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Why ESM fails: 7 sure-fire ways to kill your project

Susan Salgy Contributing Editor

Enterprise service management (ESM) is ideal for streamlining and optimizing customer services that multiple teams and departments jointly provide in an organization. ESM initiatives in many businesses around the world are helping to increase customer satisfaction, control costs, and increase productivity.

ESM applies IT service management (ITSM) principles, practices, and tools to non-IT parts of the business, such as human resources, finance, travel, and facilities. It requires a new way of thinking and working. That's why teams that are willing to adapt and evolve are having the greatest success with it.

ESM is most effective when companies can do two things right:

  1. Identify the true needs of their customers at the present time, not just what leaders think customers should need or what satisfied them in the past.
  2. Transcend the silos and find new ways to add more customer value, no matter who contributes what to the value stream.

Fail at either of those, and your project will be in danger of becoming irrelevant, or paralyzed by bureaucratic and political roadblocks.

Here are the key issues that enterprise service management consultants and practitioners say threaten the success of ESM projects in organizations of many sizes—and tips on how to avoid or overcome them.

1. Trying to go it alone

ESM tools can be complex to implement properly, and if your entire team is new to ESM, you can waste a lot of time, make a lot of rookie mistakes, and still end up with an implementation that is too limiting. Have the vendor help you install and configure a new ESM tool, said Doug Tedder, principal at Tedder Consulting.

"[This] will keep you from the trap of making it too specific to what you’re trying to do right now." 
Doug Tedder

It will also keep you from stalling out the entire project. For example, one large public-school system in the US purchased a popular ESM tool but was left on its own during a very complicated implementation with multiple workflows. The experience was extremely frustrating, wasted a lot of time, and soured many employees on the whole project, said Vesna Soraic, senior manager of product marketing at Micro Focus.

You can avoid that. When evaluating ESM tool vendors, be honest about your team's limitations, said Tedder. Implementation mistakes can plague you for years, so it's smart to get it right from the beginning.

"Make sure you ask about implementation assistance if your team lacks expertise." 
—Doug Tedder

2. Thinking too small

A limited vision of what ESM can do for your organization will lead to limited improvements that don't take advantage of the full potential of ESM that executives will be expecting. Don't think too small by focusing only on digitizing existing workloads, or automating a few parts of an existing workflow. That's really just automation.

Think big, said Lou Hunnebeck, principal advisor at IT services provider DXC Technology, because that's the digital transformation that executives are chasing right now.

"[It's better to think about] doing something in a fundamentally different way, or doing something completely new." 
Lou Hunnebeck

ESM, done right, can support true digital transformation in both the back and front offices. It can help your organization deliver extraordinary value to customers by doing things in completely different ways (faster, cheaper, better than before), and offering new things that meet their needs better than ever (and better than the competition).

Companies are digitally transforming the way they serve and delight their customers, from the kiosks at McDonald's that let toddlers customize their own Happy Meal to self-parking cars that take the stress out of parallel parking to Disney's MagicBands that let guests into their hotel room and into the parks with a FastPass—and can tip them off about rides with short lines and alert Disney characters to wish them a happy birthday. This does not happen if you think small.

3. Trying to tackle too much in one project

It is tempting to try to address an entire end-to-end process in one ESM project—especially if you're thinking big in terms of impact. But unless you’re looking at a very simple process, you will almost certainly run into serious problems with that approach, said Hunnebeck.

First, you may produce a process flow mapped at too high a level. This is a problem because it leaves too many gaps. It's hard to "find the gotchas, and identify opportunities for efficiencies," in a high-level process map, because too many important details are missing, she said.

On the other hand, you may attempt to produce a highly detailed value-stream map, documenting every data point about the current state. When you are addressing a complex process that involves multiple teams and workflows, this usually takes too long, and can seldom be completed within the project timeline.

This commonly happens to teams that think they can analyze and document their processes once and that's it, said Hunnebeck.

“That’s ridiculous. You don’t have to do things via waterfall; you should work iteratively.”
—Lou Hunnebeck

When you target an improvement, choose something that you think can be done in 30 to 90 days. If you have to break up big projects into small pieces, that's fine. But if you extend any initiative much beyond that, you lose people’s focus, and organizational support may shift to other things, Hunnebeck said.

