In the spirit of the NFL playoffs this weekend, I wanted to share a few thoughts about football’s hail mary effect on ERP systems.

In case you’re not a football fan, a hail mary pass is when a quarterback heaves the ball a long distance toward the end-zone, usually in a desperate move to score a last-minute touchdown to win the game.  Roger Staubach is the legendary ’70s quarterback for the Dallas Cowboys that brought the term into the mainstream with a last second winning touchdown throw in an NFL divisional playoff game.  According to reports (since I was a toddler at the time and didn’t see the game), Staubach claimed that he threw the pass in the air, closed his eyes, and said a Hail Mary prayer before it was caught.  Fortunately, Dallas eked out a win, advanced to the next round of the playoffs thanks to this hail mary throw, and a new term was coined along the way.

Hail mary passes are exciting, unpredictable, and thrilling when they work as planned.  Watching highlight reels of such plays may make you think that this is how all football games are won, but these types of passes are actually very rarely completed, and even less rarely resulting in a win from behind.

However, based on the way many ERP implementations are managed, it seems that too many CIOs watch their share of ESPN Sportscenter and are overly fond of hail mary plays.  During the last two years of the recession, I’ve seen too many companies attempt the thrill and excitement of hail mary passes with their ERP system rollouts.  Unfortunately, these types of implementations usually end the way most hail mary passes end: dropped or caught by the wrong team.  The only difference here is that a whole company is at stake rather than a single game or a quarterback’s ego.

So what exactly is a hail mary ERP go-live? There is no official definition since it’s a term I coined after seeing a particular company prematurely try a high-risk cutover, but I use the term to describe a desperate attempt to get a troubled ERP software project back on track and/or to stop the bleeding of a project that’s gone over budget by forcing a go-live and hoping for the best.  It’s when executive management says, “We can’t continue to have these project delays and we can’t spend any more money, so let’s go for broke and flip the switch.” It’s quite the gamble, and one I would argue is more costly and risky than simply shelving the project and not going live at all.

First, look at the common consequences of a hail mary go-live: the system doesn’t work on day one, people are confused and don’t understand how the system is supposed to work, the data is wrong, the system still has bugs, customer orders can’t ship, customer orders are lost. These are all common problems when a go-live is rushed and you pull the trigger too soon.

So why do executives do it more often than they should, as evidenced by the uptick in ERP failures in recent months? Mostly out of desperation. They don’t feel like they have a choice.  Their backs are against the wall.  It’s 4th and 50 in a game they’re losing with 10 seconds on the clock.  Or if you don’t like the sports analogies, it feels like it’s the only chance they have to win.

The good news is that there is plenty you can do to avoid getting yourself in this type of situation.  Just as most really good football teams have good ball-control offenses that eat up the clock, solid defenses that keep the other team from scoring, and players that avoid turnovers, CIOs can follow a similar blueprint with their ERP systems.  Whether you’re in the midst of an implementation or, better yet, just about to start one, here are a few tips to get ahead and stay ahead from the start:

1. Plan up front. Take the time to ensure you have a solid game plan (i.e. project plan) and define your business blueprint before configuration.  This allows you to proactively control the tempo of the implementation rather than reacting to technical software issues.  Just as you wouldn’t build a house without a plan and blueprint, you don’t want to start building your business system without appropriate planning and business process design.

2. Initiate organizational change management from the start. As I’ve written extensively in other blog posts and presentations, org change is much more than training. It equates to organizational impact analysis, organizational design, communications to employees and stakeholders, and benefits realization.  Just as you wouldn’t play a football game without defense or special teams, you shouldn’t run a project without a talented and experienced organizational change management team.  Consider their activities part of the project’s critical path.

3. Take your go/no-go decision very seriously. Remember that an ERP failure doesn’t just mean the software doesn’t work, it means your business fails as well (just ask Shane Company or Lumber Liquidators). Be sure you’re ready. Understand the consequences and costs of going live too soon vs. delaying the project.

At the end of the day, these tips will help you run your project be more of the New England Patriots of the ERP world rather than the Buffalo Bills.  Learn more by attending our upcoming ERP webinar that will discuss lessons learned from ERP failures.

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