Thinking of buying a new system? This post could save you money

It’s tempting to think that buying a new system, whether it’s a top tier ERP product or something more modest will solve all of the problems that plague your company.

Indeed it’s a view that is heartily endorsed and promoted by a legion of sales consultants, industry ‘experts’ and specialist media.

The latest iteration of a new system will come with glossy brochure telling of a wonderful new world where the grass is green and it is sunny all day. Where transactions are rapidly and accurately posted and management accounts simply fly out with no human interaction at all.

The reality though is somewhat different, especially in the area of ERP. In fact research has shown that in most implementations clients never actually gain all of the advantages that they expected and that it may cost more and take longer than first envisaged.

There are a number of reasons for that but to take it right back to the start, the first question you need to answer is whether you need a new system at all.

I’d argue that many of the problems solved by the implementation of a new system could be solved by looking at the processes rather than the software and that smart managers would actually be better off running a ‘ghost’ implementation rather than spending a shed load of cash on something new and shiny.

Now don’t get me wrong, if you want to buy a new system then I’ll be happy to help you implement it. Maybe you’ve got a lot of cash you need to get rid of or you’re pumping a gazillion transactions into Sage line 50 each day. In which case buy, and buy soon.

But actually a lot of the problems that are often ascribed to ‘the system’ are actually a product of behavioral issues or simply down to the fact that the business has moved on since it implemented its current software.

One issue frequently cited as a reason to buy new is the difficulty in getting information out of the black box. It’s a problem that many businesses face and certainly a real factor in the decision to buy.

However often this can be down to a need to reorganise the processes around the business. The oft quoted ‘garbage in garbage out’ is a good example. If your inputs aren’t done to the correct standard or with the required level of detail then the system is irrelevant; you just won’t get the information you need.

Similarly if your chart of accounts no longer fits with the way the business is organised then it’s no wonder that people are downloading information, chopping it up in excel and then reporting it in a different way. This is often seen as a difficulty getting reports out of a system when in fact it is more about how the system is configured.

New systems have loads of bells and whistles. The more they have the more attractive they look. Who could fail to be impressed by TLAs such as ODBC, OCR, CRM and of course CPM*

Oddly though many software producers are now turning away from integrated bells and whistles and either licencing white label versions of popular modules or simply suggesting that the clients buys a different add on for specific purposes.

One of the most striking for me was when a vendor announced in a meeting that their reporting was awful and that the client would be better off buying their mid tier ERP system and then bolting on a third party reporting app!

So if you are going to do that then why not bolt on the reporting app to your current system? It would be cheaper, quicker and cause a lot less disruption.

Indeed in these days of SAAS** connectivity and integration are taken as a given.

Why is it then that many system changes do bring substantial benefits to the clients and end users?

In my opinion it is not the system that provides the benefit, it is actually the process of implementation that helps.

When a client goes through an implementation project they are forced to think about how the system should be used, what the chart of accounts should look like,what reports are really needed and to go through a data migration cleanse.

This kind of deep thinking doesn’t require a new system, you can do it with what is in place already, it just takes the political will and commitment in the company to make it right and as already stated the company can buy third party add ons at any point in its journey.

I’d argue that many companies would be better off running a ‘ghost’ implementation where they go through all the stages of an implementation project such as scoping, design, development and training without actually spending cash on new software.

In many cases the business would benefit greatly from the refresh but wouldn’t suffer the main upheaval of implementing a whole new system.

I realise of course that I’ll be very much a lone voice in this view, after all there’s a whole industry that exists due to its ability to convince you to change.

It is also true that some companies just have to change. Maybe they need a more capable system or their current provider is ceasing support or whatever it may be. I just think that they need to have a more balanced view of the process.

The advert – I’ve run and worked in implementations for companies large and small. I’ve run choice projects and system refresh projects. If you are thinking of buying a new system then why not get in touch?

Maybe I can save you time and money.

* So I’ve been a bad person here. TLAs are my pet hate. TLA= Three Letter Acronym, ODBC=Open DataBase Connectivity, OCR = Optical Character Recognition, CPM= Corporate Performance Management.

** OK so this is Four Letter Acronym. SAAS = Software As A Service. An app that is delivered online that can provide extra capability for a base system or standalone. Good examples would be Gmail as a mail client, Salesforce for CRM or Concur for travel and expenses management.