These short-term projects will help you take your organization through a staged approach to ESM adoption, where projects are able to evolve based on priorities, said Dennis Drogseth, vice president of research at consultancy Enterprise Management Associates.

"[Don't think in terms of] a single before and after, but a stepladder to where you're trying to go."
Dennis Drogseth

This iterative model is critical to keeping momentum going because it gets you to the finish line over and over. Find improvements the business will value, and that you "can solve to some degree of completeness in a matter of weeks," said Tedder. 

"Show small, incremental value and continue to roll on that," with a road map of projects that eventually result in holistic transformation."
—Doug Tedder

This approach produces multiple benefits. Once teams put an iterative improvement in place, they are able to quickly evaluate its performance and market its success throughout the organization, said Hunnebeck. Teams can use lessons learned on their subsequent projects, and help the organization realize the benefits of ESM in real time.

4. Failing to think like a customer

If you lose your connection to your customers' current needs, wants, and underlying pain points, you run the risk of expanding in the wrong directions, missing emerging opportunities, and failing to see major shifts in the market that change the game. In other words, you become more Blockbuster and less Netflix.

One of the fundamental prerequisites of any ESM implementation is to have a clear understanding of who the customer is and what's important to them. This is the case whether you are providing services to your external customers or to employees.

As a service provider, you need to look at your consumers from the perspective of what they need, what is important to them, and what their desired outcomes are, said DXC's Hunnebeck.

With this approach, you become laser-focused on the needs of your customers, and this can in turn drive customer-centric innovation that delivers more value every year. This is a key component of the success of Amazon, whose mission statement begins with: "Earth’s most customer-centric company."

A deep understanding of a customer pain point or need gives you a good point of departure for ESM. You start with a clearly defined, highly relevant business problem, and then "imagine how a combination of technology and process and services all might come to bear to solve the issue," Tedder said.

5. Leaving out important voices

You're more likely to make poor decisions if you don't involve all the people who know important things about the process you are trying to improve. A classic mistake is inviting only managers to participate. Managers frequently don't know what's happening in a process or workflow. They assume that a procedure that's been defined and documented is being followed precisely.

But if you get input from people on the factory floor, said Hunnebeck, they often say, "Oh no, we don't really do it that way. What we really do is XYZ. And by the way, if you don't do Z in a particular way, it falls apart." 

Pulling in the right voices is also an iterative process. You start with a few people with broad knowledge of the value stream, and "then you expand and add more and more stakeholders who know things that you didn't know," she said.

When you are trying to improve something on a detailed level, it is essential to listen to all those extra voices and resist making any assumptions. All too often, people assume too much and "it blows up in their faces," said Hunnebeck.

How to solicit the correct input

When you are working with a cross-functional process, or a value stream with multiple sub-processes, you need to:

  • Identify all the stakeholders (upstream and downstream)
  • Identify all the contributors and their roles in the value stream
  • Get all the right people to provide input when it's going to do you the most good

For example, said Hunnebeck, when you identify a proposed improvement, you need to give all the stakeholders across the value stream the chance to say, "If you change that part of the process, it will have a negative effect downstream," or, "We need to provide you with new inputs from upstream to enable that automation." 

To succeed you need a mix of executive leadership, process, and political alignment, and strong mid-level management, said Drogseth. You will also need people who can architect, DevOps people, and analytics experts. 

All of these perspectives will provide specific kinds of value to the project, and can challenge and correct any faulty assumptions that individual team members might make.

By not working iteratively, not involving the right voices, and making too many assumptions, people will struggle to automate process. Mistakes happen when teams try to skip some of these best practices and rush toward the finish line.

"It’s not rocket science, but there aren’t any shortcuts."
—Lou Hunnebeck

6. Neglecting to sponsor and own the project properly

It's a common mistake to think that your ESM project can be a part-time activity for everyone involved. Most contributors will need to participate as they continue to do their regular jobs. But you will need a full-time commitment from one or two people—designated as the project owners—to shepherd it to completion, Hunnebeck said.

This will be possible only if you have the right level of corporate sponsorship for your ESM initiatives. Helping the C-suite to get their heads around this "is critical," said Tedder. If you have someone in the top management owning ESM for the entire organization, that person will have sufficient authority to mandate the cooperation of all departments, teams, and individuals that will need to contribute something to the project.

