The hidden claws of proof of concept
Proof of concept is a proven methodology for testing new technologies, but it isn't perfect, and it can be more of a hindrance than a help, says Sean Laval, executive: Solutions and Innovations at SqwidNet.
A proof of concept is a wonderful thing. It is the glorious end-product of months, perhaps even years, of honing an idea and its abilities to perfectly suit the market and need. It is the physical manifestation of innovation and it plays an important role in helping the organisation to fine-tune issues, assess the true value of a product, determine its value to the market, and so much more. However, it can also be an expensive and time-consuming trap.
"A proof of concept (POC) project is a great way to test new technologies and ideas within a business, but it becomes problematic when it continues for extended periods of time without any quantifiable conclusion as to its success or failure," says Sean Laval, Executive: Solutions and Innovations, SqwidNet. "It can delay the commercial deployment of a viable solution within the business or for its customers. And this happens far more regularly than organisations realise."
The pitfalls of POC often occur when the success criteria of the project aren't clearly defined from the outset. When the milestones, key performance indicators and benchmarks by which the POC are measured are not adequately stipulated or correctly managed, then this can be a critical fail point for any project. Just as the employee requires ongoing measurement to ensure growth and performance, a POC requires precise parameters within which to operate.
"The biggest challenge around the timeous completion of POC projects is the temptation to keep on adding more to the original scope," adds Laval. "This often happens as more possibilities become evident as the project evolves and grows. Suddenly, there are so many iterations and opportunities that they are tacked onto the original project without clear outlines or goals. To avoid this, the POC has to remain a well-structured process."
A successful POC project should have a defined operational lifespan. Once this is completed, it needs to be assessed against the final metrics that were determined at the outset to establish whether or not it is worth taking further within the purchase and production life cycle. This doesn't mean that new insights and information won't be uncovered throughout, or that these insights should be ignored, but rather that these fresh ideas and thoughts should be contained within a different phase of the operation.
"In fact, the new information and ideas that are unlocked throughout the course of the POC, should be considered only after the initial results have indicated that the POC meets minimum specifications," says Laval. "The metric that ultimately determines the success of the POC is whether or not the solution adds value to the business, and this can only be understood objectively if the metrics are agreed on early in the engagement. They should ideally be agreed on by both the business and the solutions vendor at the beginning of the process to avoid any complications later on."
To deliver relevant results, the business entering into the POC needs to understand exactly what information is valuable. This can relate to increased return on investment (ROI), greater operational efficiencies, faster go-to-market capabilities, or improved customer satisfaction. Often, solution providers will promise an array of benefits to the business, across multiple spheres, and equally often, many of these may not be feasible. The best approach to any POC is a realistic one that isolates a few key pain points that need to be addressed during the POC period. This tends to lead to simpler metrics that allow for more valuable evaluation and improved long-term success.
"It is critical to involve all the stakeholders in the business to ensure the problem is correctly defined and understood across multiple levels of the organisation," says Laval. "By the same token, POC success is dependent on the reputation and capabilities of the service providers and consultants that the organisation works with."
Before embarking on a POC, check the credentials of partner organisations, reference their case studies that describe similar deployments, and ensure you have a clear picture of their capabilities. This will help to identify possible complications early on in the process and mitigate preventable issues.
"A business should consider a POC project wherever there is a problem that requires an innovative solution, but should always ensure completion is timeous, partners well-vetted, and parameters extensively measured," concludes Laval.