10 tips to professionalise your Excel workbooks.

 

People that know me will tell you that I’m an Excel geek and I’m ready to admit that I love finding out all the new funky features Microsoft pile in at every new release.

It’s not just an academic interest though; as an accountant I spend my life in excel whether it be budgeting, forecasting, management accounting or organising a project. Often clients will call me in to sort out issues they are experiencing with budgeting and forecasting or they’ll want me to set up systems to solve a particular problem.

However I’m the first to admit that Excel does have some drawbacks. Some of these are functional problems with the system, but in my opinion the vast majority of problems encountered with the software are actually of our own making.

In this post I’m aiming to give you some tips to help you avoid these issues and hopefully make your complex excel workbooks more robust and accurate.

Tip number 1just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should.

They say a little knowledge is a good thing and as my excel skills have increased over the years I’ve noticed an interesting phenomenon.

When people only have basic knowledge they use simple techniques.

When they start to get good at excel then they are desperate to use their new found knowledge so they pack in as many functions, features and formats as they can.

The interesting thing is that the most advanced excel users will actually use less of these.

Advanced excel users live by the acronym KISS (Keep It Simple Stupid). They understand that whilst they know exactly what is going on most people wont and that often the people inputting into the spreadsheet will be basic users. Consequently they go out of their way to make it as simple and user friendly as they can.

Tip 2Include an info tab.

Due to your stunning Excel work you’re probably going to get promoted or headhunted. You may be producing a workbook for someone else to use or you may go on holiday or (hopefully not) get sick.

In any case whether it’s planned or not the fact remains that there is a 99.99% chance that someone else is going to use your workbook in some capacity at some point.

I always include an ‘info’ tab at the front of the workbook. This tells users what the book is designed to do, where the information comes from, how it is processed and who it goes to. If I’ve made significant assumptions then I’ll also detail these and if there are any processes that people need to follow such as exporting a bank statement for use in the workbook I’ll usually have a ‘how to’ guide in there.

Including an info tab means that your workbook is much more likely to remain in use and your colleagues will be able to work out what’s going on.

Tip 3separate out data, processing and reporting.

If you are guilty of holding these three items all on the same page then you’ve probably come across issues when you try to change the formatting of a report, add or remove columns and rows or just due to the sheer complexity of the sheet.

One of the key methods of reducing the likelihood of errors is to have a separate report tab, a tab for data processing and a tab for data entry.

By keeping things separate you can make changes to your reporting without worrying that you will be compromising any formulas or base data. Similarly if you regularly paste data into your sheet you know that you won’t be pasting over important formulas or ruining your report.

Tip 4Colour code your tabs.

A simple colour coding based on function helps users understand where to find things.

If the whole department (or even better the company) use the same standard then you’ll find that it’s easy for any user to pick up any workbook and instantly know where the base data is held and how to find the reports.

Check out tip number 10 for more.

Tip 5give your workbook to someone else

One of the best ways to work out whether you are on the right track is to hand your workbook to a colleague and ask them to work out what is going on.

Don’t give them any instructions just let them get on with it.

By getting a colleague to look over your workbook you’ll find there will be things they don’t understand that to you seem obvious. This is because you’ve designed the thing and are way too close to see the issues.

This comes from my work as an interim where I know that I won’t be around forever and often people will hand my work on to someone else with no handover. I figure that if anyone can pick up my workbook with no instructions, understand what it is trying to achieve and also work out how to do it then my work is done.

Tip 6Separate out your formulas

Look we know you’re great at formulas and you can nest 16 levels of whatifs.

Just because you can doesn’t mean you should (see tip 1) and you should really stop showing off.

Having massively complex formulas in a single cell just makes it harder to unpick when something goes wrong. Instead look at having formulas in separate cells so that each can be understood and checked when errors arise.

Tip 7Don’t you dare use a white font on a white background.

Just don’t.

It makes it much more likely someone will overtype your data or formulas, will delete the row it is on or won’t be able to find what you are pointing at.

If you have to then hide a row or column but please use tip 3 so that you actually don’t need to hide anything. Hiding stuff should be done sparingly because it just increases the likelihood of unintended consequences.

