How Do YOU Choose Software?

Aug. 5, 2013
A 7-step process for making better decisions on complex software purchases.

Some choices are easier than others. Prime rib versus fried beetles? Not so hard. (Your colleague in Thailand thinks the grilled cow is pretty gross.) Which CRM package will tie up your sales force and three years of IT budget? That’s a quandary. Judging by the percentage of CRM installation that succeed, the wrong decision is reached more often than not.

The same can be said for almost any major software purchase. Pick your acronym: ERP, CMS, LMS, HRMS, etc. It’s an alphabet soup of big dollars and confusing options. The Air Force’s $1 billion ERP blunder highlights how very wrong these types of projects can go. Other choices may be less far reaching and expensive, but just as difficult – we’ll come back to them in a moment.

With so many software vendors pushing their solution, it’s hard to know which supplier is best for your situation. However, there’s a deeper issue at work here: you probably don’t know exactly what you want because it’s unclear what is even possible. Well, you’re about to encounter some good news.

Last week, during my ongoing search for consulting firms with breakthrough approaches, I ran into a company that has an intriguing solution to choosing software providers. In a nutshell, the process they’ve completed for all the major categories of software is what I’ve dubbed “the breakdown approach.” It consists of the following seven steps:

  1. Survey the landscape to identify a range of potential suppliers.
  2. Break those vendors’ offerings down into every individual feature.
  3. Develop a giant library of all possible features, irrespective of which supplier delivers which feature.
  4. The client works their way through the entire library, categorizing every feature into a few buckets, such as: absolute requirements, highly desirable, nice to have, irrelevant, definitely do not want.
  5. Construct the “ideal” solution, based on the client’s prioritization of features
  6. Score each vendor’s actual solution versus the ideal.
  7. Choose the vendor whose solution most closely matches the client’s ideal.

Some of the consultant’s libraries contain thousands of individual features. That may sound like a daunting number to prioritize; however, when you reflect back on the number of large software systems that underperform versus expectations, you realize that applying some elbow grease on the front end will pay off very handsomely down the road. Their process also eliminates the “I don’t know what I don’t know” problem that frequently plagues large investments.

Making Decisionmaking Easier

Most decisions don’t require this level of rigor because they involve limited options, few features to weigh against each other or relatively minor consequences if the decision is wrong. However, we all struggle over a wide range of decisions we make for our businesses, and many of those cases would benefit from the seven-step, breakdown approach.

For instance, I’m in the process of hiring a videographer to film and edit a series of training videos I’m producing for a large consulting firm. Which of the dozen or so qualified firms should I use? After they submit their bids, I’m going to follow the breakdown approach, mixing in qualitative features such as experience and quality of the demo reel. My confidence in my selection will be higher than if I use my gut to choose, and the final videos are likely to be superior also. Fortunately, for small decisions like mine, the process is helped along by free, decision-making software called ConsultantChoice, which is available at the following link:

Clearly, some decisions don’t lend themselves to the breakdown approach and there is the risk that over-attending to the detailed features will distract you from a single-minded focus on your ultimate outcome. Nevertheless, the breakdown approach is extremely intriguing and I highly recommend you apply it to some of your complex decisions. Whether or not to try it is an easy choice.

You can learn more about the consulting group that pioneered the breakdown approach by contacting the author at [email protected]. David A. Fields, author of The Executive’s Guide to Consultants (McGraw Hill, 2012), improves companies’ success with outside experts.

About the Author

David A. Fields | Managing Director

David A. Fields is a speaker, author and the founder and managing director of The Ascendant Consortium, a unique organization specializing in maximizing the ROI from consulting engagements. He is the author of "The Executive's Guide to Consultants" (McGraw-Hill, 2012). He writes monthly columns for IndustryWeek and Consulting Magazine, and his commentary has appeared in USA Today, CNN Money, Investor’s Business Daily, Advertising Age, BusinessWeek, SmartMoney, and other publications.

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