It was Steven Covey who coined the phrase “begin with the end in mind” in his book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. I’ve always loved that simple idea – have clarity about what the outcome must look like before beginning any endeavour.
In IT Project Management, as tech advances exponentially, it’s important that we take a leaf out of Covey’s book – and start every IT project with the END USER in mind.
Over the years, I have seen project teams asked to do it the other way around, to crowbar a new technology into their organisation’s operations, to be “of the moment”, ahead of the curve, cutting edge. It rarely ended well.
Fortunately, overtime, the IT team became more than a business support function (“the turn-it-off-and-back-on-again guys” as one CEO used to call his IT talent!!) – I.T. became the business. Our influence grew and, thankfully, there were fewer of these instances.
Now, it’s only two anecdotal cases so far, and one swallow (or two) does not a summer make, but AI might be rekindling this particular skip-fire! Let’s be clear – AI is going to disrupt everything and when it adds value it’s great. In IT Project Management, for instance, enterprises are getting great outcomes by delegating some tasks to AI and are finding it frees up more time for the more human aspects of being a Project Manager (e.g. stakeholder and end user interactions). AI for AI’s sake though – that’s a different matter.
SIGN OF THE TIMES
CIO Kyle (not his real name) has “enjoyed” just over eight months of conversations about AI with his CEO, who had read about how groundbreaking it will be in The Times and become “like a dog with a bone”.
First, Kyle was asked to report on where AI could be deployed to enhance the business operations. The conclusion was that “benefits would be so marginal and peripheral that they would be outweighed by the potential negative disruption to current workflows”. The organisation’s Senior Business Analyst recommended that AI should be “something to keep front of mind when considering future business needs but currently will not add sufficient value to be seen as a foundation upon which to build change.”
Furthermore, the People Team had carried out a staff survey that fed back that AI had become the critical worry for the business’ talent. Any unnecessary integration of AI could impact morale and affect productivity.
Indeed KPMG’s generative AI survey reported almost four out of ten (39%) of executives believe AI will result in fewer human interactions, and almost a third (32%) agreed that AI will stress out employees and increase mental health issues.
The CEO read the reports and data from, let’s remember, a CIO, a BA and Head of Talent and Recruitment and even KPMG, but in Kyle’s words – “turned into Vicky Pollard”.
“Yeah but …,” the CEO would say pointing to a story in The Times about a business in a totally different sector, “look what these guys are achieving.”
Of course, AI has been on Kyle’s radar for some time, indeed some functions had already been automated before the CEO got this bee in his bonnet. Kyle believes that the CEO wants something bigger, a bold statement move into AI, “something impressive to tell the boys at the golf course” and told me that it’s become such a distraction that they are resigned to creating a “headline AI initiative” with “no real substance”. The Head of Talent and Recruitment is already contemplating “how to sell it to the troops” without destroying their morale.
End user benefit?
It isn’t just the traditional end-user that you need to consider, there’s another crucial group who are also invested heavily in outcome benefits – the wider stakeholders!
STAKEHOLDERS SHOULD BE STIRRED NOT SHAKEN
Again, although I only have one story to share, there is data to support that stakeholders are easily spooked by new technologies. It’s crucial that you take your stakeholders with you, hold their hand through the process so that they understand what AI is and what it will do.
Stakeholders can be both inside your organisation and outside it, and they may be end users, or they might be affected in some other way by the process or change that you are delivering, either way they have a vested interest in the final product and need to understand how it will work for them.
By rushing AI integrations, Martina, a project leader from Slovakia, believes that there has been a noticeable erosion of both trust and engagement on a stake holder level. “We understood fully the benefit of AI, of course we do, we’ve been living and breathing it. I used lockdown times to explore what it can do for us. Stakeholders didn’t.”
“We did not learn lessons from cloud migrations when again stakeholder buy-in was slow because we had not fully explained the case. We now have to work harder to build that trust back.”