Using a white font on a white background to hide stuff is as dumb as a dumb thing.

Tip 8enforce version control.

Having many versions of the same spreadsheet flying about the company is a recipe for disaster. The problem is that everyone turns up at a meeting with a different set of numbers that are supposedly from the same source.

If you need to have many people inputting then think about using sharing services like Onedrive or give them individual tabs for their input that you can then paste back into your master version.

It’s sensible to make sure that complex workbooks have a single owner. That person is responsible for making structural changes and making sure that input gets into the right place. They are the go to person for questions problems and issues.

Also make sure that you number your versions so that you know which is the latest.

The original is version 1 (v1), Small changes increment the number after the full stop (V1.1) and large changes mean that it gets a new version number (V2.1). Alternatively at least append the workbook name with the date it was produced.

Tip 9understand where you want to go before you set out.

As with any project it’s best to sit and have a good old think about what you want to achieve from your workbooks before you start building formulas.

I’ll often mock up the reporting page first and get the users to sign up to it or suggest changes.

Once I have my destination set then I know what things I need to do to get there.

I’ll know what data I need to collect, how I need to categorise it, what time frame it needs to span and how I need to manipulate it.

I should also have a clear idea as to how the consumers of the information see the workbook being used in the future.

On a side note, just because people say that the workbook is only going to be used once you shouldn’t believe them.

I find that if you do a great piece of analysis once you’ll get the same request three months down the line so bear that in mind when you are building your ‘one off’ ad hoc report.

Tip 10 – the best one of all; use the FAST standard.

FAST is an attempt to produce an internationally recognised standard for producing complex workbooks in Excel (or any other spreadsheet for that matter).

You can find a link at the end of the article

Although there is some pretty dry stuff in there, there is also some exceptionally useful ideas that make life an awful lot easier if you put them into practice.

At the very least, download the standard, read it and then use it to produce your own company standard. I promise this will reduce the number of errors you experience and make your life easier.

So there we are, a few useful tips to make your workbooks less random and a bit more professional.

If you’ve got any particular questions then please do comment and I’ll do my best to answer.

The Advert

I help my clients with their finance issues.

I’m a professional interim and one of my areas of expertise is in budgeting and forecasting.

If you need some help with your process or want to look at new ways of doing things then contact me here and we can have a chat.

 

The FAST Standard

Why you’re not getting full value out of your systems (and what to do about it)

Let me start with a caveat – this doesn’t apply to everyone, so if you are in the 1% of people who are leveraging their financial, reporting and operational systems fully then I apologise.

For the rest of us there are some very good reasons why we don’t make full use and thereby get full value out of what we’ve got.

How have I come up with this theory?

Well part of my job is to help clients choose new software and most of the time what I find is that buying a new system isn’t the issue.

So I’ve put together some of the most common reasons why you may not be getting your money’s worth and what you could do about it.

Reason 1 – not taking the updates. So many people pay a full support fee for their systems but don’t take advantage of the updates that are included. There are two problems with this; firstly you miss out on valuable features and nice to have tweeks that have been introduced and secondly it can leave you vulnerable to compromise if the security patches haven’t been applied.

Solution – Make someone responsible. Funny as it may sound, software is still often seen as a dark art and in a lot of SMEs updating seems to be left until it absolutely has to be done. I’d suggest getting someone trained up and task them with applying patches and updates as they are released, that way you’ll get all the new shiny features but you’ll also stay safe!

Reason 2 – You never got to phase 3. Way back in the mists of time you probably had a really good project that was split into 3 phases. Phase 1 was the basic implementation, phase 2 was the reporting and phase 3 was the nice to haves. You managed to get phases 1 &2 done but something happened along the way and all the really cool features that you liked never actually got implemented.

Solution – Now is the time to revisit what was sitting in phase 3. Although at the time some of it may have seemed like nice to have, you may find that they have moved further up the priority list and would really add value or make the system easier and more efficient to use.

Reason 3 – There’s a training deficit. If you have a high turnover then this will usually be because people just weren’t trained well enough in the handover, it may be that people have forgotten over time or that they only had enough training to just do their job at the start without finding out about all the great features that are built in.

