How to Avoid Falling into the Software Customization Trap

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Does your organization really need software customization? Here’s how to tell – and how to do it right if you do.

Today, we live in a society that values customization over standard product. Think about it: would you rather have an off-the-rack suit or one tailor-made to perfectly fit your body? E-commerce has introduced an endless aisle of choices and options when we shop. Go to any Subway or Starbucks – they are an exercise in mass customization – and have your order exactly as you want it without paying any (apparent) premium.

So the same must go for business software, right? Wrong, mostly, unless you are a very large retailer (in my opinion). I have seen many mid-market retailers over the years fall into the software customization trap. The arguments are compelling – you get the exact software that you want and don’t have to adapt your business in any way. However, fast forward a few years and you end up with a group of systems that are so customized that nobody can make sense of them. Those systems are also often obsolete because they were written at a particular time with a set of circumstances that no longer apply.

So who is responsible for all the excessive customization out there? Here are some of the usual suspects, in no specific order:

  • Software vendors/resellers who are trying to recoup margin given up during the bidding process through hourly-based development
  • IT departments, some of whose members see a large customization project as exciting… and a form of job security
  • Management who ignore the long-term implications of excessive customization and offloads critical technology decisions to IT departments or external vendors

Do You Need Software Customization?

I’m not saying that all software customization is bad. It has its place, as long as you properly vet the opportunities by asking yourself a few simple questions:

  1. Would a customized solution clearly protect or create a sizable profit stream that would otherwise not be available?
  2. Have you exhausted other options, such as adapting your business to commercially-available software?
  3. Is the scope of work that requires customization clearly defined?

If you can confidently answer ‘yes’ to all of the above, then software customization might be the best route. As you embark on customization, here are some tips to help keep the project within scope, on time and on budget.

  • Control for scope – each potential project expansion should have a business case
  • Ensure that the right resources are available to dedicate to the project
  • Stage development gates and constantly test them to allow for course corrections
  • Find ways to cost-share or gain-share, especially if you can productize your customization
  • Ensure that the design allows for flexibility and adaptability to avoid obsolescence

This post originally appeared as “The Customization Trap” on LinkedIn Pulse,  November 24, 2016.

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