It was one of the hot takeaways from the Gartner CFO Conference back in June 2023, CFOs were encouraged to create an environment where talent feels the tech isn’t to replace them, but rather to augment their impact on the organisation. Understanding the value of the tech and their role alongside it is crucial. That is a leadership challenge.
The good news is that just short of three-quarters (72%) of executives say AI can play a critical role in maintaining and building stakeholder trust, but it’s crucial to identify and address a range of risk factors before implementation. Almost half (45%) of executives believe stakeholder trust can be tarnished by “unimplemented risk management strategy and tools”.
Almost half of the leaders (47%) say they are in the initial stages of risk evaluation and mitigation strategies with regard to AI integration, but almost a quarter (22%) admit that they haven’t even started. An awareness of where you are on this spectrum would be a useful pulse check right now. If IT Project leaders can balance AI integration with effective and transparent risk management measures, stakeholder confidence in successful AI implementation will follow. We must work a little harder to earn that trust upfront – or like Martina’s team, work doubly hard to get it back after it is lost.
It’s not just AI though …
MAKING TAX DIGITHELL
My friend Dan, who runs a small business, sighed heavily when I shared this blog topic with him. He’d spent 47 minutes and 14 seconds in a HMRC telephone queue trying to sort a VAT issue.
In a nutshell, unable to settle the firm’s last VAT bill in full, he’d set up a payment plan and made timely payments by Direct Debit. All sorted.
About a month later, HMRC had sent a late payment penalty notice. Sally, the HMRC advisor wearily explained something about the “Making Tax Digital” system and the late payment penalty system not talking to each other. So, the penalty system noticed that the exact payment due had not been made but unable to factor in the agreed payment plan, had issued a fine.
After the equivalent of a half of a football match waiting on hold, Dan was told that nothing could be done on the phone, nor could this be remedied online, and he would have to write and post a letter. He wrote and printed the letter and marched off grumbling to the post box. So much for making tax digital!
Then, two days later, another letter from HMRC. This time advising that the account had been passed to a debt collection agency. Another 50-minute wait for an advisor who assured Dan that the account was not with a debt collection agent and this letter is also auto-generated because the systems don’t interact.
Which end-user benefitted? Dan? Sally? (I’ve changed all their names by the way), or the admin at HMRC’s Solicitor’s Office & Legal Services who will have to open the letter and process the challenge to the penalty?
It could be reasonably argued that this system, like so many others in so many organisations, should not have gone live until every interdependent part of the machine was in sync. Sally was more candid and told Dan that his was the “umpteenth” call like this and that she believed changes were made too soon. This happens! Sometimes it’s boardroom ego, sometimes it’s public sector grandstanding and bravado, but history tells us one thing, IT Projects are never rushed into service for the benefit of the end user.
IF IT WORKED FOR STEVE JOBS …
Steve Jobs, upon his return at Apple’s Worldwide Developers Conference in 1997, beautifully emphasised the importance of prioritising the end-user:
“You’ve got to start with the customer experience and work backwards to the technology. You can’t start with the technology and try to figure out where you’re going to try to sell it. And I made this mistake probably more than anybody else in this room. And I got the scar tissue to prove it. And I know that it’s the case.
And as we have tried to come up with a strategy and a vision for Apple, it started with “What incredible benefits can we give to the customer? Where can we take the customer?” Not starting with “Let’s sit down with the engineers and figure out what awesome technology we have and then how are we going to market that?” And I think that’s the right path to take.”
For customer experience swap in end-user or stakeholder and read that back again with AI in your mind.
I’ll leave a link to the video in the sources (it is worth a watch, not least as he is replying to an attack on his and Apple’s approach).
The thing is, in the same way that this philosophy worked for disruptive innovations like the laser printer, the iPod and the iPhone, so it will work for the ultimate disruptor of our generation – AI.
If it’s good enough for Steve Jobs and Apple, it’s good enough for me.
So, let’s avoid the scar tissue and START WITH THE END USER IN MIND!
That Steve Jobs Response: