Why Big Bang switch outs of IT invariably just go BANG

By Chris Rule

I’m going to take a leap and suggest that if you are reading this you’ve either lived through a big bang, know someone that got fired over a big bang, don’t want to be fired over a big bang or at least read something in the media about a big bang switch out that went wrong.

What is a Big Bang IT Switch Out

For the un-inducted, the Big Bang approach is where you retire an operational IT system and replace it with a new one in a single manoeuvre. You finish work on Friday using the good old boy that’s been your partner for some time and then you arrive on Monday to a bright shiny new thing, that says No a lot, but smiles whilst doing it.

You don’t have to look to far back to find some chin dropping examples of this “pain has no memory” business practice. In the last 12 months I can think of 3 in the UK alone, British Airways stranding tens of thousands of passengers worldwide, having switched to a seemingly robust but thoroughly untested 3rd party IT provider, KFC having to close all their UK outlets as a result of switching from Bidvest to DHL, TSB denying their customers access to their banking accounts as a result of switching from the Lloyds banking platform to the Sabadell system.

High Risk + Big Bang = Fail

In this article I’m going to focus on why Big Bangs go wrong, rather than why organisations need to change, adapt or modernise their incumbent systems, for which there are varied and often valid business critical reasons for introducing the scary change monster into the house.

Most IT strategies talk about reducing TCO and commoditizing the technical and human resources needed to develop and run systems. So for most organisations when that technology change decision is accepted the guys in the board room expect that costs will go down. They think purely in terms of the cost of the licensing, hardware and people to support it and how much they will save if that changed for something with a lower commodity price ticket.

There is in fact a clinical syndrome called New Shinny Vendor Syndrome (NSVS), which is basically what happens when a new vendor wows the board with some headlines about a bright sunny future with light speed enterprise, lottery wins and lifestyle business. Anyone that’s been through this will know it has a powerful LSD type effect with an instant addictive quality that can spread like an airborne pathogen throughout the lofty regions of an organisation.

The investment in the existing system at that point is seen as dead money, a decision that no more money will be spent on the old iron is quickly accepted and a warm fuzzy feeling about a brighter future is embraced at brake neck speed, whilst backs are slapped and champagne glasses clink at this new and amazing business epiphany.

The True Cost of Change

In those heady moments of expectation and anticipation as to the effects of new IT panacea, the true cost of change is not really considered. There is an urgency to get to the future as quickly as possible so some best practices are often passed over for want of the new life changing supersonic screwdriver.

Anyone that reads the news will quickly understand that the cost of change should be more heavily weighted in the cost of getting it wrong than in the immediate cost benefits of the new technology. A change that goes wrong can damage brands irrevocably, after an avoidable service failure that strands clients in foreign lands or leaves them without their money, as sure as Sunday customers will leave your business and seek less risky shores for future ventures.

A systemic failure that creates an enterprise “All Stop”, closing stores and more importantly stopping tills can hit the bottom line in a flash. This not only impacts balance sheets instantly but also forces would be customers to seek other sources of service, possibly stealing them elsewhere for ever more.

Sometimes it can be a seemingly small failure in a grand victory that can sink an entire ship, anyone who understands the subtlety of the small and hidden piece of errant functionality that led to the MFI closure can attest to the power of the ill specified grand solution being broken by the smallest of little gremlins, twas David that felled Goliath.

In all cases the media frenzy and viral nature of all modern news will seek sacrificial lambs and the vilification of all things branded similarly, dragging down both individuals and share prices alike. The true cost of getting it wrong is felt beyond the IT department, out across the enterprise, into the value chain and the world thereafter, with the possibility of jeopardising the future viability of the business itself.

Accept that Costs Need to Go Up to Go Down

The successful agent of change has to land the plane that delivers value now and on the journey, because the destination is an ethereal point in time that will inevitably keep moving away in the ever-changing landscape of need and capability.

The board have to be brought back from the New Shiny Vendor Syndrome induced haze to accept that most people don’t live in a house whilst its being fundamentally rebuilt or extended, anyone that’s lived in a house that is being extended will appreciate this, its hell and not to be done twice, to move out temporarily has an additional cost, but that additional cost is better than living in hell.

The board have to accept that to realise the long term benefits there will be some additional costs. The additional costs are needed to remove risk from the change and to ensure business continuity throughout the journey. A simple equation, the longer the existing system has been in place, the more sizeable the technical and business logic investment, the more the cost is going to be to move it, it’s as simple as that and that is OK.

If you live in a house you collect stuff, the longer you’re there the more stuff you collect, we all accept that the more stuff we have, the more the house movers charge you to move it, that is an accepted cost in addition to buying a new house, so as it is with houses it is the same with IT systems.

To the Promise Land and don’t spare the Horses

The aim off this piece has been to guard against the gold rush of great TCO savings that not properly considered and managed can be dangerous to your careers but more fundamentally your businesses. However I couldn’t do that without giving a few paragraphs over to how to avoid said costly mistakes.

A risk free journey will require the new system to run in parallel with the old, for an amount of time that would see the entire business cycle through, this is often at least a year, normally longer as when an issue is discovered it needs to be investigated, resolved and tested, pushing the parallel running end date back to encompass a new complete business cycle.

There are lots of great approaches and strategies to managing the technical and behavioural aspects of this type of change and I will cover some of my favourites in another piece. But needless to say that closed approaches like Waterfall will likely have known end dates but take too long for the agent to survive the process.

Open approaches like Agile will have no known end date but allow for a more holistic journey albeit at a far greater cost. These are brown field developments, not green ones, functional equivalence is the minimum viable product and all too often the journey time will see the new shiny system drug wear off and the plumbing change perception grow, and people…..no one likes calling out the plumber.

The Net Net Don’t get blinded by the headlines of a new low cost tech future, resist the temptation to make it all about cost reduction, remember the headlines of past victims and avoid becoming one by not using a BIG BANG approach, remember to use best change management practices, even if they take longer and cost a little more. If you can truly say that the new system will empower you with an agility to maintain and grow your business in ways that the current system wont then change is inevitable, just don’t lose your head or you’ll probably lose your job.