Rescue a project with a software development partnership

It happens. You plan. You budget. You brief. You advise. And then, despite all your efforts, the project takes a nosedive. One headline-making account was a fairly recent failure to build an IT system for the UK’s Fire and Rescue Service to the tune of £469 million. Margaret Hodge, chair of the Public Accounts Committee, described the cancelled project as a ‘monumental failure from start to finish’. Working on the assumption that your business hasn’t seen that many zeroes in the red, let’s say that things could be worse – no matter how badly a recent project has gone.

Where did it all go wrong? Check the bill

When trouble arises with IT solutions and the suppliers providing them, the cause can often be traced back to poor decisions based largely on cost. When it comes to tech investments it’s easy to be fooled into a false economy of saving rather than spending, which can lead disasters such as cheaper, piecemeal purchases cobbled together to make a rather risky whole that results in multiple suppliers uninterested in  troubleshooting the final product. So repeat after me: Too much emphasis on acquisition costs = poor end product.

At heart we all know this but it can be difficult to convince the procurement team. Sometimes you lose the battle, and after a lot of huffing and puffing and “I told you sos” you’re almost back to square one – but with the foundations of the system you initially wanted. What then? How do you get the project back on track without an opportunistic systems integrator taking advantage of your bruised and rather desperate state? Here are a few ideas.

Firstly, commit to the project rescue

You’ve assessed the damage, decided to call a halt and tools are down. You’re over the failure of Stage 1 and you’ve put outraged righteousness aside. Now, when you go back to the drawing board to draft a plan for the re-launch of the project, you’ve got to give convincing evidence that a new supplier can turn things around and settle on a proper budget this time to not only bring the system up-to-date but also create a partnership with a UK-based development company. Bring out all the facts and figures, and don’t be afraid to put as much emphasis as necessary on the project’s crashed and burnt remains at your feet. Getting a healthy bottom line sometimes takes scare tactics and you’ve got all the proof you need of the dangers of scrimping back to the bone. It may also mean choosing a development provider based in the UK who is able to offer hands-on IT support at all hours – in short, you’re looking for a real partner rather than an on-call nurse as the relationship could last for years and is likely to go through changes and transitions.

Secondly, keep your IT members involved

Having your own IT team take part will help keep the new systems integrators true to the brief, but it will also illustrate clearly that they – rather than procurement or other departments – are running the show. Dodgy suppliers know all the best tricks when it comes to ripping off people who don’t know exactly what’s supposed to be going on with a project. Your procurement head may be looking at saving money in a way that makes them blind to the technical aspects of the project or easily swayed by a contractor’s promise of short-term success. Their involvement is only for the start of the work, so why let them choose how it’s going to be done, and by whom? Get your experts in early and keep them there – it’s common sense.

Thirdly, redefine your requirements:

Yes, you’ve already set out what you want from a project and given a list of the bells and whistles it should have. But you’re looking at this the second time around; there may be a lot more to start with, depending on how much progress the previous suppliers made. You’ll need to determine what to keep, what to improve and what to leave by the wayside. Maybe there were some unexpected (and good) developments that have changed the direction of the work for the better.

Think beyond what’s directly in front of you and look at the forest rather than the trees. What’s the bigger picture and the long-term solution? What’s the best route to a new partner, a smooth transition and the finished system? You want something new (or improved) but it’s also essential to look at the IT solutions your new partner has already constructed, which should prove they are able to take on the challenge of rebuilding your system. They’ll also be able to go through your system in greater detail and provide an estimated cost for your system’s rebuild. Open communication with all parties here is key.

Fourthly, you’ll need to learn to trust again

A broken heart is difficult to get over. Sure, the previous contractor let you down, cleaned out your wallet and left the room a mess but it’s important to move on and find another worth placing your trust (and currency) in. You’ll be entering this relationship with eyes wide open so try to put any jaded assumptions and cynicism to one side and rely on past experience rather than resentment when it comes to finding a new partner. You can increase the odds of a happy outcome by doing proper research into all contenders, looking at each one for who and what they are rather than solely what they can do for you, and choosing wisely from there.

Big software suppliers will have big accounts and you might be just another name on their list; likewise pairing with a smaller supplier may mean you’re a star account in their books. Look at their values and priorities and don’t be shy in getting feedback straight from previous clients (especially the employees actually using the system) or asking to see a portfolio of finished projects. They should be keen to showcase their past achievements by providing sound proof of successful software development projects, some of which may have started out as software failures and rescued projects like yours. Do you get a good feeling about how much time they vow to dedicate to your business or does it sound like an empty promise? If this sounds an awful lot like getting over a terrible chapter in your love life, don’t worry. In professional terms, that’s exactly what it is – a smooth transition to a happy outcome. You don’t have to live with a mistake forever if you’re wise enough to learn from it and move on.