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Some background: I’m about 8 years into my career with my current company, a large multinational based in the US. I’ve been working with a group of about 150 people for most of my time here. Our scope of work is typically deploying IT systems to support SCADA (Supervisory Control And Data Acquisition) systems at our customer sites. For most of the time I’ve been working here, we have sub-contracted our Line of Business application out, and in stead worked as integrators, installers, and support. For the same amount of time (~8 years), a separate team has been developing an in-house solution for the systems we develop.

Where we are now: I took over as lead of the ~10 person R&D team developing our in-house application about 9 months ago. The product is in a pretty good spot, but has some serious issues our customers are aware of that will prevent us for selling this if not resolved. Without going into details, I found a convenient off-the-shelf solution for one of our issues, which is currently planned to take 18 months and ~15% of my budget to resolve. I have a working proof-of-concept for my new solution up and running in less than 4 hours. My new solution would include a nearly 80% cost reduction in final system price to our clients, reduce our costs and risks substantially, and removes a very visible sticking point to deploying our application to customer networks.

The problem: the past 8 years and several 10s of millions of dollars have been devoted to bringing the current design to bear, and has been widely advertised inside and outside my team. Recommending a change at this point potentially embarrasses a bunch of people. Additionally, the previous lead of our R&D team (my immediate successor) is now the lead of our next customer project, where we want to deploy our new application. I have broached my idea in broad terms a couple of times, and gotten very mixed results. Some people are encouraging our curious, but I am just as likely to be told in very clear terms to not pursue this idea. We're a matrix organization, so I can lean on stakeholders who are already open to this idea, but I do need to get consensus at some point.

My other major concern is I don’t think the project team will be able to execute on the timeline or budget we’ve been given, putting the whole product at risk. If needed, I’m okay to keep my off-the-shelf solution in my back pocket until the team really digs in and starts executing, but I would rather pursue both options up front and let the idea that best meats our goals win. There’s no reason we can’t use my solution for now and go back to fix the existing components later, either.

As I go through this, I need to work with technical experts, existing business-side folks, and some business development partners as this is a new opportunity for us.

My question: how best do I approach people to generate buy-in? I know different stakeholders will have different priorities (schedule, cost, future profits, sunk cost, etc.), so I can tailor some of my approach there. Is it better to make a large presentation to everyone at once so everyone receives the same information, or should I work more one-on-one as both solutions mature? How do I maintain a good working relationship with my predecessor? I think they are likely to be sensitive to feeling as though I am publicly second-guessing or embarrassing them, how do I avoid something like that and ensure I don’t offend them?

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    Two questions that your stakeholders may be wondering: 1) Are you being realistic about the amount of work it'd take to turn your proof-of-concept into a full product — mature, robust, supportable, maintainable, covering all required functionality without reintroducing any old bugs, plus training anyone who'll need to support/train/sell it, etc. etc.?  And 2) Can you quantify the risks of adding a dependency on third-party software — e.g. it having subtle bugs, not being well supported, gaining bugs in future, being abandoned, etc.?  It's easy to seriously underestimate such things…
    – gidds
    Dec 20, 2023 at 23:47
  • @gidds great points. The proof of concept is definitely that; the original solution was a 8 month/12 engineer effort to get to proof of concept. This was largely to prove to myself this was worth pursuing. The 3rd party dependencies: we aren’t really making anything “from scratch” here. What if there’s a bug in our compiler next month? Point well-taken though. The idea of developing our own products is that we can control it better, I’m looking to exercise some of that control. I guess my question is how to move the “no”s to “maybe” in a professional and respectful way to everyone involved Dec 21, 2023 at 0:32

5 Answers 5

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Is it better to make a large presentation to everyone at once so everyone receives the same information, or should I work more one-on-one as both solutions mature?

Never make a presentation on a contentious decision to everyone at once, that is almost guaranteed to fail.

Work one-on-one with each party first. Start with the ones who are easier to convince. Listen to their feedback. They will be aware of the political landscape.

And finally, be willing to admit defeat, do not call for a large meeting unless you already know it's going to go your way. Do not make more enemies than you can handle. Corporate work is not always about efficiency. It may not be worth saving your company millions of dollars if it paints a large target on your back.

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  • “Corporate work is not always about efficiency” - aint that the truth (though I wish it weren’t). It’s not obvious in my post, but I’ve been told several times this year by different parties that our upcoming project is “sink or swim” time for this product; if it doesn’t get deployed now this product will be shelved indefinitely. My concern is less “saving millions of dollars” and more “total product failure”. Does that change the strategy here or just the degree to which I should accept some pushback? Dec 21, 2023 at 12:42
  • @agentroadkill, Well, if you know the product is likely to fail and that you'll be blamed for it, then it's a no-win scenario for you. Just pick the path that's the least destructive for your career, while you look for a new employer as a backup. Dec 21, 2023 at 18:00
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How to Recommend Radical Product Change to an Organization

I have two suggestions for you:

  1. Don't recommend a radical product change, but suggest the exploration of an alternative.
  2. Don't recommend to an organisation, but recommend to individual decision makers that matter.

To give some more detail:

1.)

You are in no position to recommend a radical product change, and if you call in a meeting you will be laughed out of the door. There have been hours of meetings and investigations around requirements for the currently favoured solution and you have spent 4 hours on a prototype and some back on the envelope calculations. But your idea might have some merit and could be competing with the current plans, if you had some more investigation on it:

As I go through this, I need to work with technical experts, existing business-side folks, and some business development partners as this is a new opportunity for us.

