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9 Keys to Successfully Evaluating a Proof of Concept


By Dan Rundle
in Company Culture

In the hustle to solve analog problems with digital solutions, it’s tempting to cut corners. And the first corners to be cut are usually planning and strategy. But Cat Stevens, Rod Stewart, and Sheryl Crow were right—the first cut is the deepest, because these cuts can kill a project before it really even begins.

It’s true that digital innovation can boost profits, drive down costs and make your workforce more productive, but it’s also true that many organizations don’t achieve those results.

The truth is that innovation is harder than it looks. A recent study by Cisco found that 60% of all IoT initiatives fail at the proof-of-concept (POC) stage. Respondents said the top five challenges they faced were:

* Elongated time to completion
* Limited internal expertise
* Quality of data
* Integration across teams and user groups
* Budget overruns

By contrast, the top factors shared by successful projects were:

* Collaboration between IT and business side
* Technology-focused culture
* IoT expertise
* Ecosystem partnerships at every stage of development

The pattern emerging from these responses is that well-defined strategy on the front end—including a plan to engage with users and deliver with peak velocity—leads to better outcomes in the final analysis. And since that’s the case, designing a proof of concept so that it provides quick alignment with overall digital innovation objectives should be a top priority.

How to Successfully Evaluate Your Proof of Concept

The proof of concept is your technology test run. It should demonstrate whether or not the solution you have in mind will achieve the desired end results. These results should include how it performs, how it generates revenue and/or efficiency, and how it engages users. You need to evaluate your proof of concept quickly and definitively so you can learn what you need to know and proceed with the next step of digital innovation or try another prototype.

1. Choose a Technology Partner

As you plan your proof of concept, consider your technical support needs and tap into your network of technology partners who can help you achieve your goals. Your network may include a software developer, a managed services provider, a technology vendor, an innovation guide, and other partnerships that help you leap the most significant hurdles to reaching a successful conclusion. Technology is evolving too quickly for any one company to tackle innovation alone, and the partners you choose will pave the way for either success or failure.

2. Define the Problem You Need to Solve

You can’t measure what you can’t define. Zoom out from specific technical details to the big-picture pain points you need your solution to solve. The Cisco study found that the #1 factor for successful projects is collaboration between IT and business decision-makers. By synchronizing technologies, vendors, and technical expertise with business needs like organizational strategy, business case and productivity milestones you can pinpoint the value you want the technology to deliver and the specific related functionalities it should have. This leads to a clear problem statement that everyone is aligned on—which means everyone starts crafting a solution from the same place.

3. Establish Project Constraints

Be clear about your expected timeframe, project scope and budget from the very beginning of the project. Realistic parameters put you in a position to solve your business problem while also working within your available resources. No one is served well by trying to design a 5-star end product on a 3-star budget. Also, bear in mind that your proof of concept isn’t designed to operate indefinitely. It should work within a limited, clearly defined timeframe so that you can measure impact and be ready to move on to the next stage of development. We like to say that everything is a prototype, which means that everything can change as you get more information from real-world performance, user feedback, and more.

4. Target Measurable Success Outcomes

The next step is to choose metrics that will demonstrate whether or not the technology solves the problem effectively. To do this, you need to define success in specific, measurable terms. For example: “We want to reduce production line cycle times by 20%” is a specific measurable goal. “We want to be more productive” is not. Once you know what success looks like, you can define the metrics needed. Be sure each project stakeholder agrees on the measurable outcomes you’ll use to evaluate success, including both IT and business decision-makers.

Success criteria should consider factors like:

* What is the desired output?
* What is the desired business value?
* What metrics will tell us whether we have met our goal?
* Who will use the technology?
* What happens if we don’t implement a new solution?

5. Create POC-Specific User Stories

Look at each of your required functionalities and create user stories for them. These user stories do not need to include everything a user will ever do in your system, but they should cover the essential needs for user experience in the POC. Involve both IT and business decision-makers in this process so that you can prioritize functionalities based on the user experiences you want to create. During this stage, you will also hone your success criteria to make them specific, actionable and measurable.

6. Ensure the Quality of Your Data

Digital innovation solutions work their magic using data, and that means you need to meet two data requirements for your proof of concept:

* Know what data sets you will use to evaluate the proof of concept
* Verify the quality of the data

Data can be collected from many sources, but it’s only valuable if it is accurate and complete. Use the proof-of-concept stage to map your key metrics on data dashboards so your team can accurately assess whether the project meets your success criteria. If there is a problem with data quality (such as duplicate records, non-integrated data warehouses, or missing data), now is the time to correct those issues. Evaluate whether data solutions meet requirements for security, management, storage, reporting and accessibility.

7. Include Sponsor Users Early and Often

The proof of concept represents the solution in minimal form and therefore won’t give you a complete picture of the final UX experience. Still, user satisfaction is inextricably linked to your business value goals, and so you should include users at the proof of concept stage and beyond. For example, is the navigation design satisfactory? Can users find what they need? Do users know what to do, and is that what they actually want to do?

8. Build Your Proof of Concept

Design test scenarios to replicate the environment in which the technology will run and then define positive and negative outcomes and document results. Note here that a failed test doesn’t mean a failed project. Use the failure to reassess and pivot as needed. Your POC use cases should help you reveal problems and squash bugs in the design and prepare you for a true MVP.

9. Evaluate

For final evaluation, bring all stakeholders back together for review and analysis. Compare test results to your success criteria, summarize your findings and opportunities for improvement and develop a plan for moving forward.

Conclusion

If your proof of concept has sufficient research and planning behind it, you should be aligned on a plan to move forward even if not every test turned out as planned. Tap into your technology partner(s) to help you learn from negative results.

Remember that a POC isn’t designed to run flawlessly or solve every conceivable problem. Instead, the goal is to learn what you need to know to move forward, ensure alignment of IT personnel, business stakeholders, sponsor users, and outside vendors and position yourself for a successful software implementation.

So spend the right amount of time on planning your POC. Know what you want to accomplish; establish project scope, budget, and timeline; and make sure everyone is moving in the same direction. After that, learn from each step as you go and refine your requirements to achieve your ultimate business goals.

Dan Rundle
Dan Rundle is Worthwhile’s CEO and lives in Greenville, S.C. He believes clear values are crucial to the success of a company and its customers.
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