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Little ITIL®, Big Results

Step 5 of 10: Pick the Low-Hanging Fruit (Part 1 - Choose your first improvements)

by Alan S. Koch, PMP

The first several articles in our "Little ITIL®, Big Results" series were all about setting the stage for improving your IT shop. (Listen to our webinar on this 10-step process!)

  • In Step 1, we bought some time to invest in getting started because no one has spare time just waiting to be used!
  • In Step 2, we talked with a variety of people about getting started, both so we can understand what is important from their perspective, and to build their buy-in for making improvements.
  • In Step 3, we learned the score by measuring important things so we can gain an objective understanding of the things that need to be improved.
  • And in Step 4, we talked about the score with our stakeholders to help them to gain the objective understanding we gained in Step 3, and to hopefully get more precise input from them.

Now finally in Step 5, we are ready to actually start making things better. But we can't fix everything all at once! So where do we start? We start with the Low-Hanging Fruit.

Why Low-Hanging Fruit?

Consider the apple tree out in the field with apples hanging from every branch. Some of the apples are gorgeous, others less enticing, some not quite ripe yet, and others way past their prime. Some of the branches are really far up, while others are more accessible. Just now, an apple sounds like a mighty nice treat. Which one would you pick?

A "Low-Hanging" improvement opportunity is one that will be relatively easy to do -- one that, like the apple, is easily within reach (or at least easier to reach than the others). It is important that we start with the easier improvements for several reasons. First, since we have been talking with our stakeholders for some time about making improvements, they are probably wondering when all this talk will turn into action (which as the saying goes, speaks louder than words). Second, getting started with improvements is its own challenge, so we want to pair this new behavior with something that is less difficult to do. And third, a quick win will help us establish momentum, which is particularly important in improvement efforts.

An improvement opportunity "Fruit" will provide obvious benefits -- one that, like the apple, will be judged by a variety of stakeholders to be sweet. An "improvement" that key stakeholders don't understand or care about will do nothing to build the momentum or generate the support we need for further improvements. But if they think that first improvement was sweet, they'll be clamoring for the next one.

A couple of important points: First, don't try to eat all of the apples at once or you'll get one heck of a tummy-ache! One or two apples at a time are enough. And second, we're not talking about making an apple pie (or streusel or Danish). Save the more advanced efforts until you have mastered the basics and built momentum.

Catalog the Fruit

The talking and measuring that you already did in Steps 2 thru 4 resulted in a lot of ideas for improvements you may need to make in your IT shop. If you haven't done so already, now is the time to catalog those ideas so you can prioritize them against each other. For the purposes of this article, your Improvement Opportunity Register should include this information about each opportunity:

  • Unique identifier and Name -- These make it easier for you to keep track of the improvement opportunities and talk about them with other people.
  • Description -- A sentence or short paragraph that describes the opportunity.
  • Benefits -- The sweetness factor for this opportunity. (See "Spot the Sweetest Fruit," below.)
  • Costs -- The cost factor for this opportunity. ("Find the Fruit Within Reach")
  • Priority -- This opportunity's relative ranking based on Benefits and Costs. ("Choose Your First Fruit")

This Improvement Opportunity Register needs to be a living document. Any time an improvement opportunity is identified, you will add it to the register. When an opportunity is rejected, or after each improvement is completed, you will remove it from the register to an archive for historical purposes. And of course, as situations change, you will adjust the Benefits, Costs, and Priorities of the improvement opportunities.

Spot the Sweetest Fruit

Assessing the sweetness of each improvement opportunity is a matter of identifying all of its benefits. The easiest way to do this is to list every group or individual who will benefit from it, and for each group or individual, to determine these things:

  • Name of the group or individual.
  • Importance of the group or individual to IT and the organization at large (e.g. High, Medium, Low). This is where we would differentiate between key stakeholders and others who are less critical to our success.
  • Urgency of the improvement to this group or individual (e.g. High, Medium, Low). How quickly does this group or individual want or need to see this improvement done?
  • Impact of the improvement to this group or individual (e.g. High, Medium, Low). How much will this group or individual benefit from the improvement when it is implemented?

