22 September 2011

Uncertainty: The Elephant in the Room

Not long ago I was fortunate enough to have a conversation with two very fine gentlemen in the software business. They were part of an organization well-recognized for its leadership as a reseller and a developer providing an ERP (enterprise resource planning) solution for Tier 2 and upper-crust SMB firms.

As part of the conversation, I mentioned the fact that uncertainty is “the elephant in the room” throughout the IT (information technology) business.

Uncertainty - the elephant in the room

What I meant by that is this: while the sales process is underway, it all too frequently happens that the two parties have differing views of the uncertainty involved in any project that might be undertaken as a result of their conversation. While they hold these differing views, however, they almost never speak openly and explicitly about the uncertainty itself.

My experience shows me that these two parties hold views of the uncertainty that take shape somewhat along these lines:

  • The Client or, more correctly, at this stage in the process, “the prospect” may believe that there is very little uncertainty about which to be concerned. After all, he and his organization have tried to be forthcoming with the reseller. They have answered all the questions the resellers’ folks have raised from the first day they met, and they have done so as directly as possible.

    Because “the prospect” feels this way, the only “uncertainty” he may feel about any proposed agreement is whether the reseller is capable of delivering on all the promises he has made over the course of the negotiations.

    Also, since “the prospect” will hold the checkbook during the project execution, he feels pretty sure that he can force the reseller into assuming whatever uncertainty might remain in the anticipated project.
  • The Reseller has been through this many, many times. He is well aware that every project is full of uncertainty. A short list of the uncertainties in the reseller’s mind might look like this:
    • Have we asked enough questions?
    • Have we asked the right questions?
    • What don’t we know that we should know about this company and how it works?
    • Can the modifications we anticipate be completed in the time we have estimated?
    • Will the prospect’s company allow this project to proceed in the time we have estimated, or will their inefficiencies, indecision or other operational problems cause us to incur unanticipated time and expenses?

Accidentally induced uncertainties

W. Edwards Deming once summed up very succinctly the uncertainty included in all human communications. Following a meeting between two parties, as one party was exiting the room, Deming turned to the manager he was consulting and said, “We know what we told him, but we don’t know what he heard.”

Communications between two human beings are full of such foibles. The fact that the reseller’s salesperson does not believe that he has made any “promises” upon which the reseller cannot readily deliver does not mean that the prospect has not heard “promises” that are very different from what was intended by the salesperson.

Under such circumstances, there is—more likely than not—no intention by the reseller’s sales team to mislead the prospect. Neither, most likely, is there any intent by the prospect (now, client) to somehow misconstrue what was said in order to take undue advantage of the reseller.

Nevertheless, such accidentally induced uncertainties too frequently lead to cost overruns, hard feelings between the reseller and the client, and—sometimes—even to failed projects.

Why don’t we talk about it?

My question is simple: When it comes to IT projects (or any kind of projects, for that matter), and whether it is a relationship between an external IT provider or an internal customer relationship, why do we so often ignore “the elephant in the room”?

Why are both the customer and the supplier both so reluctant to speak explicitly about the uncertainties that almost inevitably affect a project of any significance or size?

Let me know your thoughts. Thanks.

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