Solution – you could find that a level of training is already included within your support package but if not then it could well be worth getting someone in from the software vendor to give your staff a refresher course and to see if there are areas of the system that could be used better. Make sure that the release notes from updates are circulated when there are new features added and think about setting up a quick training session so people can take time out to learn about them.

Reason 4 – You’ve not kept up with new releases. Even if they aren’t included within your support package, it is likely that you software company will regularly add new features and modules that would add real value to your system. Especially now with the speed of change it is important to ensure that you don’t rely upon your salesperson to keep you up to date.

Solution - Put a note in your diary to check out their website or give them a call and see what’s new and assess whether it would help you or not. Keep an eye on what is available in the market too, this can work as a prompt for you to push the company to provide it for your system.

Reason 5 – Time has moved on. Your business has changed and your requirements likewise but sadly your system is still configured in the same way as when it was installed and it’s creaking as a result. Maybe you have added new companies, new products or just got a lot busier but the systems and methods that seemed sensible back in the day now don’t look so efficient.

Solution – Run a mini project. Start with specifying how you would like the system to work and what features you’d like to see in an ideal world. Examine all the pain points and areas that just seem to take too much time or effort. Then take a fresh look at your systems to see where you can solve the issues. You may well find that there are features within your existing software that can be better utilised and save you time and money.

Reason 6 – Nobody owns anything. The problem can often be that the system doesn’t have a champion and if it’s left unloved and only given attention when it breaks then it is not surprising that you’re not getting the best value. Before long everyone hates it!

Solution – appoint a system owner and make sure that small issues are dealt with quickly before they become big issues. Don’t underestimate the value of internal PR. People will often make great suggestions for ways to make things better if they think there’s a likelihood that things will change and that their input is valued.

Reason 7 – and this is the most common; it has nothing to do with the system. Typically you’ll find that people have developed ways of doing things offline that take ages that could actually be done using the software. No one knows who started it, no one knows why but it has for some reason become ‘the way we do things round here’.

Solution – take some time to go through how people do what they do. Think about modules and features of your system and how they could be better used for those offline tasks. Look for jobs that have been done by the same person in the same way forever.

The best advice I can give is not to rush into buying software that you may not need. Have a look at what you have now and see if you can get more value out of your existing set up as this will ultimately provide a greater return on investment.

Be aware that there are 1001 sales people out there that will tell you that your system stinks and you should buy theirs!

The advert

As I said at the start of the piece my job is to help clients with their systems issues. I can help you decide whether you need to implement new or if what you have will work with some tweeks.

If you’d like to have an informal chat about issues your company may be experiencing then please do mail or call.

 

Isango8 - providing project management and accounting support for SMEs in the South and South West

There’s no such thing as a free lunch – 6 ways that free cloud apps aren’t free

We’ve all heard the expression that ‘there’s no such thing as a free lunch’ but it’s true that a significant amount of people think that the cool app that they have just started using in the cloud is somehow magically paid for by the fairies! This post is designed to help you spot some of the ways that cloud software companies will use to part you from your money.

The cloud has brought a huge amount of really useful tools within reach of even the smallest companies. I confess to having love for Mailchimp, TeamworksPm and GoogleDocs. I’m getting into a load of others too and I’m using them all on their free plans – but  ‘FREE’ doesn’t always mean free.

So how do companies charge for their services? Here are some of the business models;

1 – Subscriptions – This is possibly the most up front method that a company will use. You pay a set amount from day 1 of using the product. That’s it. Nice and easy to understand but often companies won’t give you a free period to see if you like it. Consequently if you sign up, enter all your data, train your staff then find out you don’t like it then you’re stuck. Bigger developers will use this and probably ally it with sales people.

2 – Advertising – This is the easiest to spot and is the method used by companies like Facebook. Seen all those annoying ads next to your profile? Well they are paying for your software. Marketers pay to advertise next to people who share similar interests and values to the product or service they are trying to sell. This is sometimes combined with the subscription model so it’s free with ads or if you pay a subscription the ads disappear.

3 – Reduced functionality – Want our app for free? Yes of course but if you want to do all of the cool stuff that it is capable of then you’ll have to pay. Apps like Prezi and Batchbook and TeamworkPM will give you the ‘lite’ version to get you using their product but when you want to do something a little more advanced then you’ll have to buy a subscription. This is a great way to get into an app but beware – some may not let you export your data if you decide to move away later.

