Designing for IT success - it's about marketing at Williams-Sonoma

Den Howlett Profile picture for user gonzodaddy November 15, 2015
We often hear about executive sponsorship as a key factor in project success but marketing is something we don't hear so often. That was central to an SSO project at Williams-Sonoma

Talia Israel
Talia Israel, PMP Williams Sonoma

Oktane15 for me was all about customer success and war stories. After all, topics like Single Sign On (SSO) are hardly the meat and drink that you associate with your average user so it seemed appropriate to listen to customers who are at the sharp end of making these types of technology work.

There were plenty of cases to choose from but the one from Williams Sonoma had me sitting bolt upright. It helps that presenter Talia Israel is in command of her topic but more than that, she had plenty to share about what makes for a successful project. Many of the themes will be familiar to those who have run successful projects but as we often see, projects routinely fail across multiple dimensions. Let's step back a moment.

Founded in 1956, Williams-Sonoma is a US high end cookware and home furnishings retail chain, that includes brands like Pottery Barn and Marks and Graham. It's estate stretches to more than 250 outlets around the US along with e-c0mmerce offerings. Israel explained the prime reason for going down the SSO route was to enhance security and improve the level of automation among systems.

Israel also cites reduced support as a benefit from SSO plus the ability to standardize the way applications are provisioned, decommissioned and supported through the help desk. That approach represented a radical change since departments were used to making their own deployment decisions. How do you overcome the inevitable resistance to this type of change, which, at first blush, looks a lot like centralized 'command and control.'

Israel explained that very early on, the project team knew that the introduction of SSO would be equivalent to people passing through stages of grief. Overcoming that problem mean a focus on getting as much user feedback as possible alongside ensuring that end users got the kind of look and feel that works for them. That included what, for programmers, are relatively trivial things like ensuring icons and buttons are consistent and familiar, testing designs against user feedback and then encouraging users to discover benefits for themselves. In turn, those same people tell colleagues. Adoption then starts to take on a quasi viral adoption curve.

They tell their coworkers. They want other teams to be involved and to also give feedback. Those are the types of solutions that grow, that are long term, that the company says, "Hey, have you seen single sign on? It looks cool. Go check it out. Have you seen you can build your own dashboards and templates?" Remember that, even though there is project success criteria that the team has to meet, the end users have to use it in order for that to get there...

...I've learned people forget what you said, they'll forget what you did but, they don't forget the way you make them feel. That's all related to schedule because you let them get through that grief process for change and then they feel like you've cared about them.

But how exactly do you make that work? The key comes in consistently formatted and transparent communication, marketing the project in the same way you would market any new product but with the clear support of the security chief.

What happened during that [early] presentation was a chief information security officer stood next to me and said, "This is an enterprise solution. Everybody will support this and, when this team comes calling, we will be dedicated as a group to supporting it to completion." Now, that is what was important. It was all of three minutes compared to my fifteen minute presentation that I worked weeks on but, that's the piece that was critical.

Looking at the marketing communication element Israel said that it was important for IT to understand its own communications limitations but also factor in different types of user, both corporate and store front.

We're great at technology but, as soon as you ask tech people to sit down and write an e-mail that an end user might understand, it's like deer in the headlights. We have professionals that do that and get paid to do that so, utilize those professionals instead of trying to spend the project team time on creating those...The technical writers and the PR group were critical. They helped us with all those posters, communications, and other elements. We could not have done it without them because it would have been, "What does this communication say? I don't understand this content," so we didn't have to deal with a lot of those issues. Brand administrators, they were the store side of the communication.

Williams-Sonoma SSO results

How well did it work out? The graphic above gives a clear indication of how adoption proceeded. The team achieved its anticipated objectives of 7,000 active users much earlier than envisaged and has set a fresh goals that take it to 10,000 users by January 2016.

As I said at the top of this story, I was impressed with this presentation. It shone a light on marketing as an element of project management that doesn't get a lot of attention. We hear plenty of talk about project ownership, executive sponsorship, picking off low hanging fruit and making sure project plans are realistic. This is the first time I've listened to a case study where pristine communication and feedback were given such high priority. Israel noted that Okta provided a lot of help in the form of templates for different types of communication. Interesting. The comms strategy clearly made a significant difference and is something we'll explore in future case studies.

Disclosure: Okta covered most of my travel and expenses for attending Oktane15.

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