A simple way you can combine all of this information into a Sweetness factor for each improvement opportunity is to translate the rankings into numbers (e.g. High=3, Medium=2, Low=1), then combine them arithmetically. For example, if I have one person who has High (3) Importance for whom this improvement is of Medium (2) Urgency and Low (1) Impact, I might compute their sweetness contribution as 3 x 2 x 1 = 6. I would then sum that with the Sweetness contributions of all of the other groups and individuals who would benefit to come up with the Sweetness factor for the improvement opportunity.

The improvement opportunities with the highest Sweetness factor will have the greatest benefits. But this is only part of our calculus. We also must consider whether the fruit is within reach!

Find the Fruit Within Reach

Determining how low each improvement opportunity is hanging is a matter of identifying all of the costs involved in implementing it. For each cost, we need to capture these things:

  • Description of the cost. Is this software, or analysis, or training, or behavior change, or policy updates, or ...?
  • Resource. Does it require money, people's effort, calendar time, other?
  • Magnitude of the cost (e.g. High, Medium, Low). This is not just for money; an improvement opportunity may cost a lot of people's effort or a lot of calendar time.
  • Scarcity of the required resource (e.g. High, Medium, Low). If an opportunity requires the effort of a person who is already overworked, then their effort would be Highly Scarce.

Identifying all of the costs can require some creativity, and will likely require some preliminary project planning. (Yes, implementing an improvement is a project -- but we will address that in our next article!) At the very minimum, every improvement will require calendar time and certain people's effort.

Combining all of this into a cost factor for each improvement opportunity should be done in a similar way as the Sweetness factor described above (convert Magnitude and Scarcity into 3, 2 or 1, then combine arithmetically). At this point, we are not trying to come up with a dollar cost; we are merely trying to rank the opportunities against each other on the basis of all of the costs (of which money is only one).

Choose Your First Fruit

After doing the Benefit and Cost analysis described above for each improvement opportunity in our Register, we are finally ready to pick the Low-Hanging Fruit. In principle, we want to pick the opportunity that has the highest benefit and the lowest cost. Of course, reality is rarely that easy. The highest benefit opportunities may not have low costs, and the lowest cost opportunities may not result in high benefits.

Picking Low-Hanging Fruit usually requires that you exercise professional judgment in selecting among the opportunities that bubble up toward the top on the basis of the Cost and Benefit computations. Only you can decide which considerations you will use as you make these judgments. But these things tend to be important:

  • Importance of the groups or individuals who will benefit. In general, we want our first improvements to provide benefits to the most important people. A Medium (2) benefit provided to a highly (3) important person is a higher priority than a high (3) benefit provided to a medium (2) importance person, even though the arithmetic ranks them as equivalent (3 x 2 = 2 x 3 = 6).
  • Calendar Time to complete the improvement. For our first improvement, minimum calendar time to delivery is by far the most important cost consideration. If I can deliver several Medium Benefit improvements in a short timeframe, that is far better than delivering only one High Benefit improvement in the same timeframe.
  • Ease of achievement. Finally, you need to consider how easy it will be for the responsible people to make the improvement (which may require a new set of behaviors), and for the beneficiaries to adapt to it (which may require changes to their daily work habits). This is not captured directly in any of the analyses above (though it may show up indirectly in the costs). And for the most part this will simply be a matter of judgment. But it is critically important that the very first improvement you undertake not be too challenging.

Taking all of this into consideration will allow you to use your judgment to assign each improvement opportunity a priority (e.g. High, Medium, Low). Then you can begin working on them in priority order.

Congratulations! You just picked the best apple. In our next installment, we'll talk about eating it!

Related Links
In addition to the previous articles in this series (linked above), you may want to refer to our templates for a Stakeholder Analysis and Cost-Benefits Analysis, as well as our guideline explaining various Estimating Methods. Our Scored and Ranked Project List for Portfolio Management illustrates one way of building a prioritized list in a spreadsheet using weighted rankings.

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