Overcoming the barriers to using experts for small and medium enterprise software projects

By Peter Meyer, Principal Consultant, Elkera Pty Limited

In the previous topic: Why do small and medium enterprises rely on unskilled personnel to plan software projects? we looked at three barriers to small and medium enterprises engaging expert consultants to help plan new software projects.

This topic looks at some options to overcome those barriers.

Overcome Barrier 1 – Build awareness of risks

No one likes to be told that they don’t understand, least of all business managers.

Consultants offering their services and project advocates within SMEs face a similar problem: How to create greater awareness for managers of SMEs about the planning risks in software projects.

This barrier is a tough one and no single strategy will overcome it. Possible approaches include:

  • Explain how business software is part of a system in which software and business processes with staff and customers must be aligned.
  • Provide credible data on the risks of project failure.
  • Identify examples of failed projects, including from within the same enterprise, where lack of expertise may have been a main cause of failure
  • Compare successful and unsuccessful projects, if examples are available.
  • Provide a low cost and low risk strategy to test what an expert consultant can do.

Overcome Barrier 2 – Incrementally build a business case with low-risk steps

Rightly, managers are not going to engage a consultant unless they assess that the financial benefits of so doing will significantly exceed the costs. There must be a positive return on investment (ROI).

In the previous topic, it was noted that if a manager does not see a business case for engaging a consultant, often it is because the business case for the software project is yet to be made.

It follows that there are two levels of business case to consider. The first is to assess the overall software project benefits and establish that the project is worth pursuing at all. The second is to establish if there should be a positive ROI from engaging an expert consultant to help plan the project.

Software projects are notoriously difficult to assess in the early stages, when thee are too many unknowns. This problem is represented by the cone of uncertainty described by Steve McConnell  – Software Development’s Cone of Uncertainty.

Simply engaging a consultant to help plan the project will not guarantee that the ultimate project will provide a positive ROI. You want a consultant who will help you determine if the project is worth undertaking in the way it is originally conceived, in an alternative way, or at all. It takes work to resolve that uncertainty.

The solution to this problem is to build the business case incrementally. Doing so reflects the way that project objectives evolve as analysis work is carried out.

As an example, let’s take an enterprise that plans to replace an enterprise-wide project planning system. There may be multiple levels to the business case. If the software is technically obsolete and out of support, the first level is to include the costs of loss of current benefits provided by the software.

The next levels apply regardless of technical obsolescence.  Many new benefits may be available from new software, based on new capabilities to provide new services or to improve business processes between parts of the business or with customers. If each of those areas is reviewed, it is possible that substantial benefits could be identified. For each candidate improvement, a preliminary review should be undertaken to assess if it is worth pursuing the analysis of that improvement in more detail.

In the initial planning stages, you don’t want to invest very much, until you establish that the project should deliver worthwhile benefits. Before engaging a consultant, you would undertake enough investigation internally to determine that a replacement system ought to deliver substantial benefits.  Then, when you engage a consultant, you want to do just enough work to assess if you are on the right path and if you have found the right expert to help. If either of those elements does not check out, you adjust the course for the next step or abandon the project. You are making small investments to avoid big risks.

The solution to barrier 2 is to build the early business case in small, low-risk steps. How to do so is described in a later topic.

There is still one barrier to breach. How do you find the right consultant?

Overcome Barrier 3 – Test your consultant on the first planning increment

In this stage, you want to do three things:

  • Find suitably qualified candidate consultants
  • Assess them for their capabilities and alignment with your needs
  • Assess if they will provide value for your project.

The first step is a matter of research. If you are reading this, then you are already well on the way and you don’t need any more help for this step.

The second step involves interviewing your candidates and finding out how they work:

  • What is their experience?
  • How will they understand your business?
  • How will they plan your project?

If your candidate proposes a risk-minimising approach such as incremental planning, then you could have a solid candidate.

The solution to consultant selection and the solution to barrier 2 come into alignment here.

The proposed strategy to overcome barrier 2 (incremental planning) can be combined with the desire to make sure you have the right consultant.

A consultant cannot assess the effort required to plan a software project without understanding a lot about the business and the expected scope of the project. Usually, a mini-project is required to gather that information.

A suggested approach is to engage a preferred consultant to undertake a preliminary planning assessment and to provide estimates for further work.

The preliminary planning assessment is the way to gain valuable project information and to test your consultant at a modest cost.

Elkera’s approach to preliminary planning assessment is explained in more detail in the next topic Why Elkera is the right expert to help plan your software project.

Next steps

Elkera offers a resource pack to help build the case within your organisation.

Download now: A Pitch to Management to Engage an Expert Planning Consultant.