There are a number of potential objections to retiring the legacy IT systems used in one or many business lines, or indeed, throughout an enterprise. And many of them are legitimate.
But too often, the retirement conversation starts in a place once captured in an old bumper sticker: “you can have my [application] when you pry it from my cold, dead fingers.”
That’s not so much a problem as a symptom of a problem.
The case for retirement is often far clearer from the application team’s perspective (it’s redundant in functionality, it’s costly to support, it’s based on obsolete technology) than it is from the perspective of the business partner, who can be averse to potential risks introduced by retirement and who may lack the incentive to support a retirement effort if it takes too long to see the benefits.
The Four Step Plan: Easing Applications into Retirement
There are four parts to helping business partners become comfortable with the retirement of a long-used (even if little loved) application.
The Fundamentals—Communicate retirement needs and plans in language that everyone can understand: First, there are some basic tools every applications team needs to frame the retirement conversation. Start with a portfolio-level retirement roadmap, accessible to all key stakeholders, that depicts both timelines for planned retirements as well as data (e.g., incident tracking) that can help influence retirement decisions.
Second, use a consistent set of leading indicators that help identify when a system needs to be retired. The trick is that this list cannot consist of technical indicators alone, but needs to include indicators that “keep business partners up at night,” like the potential for business disruption or a negative effect on customers.
Next Steps—Communicate replacement plans in terms of business value: If a list of leading retirement indicators include measures that “keep business partners up at night,” communication about the replacement plan must show how business partners can get back to a good night’s sleep. An evaluation of new solutions will necessarily require a review of criteria for technical alignment—integration and interoperability, skill requirements for support, and so forth.
But articulation of the plan needs to concentrate on its alignment with business need. Will the new system deliver a self-evident productivity improvement relative to legacy, whether in terms of a process or addressing challenges in employee workflow? Where will it improve customer outcomes? Simple tactics like a scorecard, checklist, or set of user stories can help frame this articulation, especially as alternative solutions are compared.
Ensure Success—Communicate your risk management approach: Part of the reason so many retirement conversations are misaligned is because applications teams tend to stress the risk of maintaining legacy platforms, while many business partners are more concerned over the risks associated with a system transition.
Consequently, any retirement proposal needs to communicate its explicit plans to mitigate most sources of transition risk:
(a) provide adequate/appropriate support during the sunsetting and transition phase.
(b) ensure end-user adoption of the new system remains aligned to transition timelines.
(c) put precautions in place to prevent data loss as it is archived and/or migrated.
Mastering the Conversation—Tailor your communications: In the ideal scenario, the communications outlined above need to be fitted to the specific risk/reward preferences of the business partners involved. CEB survey data has shown that the majority of business leaders fall into two camps: “opportunists,” who are primarily concerned with avoiding risk in IT projects, and “entrepreneurs,” who are most concerned about capturing ROI.
A conversation with an “opportunist” that concentrates on the replacement solution without addressing a risk management strategy for transition is unlikely to succeed. Conversely, conversations with “entrepreneurs” that speak entirely in terms of risk management are more likely to earn yawns than engagement. Knowing where a system’s business owner falls between these profiles is essential to gain active support for the retirement initiative.
CEB’s Applications Retirement Playbook provides more detail on how to overcome stakeholder resistance and conduct effective retirement projects.