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The Value of Multi-Generation Planning for Technology

One of the better concepts for managing a set of systems over time comes from the product marketing world. A Multi-Generation Plan (MGP) is a high-level summary of functionality enhancements in phases. Applying this strategic thinking to your IT department’s list of core systems or your tech company’s products and services is invaluable.

What It Is and How It’s Used 

An MGP is first used as a tool for planning and decision making around your investments in technology. Then, once you have worked out the details and timing, your Multi-Generation Plan can be an excellent communication tool to inform all stakeholders what to expect. A well thought out MGP clearly summarizes key features and functions along a visible time line. It helps busy managers quickly digest a large amount of information so they can give their necessary input into a plan and also make preparations for changes that are coming. 

Here is a simplified example of an IT Multi-Generation Plan:

Assuming only two systems to worry about in this example, you could use the above plan to both capture unmovable requirements like planning for regulatory tax changes in the accounting system and to map out a logical order for all other enhancements such as website improvements and additional financial functions. Once everything is laid out, you can make decisions and adjustments as necessary. For example, in Quarter 3, if you don’t have the budget and/or resources to both implement an Accounts Receivable system and deliver Customer Registration, you can use this tool to highlight the problem, decide which has the higher priority for your business, and explain the result to both your marketing and finance department managers.

Benefits of an MGP

People always want more from technology and rightfully so. But balancing the volume of requests that come from all directions and creating a prioritized plan can be tough in organizations of any size. I’ve found that once a good MGP is created and communicated, even the most pushy customers (both internal and external) tend to back off a bit when they see that you do have your act together, you've thought things through, and that in most cases they are going to get what they want in due time. Now that doesn't mean they still won’t want it all sooner, faster, cheaper, better, etc. But that push back from them can lead to healthy discussions about resources and funding levels resulting in the necessary pragmatic prioritization to move forward.

A good Multi-Generation Plan:

  • Provides a simple, visual representation of your path. 

  • Allows you to think about the big picture holistically rather than just focusing in detail on a bunch of tactical improvements with no roadmap.

  • Benefits non-technical stakeholders and busy managers by logically grouping and summarizing a multitude of data into manageable chunks.

  • Allows your internal developers, analysts, and engineers to see how the detailed work they are doing today fits into the big picture. Even more importantly it allows external or outsourced suppliers to see where you’re going and what will be expected of them.

  • Helps you decide when to retire older systems and replace them with new ones.

Note on this last point:  for complex environments you may need to create a Systems and Platform Convergence Plan.  Sounds almost scary, but it’s actually simple to understand once you see it.  We will write about that in a future article.

Details on how to create and execute to a Multi-Generation Plan follow . . .

Steps to Create a Systems MGP

  1. List all your critical systems

  2. Prioritize them so you focus on the most important ones first. Remember, you can always add more to your MGP later. If this is a new concept to your company, it may be best to start with a few systems to help get people used to the tool.

  3. Capture the current key functions of these systems so you have a base line.  These should be summarized in the Current Generation column.

  4. List all the improvements, new functions, and even completely new systems that are being requested by users.

  5. Prioritize the above list of enhancements based on the business justification of each.  This is critical. It’s OK to start with a best guess, but as you review and improve the MGP with key constituents – it should move from a gut feel wish list towards a commitment to delivering enhancements in the right order.

  6. Create a time line that makes sense.  I often do three-month (quarterly) increments for the current year and then simply show future years as single groups (see example above). I don’t recommend going more than three years out beyond the current year.

  7. Map the enhancements for each system in the most logical order.  Some will be obvious as a new function is often is dependent on another one being delivered first.

  8. Look at the plan in terms of the budget and resources you have available for each quarter and adjust the master schedule based on priority.

Remember that even the most well thought out plans almost always change. You may never even get to some of the improvements listed further out because business requirements are always in flux. Conversely, when management sees the big picture they may determine that many of the improvements planned for the future are needed sooner and justify increased investment.

As with anything in business it takes hard work to be simple and clear, so the best Mult-Generation Plans have lots of back-up data behind them. However, you can start having valuable discussions even with a very quick and easy draft. Just make sure you don't publish an MGP without clarifying what is DRAFT and what is firm.

Executing to Your MGP

  • Keep it as high-level and simple as possible. Caution: this will be harder to do than it sounds! 

  • Remember it’s primarily a communication tool so balance details with clarity. Only capture the major enhancements or changes that people will care about. There is plenty of room in your other project documents to go into the gory details. Get buy-in from business stakeholders along the way. Involve them in the planning.

  • Review often to see how you’re delivering and adjust as necessary. Be sure to communicate changes to key deliverable dates as early as possible. Try to avoid surprises!

As you demonstrate that your team can both communicate and deliver to a clear plan over time, you will gain more and more credibility with all of your stakeholders. This is an important step towards making your technology organization a true partner with the business.