Embarking on a new digital project—are you set up for success?

Enrique Flores  | September 19, 2022

Throughout my career, I took part in a number of projects where I had the opportunity to work with companies that were considered the cream of the crop. Whether it was a renowned management consulting firm or the best marketing agency in the city, the expectation was that these were the best people for the job and hiring them would almost guarantee success.

I would often sit there—in a supportive role at the time—and wait for them to blow me away and deliver spectacular solutions. For the most part, things didn’t work out that way.

Initial promises would always be grand, so grand that even earlier on in my career (when I was more impressionable), I’d meet them with as much skepticism as excitement. Some vendors would actually be impressive and deliver on their promises. But those were rare. More often, I would start to notice subpar deliverables, off-target strategies, and cookie-cutter solutions.

Why would this happen? I’d ask. Why do so many of these engagements fall short of expectations? Were we just choosing the wrong partners? Or were we getting in our own way during the project somehow? Over time, I began to see the biases and themes that were leading us astray.

  • The vendor wants the sale, and tends to over promise to get it;
  • The prospect wants the problem solved, and tends to be biased towards straight-forward answers—even if they are not realistic;
  • We are more susceptible to people who speak with authority and confidence than most of us are willing to admit—even if what they are saying seems fishy;
  • The internal people who can actually raise the red flag (mid-management and analyst-level employees who understand the practical work involved in delivering the solution) are oftentimes not at the decision table.

As you choose a vendor and engage in a new project, it is important to be conscious of these biases. Admittedly, some of them aren’t always easy to confront as there can be conflicting forces influencing these kinds of decisions (e.g., an important stakeholder likes the vendor, the decision-maker is looking for a “safe” choice, etc.). To help, I have outlined some red flags you can look for during your decision-making process:

Is the work involved being oversimplified?

I can’t tell you how many times I watched my colleagues and bosses fall for oversimplification and out-of-thin-air timelines. And, if I’m fully honest, while I’d typically voice my skepticism, at times I dealt with vendors who were so respected and spoke with so much confidence and authority that eventually I would find myself giving them the benefit of the doubt, too. “Maybe these guys are super productive, or employ methods I’ve never seen”.

Don’t fall for that trap!

Have confidence in your judgement and experience. If the promises seem unrealistic, press for details. Bring in your own experts that can help you figure out if things check out. Be explicit with the vendor, tell them you are looking for realistic solutions and timelines, not overly ambitious or pie-in-the-sky ones.

Is your role—as a client—being underplayed?

“Let us take care of X so you can focus on what really matters”. We’ve all heard the line. My personal view is that the vast majority of times things don’t work that way. Maybe that claim can be made after a solution is implemented and is running smoothly, but the notion that you can be hands off during the design and implementation of a digital solution should be met with extreme skepticism.

Vendors are there to provide perspective and certain kinds of expertise you might be missing. But, as a client, you should be doing just as much work as they do (if not more) towards the success of any project. Here are three practical reasons that underscore why you can’t just hand the reins over to a vendor and expect success:

  • No one understands your business and its processes better than you: when it comes to helping a business elevate their client experience or improve their operations through digital solutions, it isn’t enough to understand the industry. There needs to be an understanding of the business itself. That means the services provided, how they are delivered, client insights, processes, employees’ roles and responsibilities, tech stack, legacy tools, etc. To expect a consultant to understand this better than the client is naïve, and so is the notion that this knowledge can be fully transferred over a few working sessions.

  • The new vision has to be inspired by your insights: consultants should always add a lot of value towards a vision, but the essence of it should come from you. After all, you know your market, services, clients, prospects, and employees best. What’s more, you are the ones who will be using the solution.

  • Iteration is king: in my experience, very few situations give rise to misunderstanding as much as custom digital developments. This is partially because it’s very difficult to capture and convey a process or a vision for software with absolute precision, but also because many times—as a client—you might not be sure about what you want until you have a tangible starting point (many of us are better editors than creators), giving you an opportunity to point out what you like, what you don’t like, what you forgot to mention, and what you didn’t even consider. The only way to do this effectively is to be an active participant in the entire process.

  • Data hand off and management of existing tools: even top consultants will not understand your existing data and processes as well as you do. Any work involving custom legacy tools, data transfer and migration, and even just providing access to existing systems, tends to require heavy involvement from the client.

Ultimately, what you want—whether from your teams or your vendors—are people who embrace complexity. You want vendors who will highlight the importance of stakeholder engagement throughout the project. Vendors who will push for you to form a strong internal team, covering areas such as business analysis, project management and decision making. Most importantly, you not only want vendors who have the expertise, will, and passion to see the project through, but who are also upfront about what they don’t know and even hesitant to make promises—particularly about feasibility, timelines, and budgets—before they’ve had a chance to dig deep into your operations.

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