Episode 18

Modern organizations are dependent on technology solutions to enable the successful execution of the processes that deliver products and/or services to their clients. The state of technology is forever in flux and to remain technology relevant, organizations must continuously adapt the solutions they employ. Over the last decade, the software solutions targeting business productivity have exploded. It is very common to find a solution that claims to solve every problem. Yet with the space maturing, why do so many implementations of off the shelf products run into trouble? “You can’t always get what you want, you just might find, you get what you need”.

No, you can’t always get what you want

The vast majority of off the shelf products do not start as a product, but as a custom solution developed for Customer #1. These pathfinding projects typically come at a higher cost to the first customer as numerous unknowns must be answered and uncovered. Firms that provide custom development services build up domain knowledge in that area. Domain knowledge in software development is very valuable and these firms have a strong desire to find customer #2 in the same industry. When Customer #2 is found, it is extremely common that the custom solution for #1 is not exactly what #2 wants, and the solution must be refactored, features must be added, and the product grows in complexity. Fast forward to Customer #100; to meet the requirements of all these similar yet different users, the custom solution has morphed into a one size fits all off the shelf solution for the entire industry. At this point the software vendor has shifted its competencies from a custom solution builder to a specialized product provider. Now you are Customer #101; what are the dynamics to be aware of? Is this product what you want?

But if you try sometimes, well, you might find

With off the shelf software, it is impossible to know before attempting implementation if the proposed solution will be successful. Off the shelf product vendors have powerful incentives to oversell the capabilities of their solution; of course their solution is best and can do everything you want. It is in the best interest for this vendor to not probe too deeply into the client’s problem, because the risk of uncovering that the solution is a poor fit. Monetarily, it is far better for the vendor to uncover that the solution requires deep customization after the customer has committed to it. Enterprise resource planning and customer relationship management solutions are often plagued by these problems, not because the products are bad, but because there is bound to be friction when taking a completed solution into a new environment. With mature products, they are likely capable of doing everything you want, however, they are so large that any single client might only use 10% of the features available. Adopting and implementing the solution becomes a challenge due to the sheer size of the product. If the change management need is too great, the implementation will face strong internal resistance, putting the project at risk, regardless of how awesome the solution is. A “can do everything product” can be amazing, but that magic typically comes with a high configuration and adoption price.


Without acting, there is no way for an organization to discover their true needs. Many off the shelf products are browser based requiring no implementation expenditure. Today, it is possible to get access to enterprise functionality for very little upfront capital. By working with these solutions, it is entirely possible to discover that one product is not what you want, but the process allows the organization to discover what they actually need. When there is a high degree of uncertainty for what the needs are, do not make a commitment that cannot be reversed. Seek out options that give the problem in your organization a platform to become visible.

What pills are being used to keep your IT system alive? It is common for organizations to get trapped into a “keep the lights on” mentality, where most resources are devoted to putting out fires. Sometimes it is just sheer determination, but this mentality rarely looks beyond the needs of today. With off the shelf products available with a simple monthly subscription, requiring no downloads; or installation, it is very easy for IT systems to quickly fragment into a cluster of independent solutions. With dedicated IT staff focused on fire fighting, there are few resources available to ensure that there is a unified strategy linking IT systems to corporate outcomes. Frustrated staff under pressure to perform, will build their own solutions and processes to compensate. It is far too common where spreadsheets are the glue that keeps everything together. Therefore, there is a need to experiment, but under a unified strategy and vision. Getting to this state is no easy task.

You get what you need

Be wary of a product that can do everything, perform managed experiments that are allowed to fail, and focus on defining the problem. Technology for its sake, is rarely the answer. Can exceptions in your process be removed? You can’t always get what you want, you just might find, you get what you need.