The Sophomore Effect and BPM

Scott Francis
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I’ve been looking at and discussing our collective knowledge of BPM projects among the good folks at BP3, ever since BPMCAMP.

And we noticed a theme among our customers who are most successful with their BPM efforts.  The most successful practices are avoiding what I call the Sophomore Effect.  And, reaping the rewards of the increased ROI that most BPM programs get from the 2nd version of the original process.

So what’s the Sophomore Effect?  It is basically the idea of the Sophomore slump as it relates to BPM:

The Sophomore Effect. Most companies are successful with their first BPM project.  They tend to focus on something fairly attainable and have good alignment and staffing for the first project.  They get an unmitigated success, but as soon as it goes live, the team that was supposed to get all the learning about BPM and form the core of a Center of Excellence is reassigned to everyday work within the organization.  That might be back to their business units or to other applications or support functions in IT.  As a result, when the second BPM project comes along, the staff has to be re-incarnated.  Often the actors are all new, or mostly new, and you don’t get the benefit of expertise gleaned from the first project.

Let’s recap the challenges:

  1. Supporting the now-in-production first project or process application.  This requires more work than people expect. Real users have questions and issues, and uncover “bugs” in the process that haven’t been worked out yet.  Think this is only a software problem? Talk to someone who has rolled out a new factory line for a car – it takes months and years to get a new production line humming at optimum efficiency.  As people start USING the process they find issues that couldn’t be uncovered in testing or design.  Some of those issues will require adaptation of process, relaxing of constraints, or new constraints.
  2. The new project needs the full attention of the team. See point 1 –  the team has a major distraction – the thing that is in production.  This makes it hard to focus on the new process.
  3. Often key staff is reassigned, gets promoted, or moves on.  Not everyone wants to stick with the program for the long term, and success creates opportunities for the team.  Turnover can be a big setback when you’re trying to build a new competency.  The key is to get to critical mass and maintain critical mass until the rest of your organization adopts BPM more fully.
  4. The development process isn’t right.  Sure, the organization let you do your first project “non-standard”.  But when you want to do project #2, the enterprise police will show up and demand that you follow guidelines for project governance and IT requirements that aren’t part of best practices for BPM. It takes energy to teach the right flavor of BPM-Agile to a new organization – and time for it to become a competency.
  5. Culture takes time. The technical project for BPM can be delivered quickly – weeks to months.  But the culture changes take years.
  6. Increased expectations make “upside surprises” more difficult to achieve

I’ve been asked before-  if the sophomore effect is real, what are you doing about it?  What is BP3 doing about it?  Or what can BP3 do to help customers navigate successfully past the Sophomore slump?

Production Support and Focus

First, we offer a one-of-a-kind solution and production support option to our clients through BP Labs.  It makes sense for a customer to have this support in place, even if they have an implementation team working on the next project – because the BP Labs team can offload all the production, infrastructure, and configuration issues that are bound to come up post-production.  This frees up capacity on the BPM implementation team to work on the new process.  Moreover, the skill set for infrastructure and production support (Ops or devOps) is just different than the skill set for development. While most people can do both, they tend to be better at one or the other.

It may surprise people to learn that our BP Labs support offering is the highest rated part of our business by our customers. Our support team builds our brand every day by doing a great job for our customers. Support teams aren’t always loved by customers, but ours is.

Continuity

We recommend our customers retain their BPM teams longer to address continuity in the BPM practice (#3 above).  This starts by considering production not the “finish line” but the intermediate deliverable on your way to a 6-month (or longer) post-production measurement term.  If a customer can’t keep critical mass staffing engaged during that time, we recommend they leverage consulting personnel like BP3 to sustain the investment level and center of gravity.

BP3 can even help with this when there is a surprise in the staffing mix and extra help is needed.  We’ve worked with some of our customers for north of 6 years now, on and off, when they need extra help or continuity.

Best Practices in BPM Development

We can help with development practices.  We use industry best-practices to apply Agile techniques to BPM.  Agile and BPM share some common attributes – everything you can say about these practices sounds like common sense that anyone could apply. But the secret sauce is in the execution of these common sense ideas – BP3 has the resolve and expertise to do follow-through correctly. You can read a book about how to fly a plane, but nothing substitutes for time behind the stick.

Culture

For Culture, we recommend keeping your consulting partner involved long enough for the culture to have time to “take”.  The culture of BPM should soak in longer term.  As an example, I ran into some colleagues from a customer from 2009 at a conference.  They have inherited ownership of a critical BPM initiative, but they’ve been involved and working on it since 2009!  That’s diligence and longevity.  And the result is a pocket of BPM culture within an overall Fortune 500 entity that doesn’t adopt changes like Agile or BPM very easily.

Advancing culture beyond the immediate team is a different sport that requires another set of skills – something that BP3 can help with – but Culture change at scale will require executives to jump in and get their hands dirty – and requires them to own it.  Still, we’ve seen bottom-up culture change happen before – and there’s nothing executives like better than a success bandwagon.

Killer Features and Business Cases

Finally, find the killer feature to defeat those expectations – the hook that will keep people coming back to the new process app, and keep coming back to BPM for the next leg up in their business operations.  Make sure the business case for the sophomore project is air tight.  And measure it. Can we step up the UI? Can we leverage Brazos UI or Brazos Portal to make the user interface “pop?”

There is a real likelihood of improved ROI for the Sophomore project – because the foundations have been laid (acquisition of software, hardware, and paying down of technical debt), and now we can focus on process improvements more purely.  The key is to make sure you’re set up to get to the finish line and not to trip on the 5-yard line.

There are remedies for the Sophomore Effect – but the first thing to do is look in the mirror and make sure you’re ready to lead the charge for the second project.  If you are, be prepared to fight expectations, to fight harder for budget ( once you have a team, it becomes a hard cost with a target on its back, and you have to actively defend that team’s budget), and to take actions to mitigate risk, as noted above.  Also, be prepared for a successful sophomore effort to lead to a deluge of additional process improvement opportunities throughout your organization.

Our most successful customers have taken one or more of the actions above (and others) to make sure that their Sophomore projects were successes.  Interestingly, the most likely outcome for a program that has two successful BPM projects, is that it will be a long term BPM program from that point forward, with many successes to point to.  There aren’t many programs that stall out after two projects…

 

 

 

 

  • As someone pointed out elsewhere, this post doesn’t address technical issues like re-use, which contribute to the fact that usually the second and third BPM projects have fantastic ROI compared to the first. (another factor is better visibility to the process and the opportunities for improvement)