havekost@hhs.gov.

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