I just ran across the sad story of yet another failed software project (I missed it first time since it happened across the Christmas period). In this instance we see Avon writing off a $125 million project to revamp their sales systems and doing so after the initial pilot deployment was met with so much hate and derision from their people that sales staff were resigning from the business in massive numbers rather than working with the software.

This is a project that was started in 2009 and it wasn’t until December 2013 when the project was (mostly) killed off. That’s a 4 year investment of hard work and sacrifice from so many people to produce, well, nothing. Actually, not quite true. They did produce the software world’s equivalent of anti-matter, a substance that destroys everything it comes in contact with. It damaged corporate reputations for both Avon and SAP (well, maybe not SAP since their reputation is already heavily tarnished), it’s decimated Avon’s largely voluntary sales force, strangled sales revenue and cash flow, and burnt through $125 million and 4 years that could have been spent on building something that was actually valuable and useful for the business.

The culprit? It’s hard to point fingers anywhere other than Avon’s poor management and the poster child for expensive enterprise software that’s almost impossible to install and use without bus loads of specialist contractors; SAP. Of course, SAP aren’t taking any blame. No sir! They’re blame shifting to other vendors and trying to throw them under the bus instead. No doubt the same bus that is now shipping out all those expensive SAP contractors, of course. SAP are saying that they only built the back end and it was those other incompetents who people built a front end with poor usability that is at fault. Sure, SAP, you sit there and pretend that a back end doesn’t define the business processes and doesn’t impact usability.

"Many representatives couldn't even get logged into the new website, and once you got in, the system was not accepting orders, it wasn't saving orders properly, and it wasn't reserving inventory."
- Karen Edwards, Avon

Yep,  sure SAP, that sounds like a ‘usability problem’ right there.

With so many people leaving, there’s a sadly high human cost to this failed project but combine it with statements like these, I start to get really upset with just how delusional Avon management and SAP must be:

"While the pilot technology platform [in Canada] worked well, the degree of impact or change in the daily processes to the Representative was significant, this resulted in a steep drop in the active representative count."
- McCoy, Avon’s CEO

“Head office kept insisting that the system was working, but it was not”
- Edwards, Avon

“[the] software was working as designed, despite any issues with the implementation of the project”
- SAP media statement

Hang on?! The CEO is trying to tell us that the project and the product are successful, even though it’s an obvious, abject failure? Could the management team’s collective head be stuck any further into the sand?  Could SAP be any more uncaring as to the result of their product? I’m staggered!

We can add to this evidence of the ‘Failure is not an option” mindset within SAP. There was obviously no Plan-B. No rollback if things went pear shaped as they did. Instead, they’ll just keep pushing on with their rubbish.

“The company reported it would continue to use the software in Canada to avoid further problems in that market”
- Information Week.

Further problems? Like what? Putting the old system back in place and trying to bring back at least some of their disgruntled sales people? I’m crying right now.

Now, if this was a one-off then maybe it’s forgivable as a $125m rookie mistake. But they’d already failed this way before. In 2011, they screwed up with Oracle, and a logistics ERP rollout in Brazil that contributed to Avon’s then-CEO resigning.

“The roll-out of an Oracle ERP suite underpinning core supply chain and finance operations has posed huge challenges for the company’s operations in Brazil”
-IT Decisions

The troubles around the implementation have resulted in large numbers of IT staff leaving the company in the last 18 months, according to the source. […] a separate large-scale ERP project was launched recently with a view of transforming other customer service areas. SAP was chosen to supply products for that body of work.
”The [SAP] project will be significantly more complex. And if we work on the assumption that the same difficulties around change will remain, it would be fair to say that this project will take six to seven years to complete”
- IT Decisions

2 years to learn from that failure and adjust how the SAP project was progressing and they did nothing. When will people learn that when it comes to building software, and especially complex software, that the failed methods of the past simply don’t work anymore? In fact, they’ve never really worked in the first place.

When will people learn to stop building large systems over many years and attempting to do a big-bang deployment, without a fall-back plan, and without ever genuinely engaging their user base first instead of just selling them on the promise of something awesome.

Sure, I get it. I’ve lived it myself. Large and complex systems are hard to build, but let’s not make it harder than it needs to be. Start by building something for a small subset of the end solution and prove it works. Incrementally grow from there to meet your goal. Get user engagement and feedback early, not just from the management team. If you do go down the wrong path and build something that turns out terrible you’ll know about it early and have time to adjust rather than forcing your steaming pile of effluence down people’s throats and watching them quit.

Identify the value in your system and deliver on the key high value items first, your minimum viable product. After that pile in all the other features you want over time and subsequent smaller releases. Who knows? Avon may have been able to save up to $50m if they’d failed with a much smaller product first. If they’d done that though, I suspect that we wouldn’t be talking about them at the moment.

Finally, be brutally honest and transparent with where a project is at. I can’t image the number of times people on the SAP project said there were problems and it was going to fail. I can’t imagine the countless times that project managers and senior execs who wanted to report that things were ‘green’ shut down anyone who voiced problems. I can, on the other hand, imagine the ego, politics and bluster that drove this project off the road, through the guard rails and over the edge, resulting in the disaster that somehow execs still believe is a success.

Oh, and for the love of all things good in this world, please stop using SAP and the horrible waterfall based project practices that seem to go hand in hand with that shambling behemoth.