Instead of asking for a radical change, you can ask for some time to work on an alternative. You will need access to and time from technical experts, the right business-side folks and business development partners. This still is a big ask, but a much smaller ask than asking for "radical product change" directly. You can also ask yourself whether you are the right person to lead the development of the plan B, or whether your experience makes you a better fit for staying on the technical side of things. (It doesn't matter how good the idea is, if people don't think that you have the skills to pull it off).

Now be specific of what you are asking for. "I need some people" is vague and not actionable. "I need 3 weeks, for myself, one business analysts each from department A and B as well as some hours time from the developers in team C." on the other hand is concrete. Be also concrete about what can be expected when your idea is funded. E.g. an analysis about how the new solution matches to previously found requirements.

2.) Now that you are more specific about what action you want to be taken next, you should figure out who can make that decision. It is not necessary to convince the whole organisation about your idea, just the right people. You might need to ask around a little bit who can make that decision. This might be a product director involved in the whole project. If you have access to that person it can be as simple as pitching the idea over lunch, but you probably want to be a little bit more formal with an email or a slide deck. Having things written down makes it easier for them to comment on details and forward it to others when they are asked about the why.

If you don't have access to the person you need to work your way up through people who do have access and who already are inclined to be on your side, e.g. a product owner in the persons org or someone.

Then pitch your proposal and listen for feedback: Ideally they will just greenlight whatever you are asking for, but it is also possible that they will give you reasons why they won't. Work on those reasons and repeat the process :)

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Some people are encouraging our curious, but I am just as likely to be told in very clear terms to not pursue this idea.

Like Stephan said you are going have to take this one on one with people unless you want to burn bridges fast. And even if you do, those people are not going to be forgiving once you "ruin their reputation" (even if only in their own eyes). Also having been told in no unclear terms to drop it is about as obvious as it gets on what they will think if you decide to pursue this. No matter how you go down this path you will make enemies at this point and that's something you'll have to weigh in no matter how on board some other people are.

My question: how best do I approach people to generate buy-in? I know different stakeholders will have different priorities (schedule, cost, future profits, sunk cost, etc.), so I can tailor some of my approach there.

If you know different priorities of people and already know how to tailor it, you already know where to start. Get the people on board where you see a serious pay-off for this project for them career wise, and maybe let someone higher up into the driver seat for a bit to generate less animosity among the people that will not be happy about this.

I think they are likely to be sensitive to feeling as though I am publicly second-guessing or embarrassing them, how do I avoid something like that and ensure I don’t offend them?

Sadly if this is a concern for you after conversations with them, it's probably unavoidable. You can get them to dislike you less than if you're the one actually calling them out publicly, but it's still going to be received generally the same if that's the attitude already. When you're working with someone that's won't be upset afterwards, it would have shown already and they would be open to the feedback and excited about there being ANOTHER big upgrade (because the previous work probably has generated value, it's just that you have a solution that can do it even better, if their solution broke stuff to begin with it's another problem entirely). So if people have told you off, you probably won't get them onboard and it's up to you if you want to have that fight.

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You claim the new solution is 80% less cost than the current solution. If that's so, march up to the head of development / director of development / CEO or whatever you call your person in control and show them the cost savings. If the company can literally run on 20% of what they are spending, they'd be nuts to not follow your plan.

You say you have a team of about 10 developers, that means you would have a team of 2 developers afterwards. 80% cost reduction means 80% employee reduction, as people don't pay the bugs, they pay the developers. That's an awfully low "bus number". Are you sure you're doing a justice to the company?

How are you going to effect change with 2 developers. Can anyone get sick? Can anyone go on vacation? You have the entire code base to restructure. Can two people do that in a quarter?

I think you know the answers to all of these questions don't favor your proposal. Instead, you'll promise the savings after it is all done. But why hold out on delivering the solution until after everyone agrees (ahem, pays homage) to you? Professionals make the products better without the need for pre-initaive accolades.

Instead, figure out how to deliver some of what you want, in a reasonable time frame, without commitment to putting the entire product at risk. Repeat that until you have a great product. If the product stops working in your builds for more than a day, rollback all your changes and start again.

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  • Sorry if it’s not clear in the question, I’m claiming an 80% cost reduction to our customer, not us. I’m saying I could repurpose about 15% of my current budget to do other work following my proposed solution. Dec 21, 2023 at 14:09
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    I worked SCADA for about 8 years. Helped RANGER (which became NetworkManager) be attractive enough to have the company be purchased by ABB. Cost reduction to the customer in this field is not always a great idea, unless you can maintain support and response times. If you are basically saying "swap a product for a tuned off-the-shelf solution", sure it's easy to set up, but how long till you develop the skills to repair it / alter it / etc? If it is far larger than what you would have written, it might be beyond your team's ability to support, with a lower customer cost.
    – Edwin Buck
    Dec 21, 2023 at 14:17
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I would recommend you escalate this decision, talk to your Manager/Project Manager about the current state of the project.

Lead with the part where you think the team won't have enough time to finish it, the problems that make this product difficult to sell currently, and if you have, name a stakeholder that you have discussed this with (This can backfire depending on the person, and how they take to you speaking directly to a stakeholder), only them propose a solution.

Show everyone their options and let them pick, whatever they pick it's their responsibility, and thus, doesn't impact your career, or make your predecessor look bad. For all they know, he just never got around to the problem you are facing now. Unless he goes out of his way to make himself look awful by trying to say your solution is flawed, and that he knows this problem exists and never did anything.

The only real advice I can give you from what you told us, is to not focus on how much faster and cheaper it is, but rather on how it fixes a problem, then move to how much quicker it is.

Also, try to make a presentation/reunion when you feel certain It's going to go well, no point in embarrassing yourself and your superiors over something you already know they disagree with/don't want to.

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