When it comes to prioritising IT issues… be a bit more ‘cat’

We all have lots of issues calling for our attention, whether that’s in life or IT. By taking a moment to form a more strategic approach you can prioritise effectively to save both time and money.

If you’re anything like me, you've probably got a lot of things you need to do.

Me? I need to take out the rubbish, get the post from the doormat, take out the recycling and let the cat in (again!). Now, I could do them in exactly that order - but that would be silly and waste time. It makes far more sense to get the rubbish bag in one hand and the recycling in the other, then carry them out the front door in one trip. The cat will sneak inside, and I can get the post on the way back (then I can go and start Googling for cat flaps!).

That's all very obvious - a tiny bit of forethought and I only do one trip instead of four and save a load of effort into the bargain (imagine I'm lazy and have a very long hallway or something).

So why don't we apply the same thought process to our business IT issues?

That bespoke recruitment system is past its sell-by date, users don't like the ERP system, customers don't like the old website, the printer is broken, the old production line system keeps crashing and the internet connection is too slow. Phew! So, it looks like we need to start by hiring a load of developers to write a new recruitment system. Right?

How about instead of that we take a moment to take stock and have a think. We don't have to fix things one at a time, in the order they were first written down; and we definitely don't have to satisfy those that shout loudest first!

We have a limited IT budget and users have limited patience for disruption or learning new systems. Let's work out a strategy to get the most important things done whilst minimising cost and maximising benefit.

Let’s break things down a little.

First, we need to work out what we mean by 'important'. To me, this means things that directly support the business strategy. I'm going to imagine 'we' means a manufacturing company that is planning to grow online sales. No? Oh, okay… go on then, let's pretend we're a 'pet egress' company trying to make life easier for people working from home!

So the only really important and pressing issues we have are the production line and the website - if we can’t make product, we can’t sell it, but if we have product and the website is rubbish, we won’t sell it anyway! The other items on our IT problem list are therefore not so important.

I said we need to minimise cost so let's look at that next. We could get a new production line system but first, let’s investigate why it's crashing before jumping ahead and spending hundreds of thousands. It always used to work absolutely perfectly; so, it probably just needs a bit of TLC and to be looked after properly. It may indeed need replacing eventually but we don't need to panic and jump into something in a rush just yet.

We should also do an internal exercise with our sales and marketing team to see how much a new website will cost vs how much it will bring in increased sales. Some external expertise would be useful for both of these, but only to supplement our internal knowledge.

I also said we should maximise benefit. This means we can look for some ‘low-hanging fruit’ or ‘quick wins’. We should probably ring our internet provider and see what they can do to give us more bandwidth, and ring a printer leasing company so we can stop buying printers (we make cat flaps, we don't want to have to look after printers).

That leaves two things on our list. First, the recruitment system - we're not trying to recruit at the moment, so let's get the increased orders in before we worry about recruitment... after all, we need to be able to pay for those new staff somehow. We also know (from a quick call to our trusted advisors) that many cloud-based recruitment systems exist that can do the job, and a lot more besides, for a low monthly fee with no capex required. Again, minimise cost, maximise benefit.

Finally, the ERP system - it's a big beast, and while it works perfectly the users don't like it. A replacement will be very expensive, and even if we replace the old one, the users may not like a new system anyway! Again, we have nothing driving its urgent replacement; but we could do with some help to start gathering requirements for what a 'good' ERP system would look like. We could then combine those requirements with our understanding of the production system and maybe pencil in the start of a design and procurement process for a new system to start in the next year or so once sales pick up and we really need a system with increased capabilities. An automated link from web orders to production would be a great addition too...

So now we've arrived at a strategic plan which we can polish up into a presentation for the board. They're expecting to have to refuse lots of immediate capex they can't afford to spend on big IT projects. But instead, what they find is that we have a strategic plan which doesn't need much immediate budget and solves our most pressing issues. It includes a plan for supporting growth and a vision for the future. We've started planning how to move our outdated internal systems to the cloud and we have the beginnings of a business case for the longer-term investment we will need.

That all sounds very impressive and the board will no doubt be delighted with the cost savings; and it didn’t have to be difficult. All it took was taking a few moments (Okay, in the real world of business it might take a few days) to stop, and think; and a bit of advice from someone like Waterstons’ Software department, their developers, analysts and support specialists.

The key thing is that IT problems have business problems underlying them, and understanding both of those is key to working out a strategy for targeted improvement; always within that ‘minimise cost, maximise benefit’ mantra. Ticking problems off an arbitrary list one at a time misses out on the opportunity to drive real change and gain real benefits, and it can waste time and effort on exercises in futility.

So take a step back, and be a bit more ‘cat’.

As animals go, cats are masters of doing the bare minimum to extract maximum benefit… They ignore you all day, then come and sit on your lap for exactly seven head-rubs to show how much they adore you, just before you are required to serve them their dinner. Strategic investment of their affections at minimal cost nets them maximum benefit.

There’s a lot we could learn from that… but now that we've solved all our problems there's just enough time left to go and fit that cat flap.

Waterstons Coffee Club with Clair Hillier and Rich Begg, members of our software development team (11:00 - 12:00)

29 July 2021

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