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Faced with a major software project that was going wrong, the CIO of New South Wales’ water authority quickly reorganized development around incremental steps and short-term milestones.

By Ian Robinson, CIO, WaterNSW

When I walked in the door at Water New South Wales two years ago, we had a waterfall implementation of an ERP system underway – a traditional IT project with 5,000 lines of requirements. The project had been going for 18 months and had yet to deliver anything of substance and the Board was in the mood to cancel the whole thing.

The vendor’s preference to lock themselves away and interpret the requirements without adequate engagement with the business just built significant risk. Needless to say, when software was delivered, it was not what the business wanted.

I built a war room and worked through all the issues – forcing a decision on each one, moving to the next issue, and tracking completion of every action we agreed to take. By focusing on delivery and breaking down the analysis-paralysis that had beset the project, we eventually completed the job – and I learned to see the relentless pursuit of delivery as a key value. That project taught me that outcomes are everything – no one will thank you for doing great analysis on a business case if you never build the solution for the problem you identified.

Small Steps, Customer Focus

Since then, all our projects have been executed incrementally. We give the developers and the technology team a relatively small scope of work – which they can and often do get wrong – but the stakes are very low because they can produce the short module quickly, come back in a few weeks, show the internal customer what they built, and then get immediate feedback on whether they have interpreted the requirement correctly.

Typically, the feedback will lead to some tweaking and rework, but in the next release, the customer usually walks away happy. Everybody is better off with incremental development: it takes almost no time to achieve the goal, the waiting game disappears, and the bad reputation that IT gets for being slow and difficult to work with goes away too.

The other thing I have learned can speed up development is to start by thinking first about the people who will use the technology you want to install. We ask, how will the work done by key roles in the organisation evolve over the next five years? By starting from the user’s story, we gradually develop the use cases, and then the features required naturally flow into the low-risk agile delivery model I described above.

Of course, we still need to make the business case, find the resources to fund the project, and ensure we have the right governance in place to run the new process. But by starting with people, we overcome the hardest thing: getting the organisation behind our vision of the future. Software that affects how a customer interacts or a worker works brings a digital strategy to life. Once these different stakeholders understand what you are doing, they want you to succeed, and they help you succeed.

Our next challenge

Our next big technical opportunity also has to do with making tasks easier for our customers: how we collect, manage, and present our data. Whether that is simplifying transactions for our customers, providing transparency on the state of water across the state, sharing data with our ecosystem through secure data access points, or modeling the future using data science use cases that allow us to predict what will happen based on the variables in the past, visualizing data is going to be important.

Here, too, I am a great believer in concrete examples. Facts and data are helpful, but they are not ultimately what win hearts and minds. It may be cheaper to get data now, but presenting that information in a human-oriented way is as big a challenge as ever. However, by overcoming that challenge it means people are on board.

Yes, we need to know through our data what is happening and how to make better decisions. Yes, we need data to help us rethink the way we work. But to be truly data driven, we need to think in big picture terms and use it to optimize water use, help our customers succeed, and make the best value we can out of our large asset base, while keeping our dams safe.

Artificial intelligence will play a big role here, of course, but this too will present a big challenge. AI is good at decisions where you can present it a design pattern, but not so good at judgments. AI algorithms don’t have imagination and creativity. Ultimately we need to use the technology to think about the problem in our own way.

Mind the soft stuff

I began my career as an electrical engineer for Australia’s State Rail Authority, and I am still interested in linking the physical world with the virtual world. But as I moved from being technical to leadership, I have begun to appreciate just how important soft skills are to a technical career.

If you are an IT manager, you should keep in mind that very little depends on what you know. It is your network and ability to leverage your connections that will build your career. That’s because we multiply our own contribution by leveraging the power of teams and recognizing that there is always someone who has done more and is keen to share their knowledge. So don’t be afraid to ask and then become a good listener. You will make yourself stronger by reaching out and learning from others.

You will always grow your technical skills because that is table stakes for the career we have chosen. The harder part is to understand the business and how it works and above all how IT can change the game. We add value not only by keeping the lights on but by using IT to deliver a better future.

The Takeaways 

Think about the needs of the people who will use your software. If they believe in what you are doing, they will be powerful champions for your project. 

Incremental development and ongoing communication make it easier to stay aligned with what the business needs