Tuesday, November 8, 2011

C-suite talk: the siren song of low-hanging fruit

This story is a case where the everyday world reminded me of the challenges executives face every day, choosing where they will invest their treasure of time and company resources.  The Meyer lemon tree in our south Florida backyard has rewarded us with a big crop this year, literal low-hanging fruit.

Meyer lemons almost touching the ground. Low-hanging fruit
The phrase is beloved of vendors and service providers, promising great rewards for doing easy things. Business cases and ROI studies tell us they are going after low-hanging fruit as soon as you give the go-ahead to their project.

Chances are, you've worked hard and made good choices already, or you wouldn't have that C in front of your title. There's not a lot left that's near the ground.  But maybe we can turn the metaphor around and think of some other lessons to learn from the saying:

  • Someone had to plant the tree.  High-reward/low-effort opportunities rarely just appear out of nowhere.  There are cases where the confluence of emerging technologies (tech triggers) makes a new LHF situation appear (web-based applications and cheaper/faster/more reliable network access, for instance, make IT moves to the cloud easier and more rewarding.)  But in many cases, what looks like low-hanging fruit is the result of a lot of hard, disciplined work in your organization--one of the best examples is Master Data Management (MDM) -- heavy lifting,  but it enables a cascade of service-enablement across your entire company.  Leading to the related idea:
  • The heavy lifting you do should move the rest of the fruit lower, not buy you taller ladders.  A crucial C-suite mandate is to make things better, not just solve today's problems.  If huge chunks of your talent and money are maintaining burdensome legacy processes or technology, your company may stay upright, but you're just buying taller ladders.  If you're working to simplify processes, mask complexity, and enable a service-oriented enterprise, you're moving the fruit lower.
  • Where there is fruit, there are windfalls. Let's think of it this way: there are opportunities to find benefits that fall outside the mainstream: to mix metaphors, the long tail of the crop. Is there a corollary business benefit to be gained by letting small teams explore niche opportunities to repurpose other efforts?  The ability to think "repurpose" is dramatically helped once you adopt the service-oriented model, which relentlessly standardizes core services to enable greater ease of personalization and micro-customization at the user level.
  • It doesn't all ripen at the same time. Sometimes, you walk away from a classic LHF situation thinking, "yeah, that WAS a high reward for a relatively small effort." In the IT and business world, one of the clearest today is web-based e-mail: necessary but not a competitive advantage, adapts well to mobile and consumer-driven usage.  Don't turn away once that's done.  The experience of web-based e-mail may enable further benefits from the cloud-sourcing of word processing and other office productivity applications.  Can cloud-sourced productivity apps pave the way for "bring your own device" policies and respond to workforce consumerization?
  • On the other hand, should you pick low hanging fruit at all? In 2008 I saw a presentation from a mid-size corporation that had decided to commit to cloud-enabling IT wherever possible.  In the slide showing a grid of the applications in the cloud, corporate e-mail was still in the data center. "Why not e-mail?" asked an audience member, "isn't that low-hanging fruit."  "Yes," said the CIO, "but our existing e-mail works fine.  Why take the time to change it when it's not a problem?  We wanted to concentrate on areas where the cloud could make a real difference for us."  In other words, just because you can doesn't always mean you should.  Web-based mail can make a lot of sense, but in this case, other priorities came first.  No matter how easy an opportunity might seem, sound rules of business value cannot be repealed.
Do you have a success story of an easy win that came from an unexpected place?  How do you maintain focus on long range improvements when there are so many demands to solve problems close at hand? Leave comments, or drop me e-mail.

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