4 – Restricted activity – This is the easiest to disguise. The app works absolutely fine in all respects but only up to a certain level of activity.  Want more users? Want to upload more times in a month? Want to send out more invoices? Then you’ll have to pay. Apps like Box and Dropbox use this model.

5 – Time limited – Everything but for a trial period only. The trial period is designed to let you have a look, play, get some stuff going and form a habit. Once it gets switched off then you can’t access your stuff and you miss it. Videoscribe use this but to be honest 7 days trial is too short in my opinion.

6 –  Composite methods – Some or all of the above. You’ll find that the more you pay the more users you can add, the more functionality is available and the more like a custom made application it becomes.

The cloud has led to a massive increase in the amount of apps available. The quality is variable to be honest but the one common theme is that they haven’t all been designed out of the goodness of people’s hearts!* If you are unsure then carry out a Google search, do lots of research and work out how you’ll use the service or alternatively see the advertisement below.

Let’s be fair, some of these companies have spent millions bringing to market a superb application that will make your life a lot better so they deserve to be paid for their effort and they are honest and upfront about the whole thing. (look for a page on their site called ‘Pricing’ or ‘Plans’). Some though aren’t totally transparent and users only find out what they have to pay for when it’s too late.

Advertisement

This is what I do for companies. If you are thinking about buying software then call me first. I give an independent and impartial view as to whether it’s a good move for you or not and it’s a lot cheaper than making the wrong decision.

 

*  Yes Linux,open office etc. HAVE been designed out of the goodness of people’s hearts but in general the majority of the stuff you come across in internetland will be trying to work out how to get into your wallet.

Isango8 - providing project management and accounting support for SMEs in the South and South West

To compromise or not? that is the question

Seemingly simple decisions can get stuck in the mud and seem to be intractable when you are working on a project. The inspiration for this entry comes from a talk given by Sophie Personne at a networking event I attended recently. Sophie runs an excellent local business called Sophisticated Singles and spoke eloquently about the power of compromise.

Sadly compromise is something that is often lacking in project meetings with political game playing, resistance to change and downright obstinance all playing a part, so how can you push decisions through when things get tough? Here are a few tips to help you on the way.

Tip 1 – Speak to people privately. Sometimes taking 5 minutes out of a meeting environment can help people understand the other’s point of view. Simply taking time to listen can often show up misunderstandings that actually would be masked in a meeting room.

Tip 2 – Find out the real reason. Often people will dig their heels in on an issue for an unrelated reason. I remember one project where an accountant absolutely refused to budge on an issue. It turned out that this was as a result of management not spelling out where he fitted into the organisation post project. Once he’d been given clear sight of his future position he became a positive and valuable team player.

Tip 3 – Understand the impact of everyone’s suggested course of action. If a course of action has no impact on the project, won’t cost anything but makes people feel more included then why wouldn’t you adopt it? Sometimes sitting down with each side and spelling out what the consequences will be can often produce a compromise position easily.

Tip 4 – Use peer power. If people can see how their actions are affecting others then often they will at least compromise or sometimes back down entirely. In a group setting spell out what effect the impasse is having on the rest of the team.

Tip 5 – Get the project sponsor involved. Sometimes whatever you do people refuse to back down. Get the sponsor in to sit people down and clear the blocker. This needs to be used sparingly because the power of the sponsor and the shock of them getting involved tends to wane when they turn up every day to mediate on minor disagreements!

Tip 6 – Get an outsider in. Often people that work together every day will react differently (and be much more grown up) when an outside agency becomes involved. Get an independent (ahem!) professional in to do a project review and see how that moves things along.

If you need help with your project then get in touch for an initial chat and we’ll see if we can get your team to compromise!

Isango8 - providing project management and accounting support for SMEs in the South and South West

Windows 8 – my favourite workarounds

Right let’s be honest Windows 8 isn’t the best. (I’m trying to be diplomatic)

When it first appeared I absolutely hated it. This was a fine example of a company taking it’s user’s thoughts on board and launching them straight into the bin. I’ve started to get used to it and some of the features I love (but only some). I find it difficult to understand why a company will take probably the best known user interface and stamp on it with a big fat muddy boot (rant over).