And that includes excusing someone from their day job to own the ESM project.

Realistically, you can't run an ESM project without a full-time owner and expect to deliver results on time. The role requires tremendous amounts of coordination and communication.

"It can't be a side job if you want to keep this going."
—Lou Hunnebeck

How a project manager gets it done

An ESM project owner typically proceeds like this.

First, identify the high-level flow, as a point of departure for the project team. "You don’t want to start with a blank page," said Hunnebeck. Next, identify the obvious people who should have a broad knowledge of the value stream, and invite them to participate.

Third, schedule and facilitate a preliminary on-site workshop for a couple of days to:

  • Scope out the end-to-end flow as far as possible (low-tech approaches can be very effective here; think sticky notes and flip charts).
  • Share metrics from each participant that are relevant to their pieces of the value stream.
  • Build the larger list of other people who need to provide input.
  • Create a clear go-forward plan with specific details.

Rarely will every person be needed at the in-person meeting, said Hunnebeck. But the in-person meeting is incredibly valuable to get everyone engaged and drive a sense of ownership.

"It also sends a powerful message from the business: We are serious and we’re willing to spend money on this."
—Lou Hunnebeck

After the workshop, engage all the potential participants, clearly explaining what contribution you expect from people with deep knowledge about big sections of the process—including the amount of time you will need from them, the kinds of things you'll need them to do, and their overall responsibilities.

Next, invite technical resources who are experts in specific tools or other parts of the process to participate. You will need to work with their managers to get support for the time they'll spend on this.

You will also want to ensure that they will be recognized and rewarded for their participation. "If they feel like their boss doesn't support it, or they don't have time to contribute to it and won't be recognized for it, you're already dead in the water," said Hunnebeck.

After the first workshop, set up a regular cadence of meetings that makes sense for your team. 

Other tasks the point person will need to do include:

  • Manage the overall project.
  • At every opportunity, involve key stakeholders (including those outside the project team) to get their input, validate assumptions, and check for unknown ramifications.
  • Train and educate all participants.
  • Communicate progress with organization.

7. Failing to communicate enough

Too often, employees hear about an ESM initiative in an all-hands meeting and then never hear about it again. That is a huge mistake. ESM requires culture change across the entire organization, so people need to understand and embrace it. When ESM owners fail to communicate, they miss an opportunity to educate, engage, and involve everyone in the process of digital transformation.

If you want support, be sure to communicate. Ask stakeholders for advice about issues you are grappling with; regularly let employees know what you're up to, and why it matters. Ask for reality checks from people in the trenches who may feel marginalized.

Your executive sponsor will be essential here. When you want to recognize and commend people for their contribution, have that come from the sponsor, said Hunnebeck. Have them sign all the key memos and employee updates, and show their enthusiasm for the project.

All of this will reinforce the message that the company is serious about this, that "we intend to succeed, and we are making progress," said Hunnebeck.

Create principles to keep you on track

Formulate a set of guiding values that can help guide your team when tough choices need to be made. This can be part of your agenda for the two-day workshop. For example, Hunnebeck's clients often include things like: 

  • Focus on value: Make improvements that will make a difference.
  • Start where you are: Don't try to rip everything out and start over.
  • Work iteratively, with feedback loops: We changed something; did it change anything material? Was is impactful?
  • Collaborate and promote visibility: Don't end up with two or three people doing everything themselves. Communicate news and kudos specifically, generously, and often.
  • Think and work holistically: Think end to end—what are the ramifications of every change?

Now get rolling

The main problems that commonly derail ESM projects are totally preventable. You can set yourself up for success by avoiding the seven deadly sins above, and by working to create an organizational culture that fosters innovative problem solving and celebrates the customer.

To get rolling in the right direction, think about processes that might need improvement, then select an ESM project that is suitable for your organization. Then you're ready to evaluate the ESM tools and technologies that might fit your needs.

You have everything to gain by leaning into ESM, and by being smart, persistent, and strategic about how you implement it. Start now, don't take any shortcuts, and before long your company might join the likes of McDonald's, Netflix, and Disney as you transform the way you deliver customer value and change the game.

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