To be fair W8 works fine when you have a touch screen but if you are a desk based person then it’s rubbish.

On the plus side there are a series of workarounds that can make your life less traumatic.

First off if you’ve got Windows 8 then download the update Windows 8.1. This is a sign that Microsoft knows it’s made a boo boo. For those of you that hate the fact that MS got rid of the Start button then you’ll find it returns when you download it. You can find out more about W8.1 here http://windows.microsoft.com/en-gb/windows-8/meet

Tip 1 – remember the scroll wheel. When you are on the ‘Charms’ ( I know, I know) screen then the scroll wheel is really useful for moving from one end of the icons to the other

Isango8 - providing project management and accounting support for SMEs in the South and South West

This is the hideously named ‘Charms’ screen

Tip 2 – reorganise your charms. Move the ones you want the most to be front and centre of your home screen. Simply click your mouse on them, hold and drag the icon to where you want it to be.

Tip 3 – to find the program you want then just start typing on the charms screen and W8 will bring up a list that matches like this (click on the image to see a bigger version)

Isango8 - providing project management and accounting support for SMEs in the South and South West

Search from the start menu

Tip 4 – Learn some handy shortcut keys. Here’s some of the ones I use most:

  • What to shut down? Pressing the windows key and ‘I’ at the same time brings up the stupid settings thingmy (press Esc to make it go away
  • Opened a program you didn’t want? Press the Alt key and F4 to shut it down. ( this closes the program so save your work if you need to keep something)
  • Want to move between programs? Hold down the Alt key then press tab, each time you press tab you’ll move to another open program, let it go and the one you chose will magically appear
  • Zoom in or zoom out. Hold down Ctrl and turn the mouse wheel
  • Want your desktop? Press the windows key and ‘D’ at the same time. If you’re already on the desktop then it’ll show you the start/charms screen.
  • Visit this place for more keyboard shortcuts http://windows.microsoft.com/en-gb/windows-8/keyboard-shortcuts

Tip 5 – right click on the start button – you did download W8.1 right? Well when you do you’ll get a funky new device from MS called a start button (what a great idea).  Right click on it and you’ll get a list of the most commonly used features like signing off and shutting down. Smashing.

windows button

ooh look! What a great idea from Microsoft

Tip 6 – and this is the best one. Use it. Seriously Microsoft is trying to force its way into the mobile/tablet arena and they won’t drop W8 so we’re stuck with it for a while. The best bet is to start using it, exploring the functions and getting to know the cheeky little fella. Just be comforted by the fact that everyone else hates it too.

windows

The Windows key – bet you wondered what it was right?

tab

The tab and Alt keys – now you know why they are there!

 

This post isn’t designed to make you a W8 wizard. All I want to do is take some of the pain away. There’s some great communities on the web that will be able to tell you much more than I.

To get you started there’s another really useful article on customising the whole Windows 8 experience here http://www.networkworld.com/community/blog/how-customize-windows-81-start-screen-and-keyboard-shortcut-tricks

Good luck!

12 principles of estimation best practice

Estimating is a key skill in ERP implementation projects. It’s vital to get a clear sight of how much your project is going to cost and how long it will take but what are the best practices for this vital skill?

Magne Jorgensen produced the top 12 estimating best practices and I’ve taken these and added in some of my real world experience and suggestions as to how you can manage the process.

(1) evaluate estimation accuracy, but avoid high evaluation pressure – Studies have shown that giving people a bonus or basing their appraisals on a good estimation track record actually decreases their ability and accuracy. Treat the estimation process as a collaborative effort and you’ll get better accuracy and a happier, more committed team.

(2) avoid conflicting estimation goals – It seems an obvious one but telling your analyst that you need a supremely accurate cost and then telling them that it mustn’t come in over X will make their work less reliable. Go for accuracy and not political expediency.

Thomsett (1996) gives an excellent example in his ‘software estimation game’

Boss: Hi, Mary. How long do you think it will take
to add some customer enquiry screens to the Aardvark
System?
Mary: Gee . . . I guess about six weeks or so.
Boss: WHAAT?!!!! That long?!!! You’re joking, right?
Mary: Oh! Sorry. It could be done perhaps in four
weeks . . .

We’ve all been there right?

(3) ask the estimators to justify and criticize their estimates – Very often a firm will have a culture of perfection and not being able to admit mistakes. In a project environment this is often disastrous. The truth is that any cost prediction will have shortcomings. Ask your estimator what these are and then take a view as to whether you mitigate or look for more information.

(4) avoid irrelevant and unreliable estimation information – Sometimes people include information in their estimate that is unreliable purely because they have nothing better to go on. The truth is you are better off understanding that there is no data rather than basing a decision on something that could be misleading.

(5) use documented data from previous development tasks – If you’ve done work in the area before, or even if you had a project in the company that wasn’t the same you can still use the lessons learned documentation to inform your estimates for the new project. You did do a lessons learned document didn’t you?

(6) find estimation experts with relevant domain background and good estimation records – Music to my ears. Get in an expert even if it is only to help with estimation. Studies show that experience of the software you are putting in is great but across a number of different platforms is even better.

(7) Estimate top-down and bottom-up, independently of each other – Don’t let the golden idea of how long a project should take affect the bottom up process of analysing out how long each task will take. Do both completely separately and you’ll get a much clearer view of the likely cost/time implications.

(8) use estimation checklists – if your software provider or partner has a checklist then so much the better but if not then sit down at the start of the analysis phase and think about all the bases you want to cover. You can add things in along the way if you forget something but make sure by the time you get to the point of choosing your software that you have covered everything in your original list.

(9) combine estimates from different experts and estimation strategies – Two heads are better than one or put another way you want the most expertise from as many different areas and with as many different points of view as you can. Get them all together then aggregate to give you an overall view.

(10) assess the uncertainty of the estimate – The only thing you can be certain about is that there is a certain level of uncertainty (with thanks to Rowan Atkinson). Estimates are only a guide but what you can do is put numbers around key points of your forecast to give you an idea as to how risky the project is.

(11) provide feedback on estimation accuracy and development task relations – this goes to points 5 and 6. If you want to identify who in your organisation is a particularly good analyst of projects then you also need to be developing them. Feedback is a vital component in this. Similarly feedback into a lessons learned document the results of your estimate versus the actual costs. You are keeping a lessons learned document right?

(12) provide estimation training opportunities – as above really. Good experienced estimators have been shown to be much more useful than a statistical model but they have to come from somewhere so start getting people involved in projects. if you are paying an outside consultant to come in and do this for you then make sure you allocate an internal person to shadow them, learn and develop the skills for in-house use.

Using these best practices when producing your project estimates will help give you the confidence that you are on the right lines and produce a better outcome.

If you’d like some external help with producing a cost estimate for your project then please do contact us -we’d be happy to help

References:
Jorgensen. M., 2004. A review of studies on expert estimation of software development effort. Journal of Systems and Software, 70(1–2), pp. 37-60.
Thomsett, R., 1996. Double Dummy Spit and other estimating games.American Programmer 9 (6), 16–22.

Isango8 - providing project management and accounting support for SMEs in the South and South West

The top 5 signs that your project might be going wrong

As a non executive director you’ll probably have oversight of a number of projects during your tenure but how can you tell if things are going awry when you are remote from the project team? These are my top 5 signs that things might be going wrong.

One of the great things about being a non executive director is that you have the opportunity to take a detached higher level view. This gives you a chance to spot things that look out of place when someone much closer and more invested in the project may not be able to see the signs.

There’s an old saying that ‘there’s nothing new in the world’ and in the universe of projects that’s especially true. One thing that shines out from the reams and reams of literature on implementations is the consistency of the type of problems that projects face. The good news is that NEDs can use that consistency to spot when their firm may be facing issues.

There are really only 3 ways in which a project can be classed a failure – the system is late,  over budget and it’s not to the specification required. Here I present my top 5 ways to spot if any of these is on the horizon.

5 – High spending very early on. Projects, especially those that need infrastructure will incur higher costs early on for things like servers, cabling etc. but staff costs should generally be higher towards the end when you are entering the testing/training phase. If your project has used up a very high proportion of its budget or the spending is not matching the project cash flow predictions then it’s time to ask questions because it may well end up using up all of the money when it’s too late to turn back. Make sure a ‘Cost to complete’ is included in the project reports that the board should be getting regularly from the project team.

4 – Things mysteriously disappear from the schedule. I have honestly seen software houses just leave things out of a project report because they decided it was too difficult to deliver. They hoped that if they didn’t mention it then people would forget that they’d asked for it in the first place! Good organisation is the key here. Make sure that when you receive project reports they include all aspects of the proposed implementation and that the risk register is kept up to date.

3 – Missing early deadlines. Through the life of the project there will be mini deadlines that crop up. Producing a system for a ‘look and feel’ demonstration system for instance. It’s usually a sign of how the company providing the goods does business and it’s folly to think that this leopard will change it’s spots halfway through a project. If your provider starts to miss early deadlines then you need to start exercising the firm’s authority and exert proper control over targets.

2 – The project sponsor goes AWOL. One of the key critical success factors cited in the literature is full high level back up from the project sponsor. Unfortunately they are generally very busy people and often, although the project is the focus of their attention on day one, by the time they get halfway through your sponsor will have moved on to more pressing matters. The difficulty is that this is the point at which their input is most needed. As a NED the sponsor is also your direct link to the project so get them to focus. If something else is taking them away then reassign the task.

1 – Lack of clear direction. This is my absolute number 1 priority for any project big or small. The great thing for a NED is that this can be seen right from day 1. If you read the project description and there is no clear and unequivocal statement of what actually will be achieved by investing the firms money then your project will fail. This is also the point where a good NED can add the most value. Challenge (in a constructive way obviously) all the way to the point where the contract is signed. Make sure that the proposed system is properly and completely planned and scoped so that everyone has a clear sight of what the company want to achieve. If you don’t then you can expect trouble!

Above all my advice is to trust your intuition. If something doesn’t sound right, if the project manager becomes evasive or people begin to stare at their feet when budgets or schedules are on the agenda then it may be time to dig a little deeper!

 

Isango8 - providing project management and accounting support for SMEs in the South and South West

10 things to do before you even choose your software

If you want a successful project then there’s a series of things you need to do before you even get to choose a piece of software

You also need to make sure you do all the steps – missing one out is just like making a cake without one of the ingredients

  1. Analyse the problem – what specific issues are you trying to solve?
  2. Analyse your company strategy – there’s no point in spending a huge amount of money on a shiny ERP system if you intend to sell your company to a trade competitor. They will probably have their own system in place.
  3. Decide whether a new system would work well in light of 1 & 2 – If the problem you are trying to solve is that you can’t recruit the best staff then putting in new software won’t help. It’s an extreme example but it makes the point.
  4. Scope your project – it may seem an early point but decide what you want to achieve and of course what you don’t. If It’s not important to have your people connecting using tablets then don’t bother looking for a system that will do this
  5. Form your steering committee – get the right people in and explain how important this is
  6. Decide what’s vital and what’s nice to have – get your steering committee to decide what are the absolute must haves for any system you consider. If it doesn’t have it then it doesn’t get looked at
  7. Send out your RFQs – Request for Quote (or RFI – Request For Information) cast your net wide and ask the vendors if they can meet your minimum requirements
  8. cull your list – be ruthless, in a couple of months time you’ll be sick of the sight of software
  9. Do your beauty parade – get your short list to present their software to your team and show how they would meet your requirements
  10. Do vendor background research – get independent verification of claims, find out how previous projects went and check that they are financially sound.

The advertisement

I specialise in helping companies through the choice process. There are lots of methods and techniques that I use to ensure that the company gets the best possible fit for it’s purchase. Give me a call and let’s talk

Isango8 - providing project management and accounting support for SMEs in the South and South West

War stories

 

It’s an interesting thought

All project people have war stories. We can tell you about all the bad things that have happened on projects and the reasons why.

We are fitted with perfect 20/20 hindsight. This is handy because we can use the hindsight to predict what might go wrong on projects in the future.

One of my favourite PM sayings is that firms who can’t find the money to do it right the first time always find the money to do it twice.

Another is that you shouldn’t spoil the ship for a h’aporth of tar.

So my advice for anyone thinking of kicking off a project – hire a professional right at the start. Yes it will cost you money but it will probably stop you making a big, expensive mistake. Don’t spend a million pounds* on a piece of software and £25 on project management!

 

 

*Don’t worry – most software implementations don’t cost a million! This was just an example