IT Project Success: There’s Magic In the Middle

I don’t know where I first heard that phrase, or what it originally meant, but I have been using it a lot in the last few weeks …

Consider the entire user population for any web site or application. You can generalize all user populations into three Pareto-inspired groups …

I don’t know where I first heard that phrase, or what it originally meant, but I have been using it a lot in the last few weeks …

Consider the entire user population for any web site or application. You can generalize all user populations into three Pareto-inspired groups …

  • Top 20% – The folks who “get it”, and have the brains, the interest, and the desire to fully understand the system / tool / report / whatever, and get the most benefit out of it. In Pareto terms, the 20% that get 80% of the value.
  • Bottom 20% – The “hopeless”; those that just don’t get the concept (and need constant handholding), have no interest in using the app (at best, they will have someone do it for them), and no desire to expand their horizons and learn something new. In Pareto terms, the 20% that cause 80% of the problems.
  • Middle 60% – aka “everybody else”. This is the group of users that could get value out of the project, process / program, but need more handholding, guided learning, and/or managerial promises (/threats) to commit to learning how to use and apply this new tool.

Click here for the original …

I call this last group “the magic in the middle”; this is the user group you need to win over to ensure success for the project. In corporate IT, most projects would be considered a failure if they only got 20% of their target audience to realize the promised value – then again, no one expects 100% success, especially with the bottom 20% of folks that will Just Never Get It. So, the make or break “target market” for training and retention is the “magic in the middle” – the folks who need a reasonable level of documentation and training to get things to work.

Note that “magic” refers to the fact that what really differentiates success – that core region of 60% – is the make-or-break group that takes the extra effort. It’s not good enough that your top finance folks understand the new reporting and analytics system – the middling folks that need more handholding and examples are the ones you need to focus on. It’s not good enough that your top project managers understand the new methodology – the journeyman PMs that have more tech background than change management and communication skills need guidance and templates and checklists to make sure the minimal I’s are dotted and T’s are crossed.

Interesting Observation

This is one of the core reasons why analogies between corporate IT and consumer IT often fail. How many times have people in the business asked IT for projects as flexible, ubiquitous, user friendly, and high quality as Flickr, Basecamp, and gMail? Or tried to address internal communication and collaboration challenges with tools like Facebook, Twitter, and Google Groups? Why do folks look at highly target-marketed sites / communities of practice, and cynically wonder why internal IT can’t turn over project requests with the same level of speed and quality?

One key reason – those sites only need to go after the Top 5% group of focused, engaged, and technically able potential consumers – because the internet is so big, there is plenty of money to be made from such a small percentage of the total user population. Unfortunately for corporate IT, it is not OK to implement systems that are effective only for 20% of the target user community – expectations are more like 50-80% of the user population needs to be reasonably glib in the system to be judged effective.

… but What Does It Mean?

Corporate IT is forced to go after the “middle” group – the 60 percent of the user base who needs a lot more TLC to understand and be effective in the tools and systems we provide.

However, I call it “magic” for a reason. You can leverage a lot of value once you realize that “the magic is in the middle”:

  • Training: When you understand the low-end expectations for end-user competence, you can target your training material at that level – and no lower.
  • Testing for 100% of all cases is exhausting and time consuming, a real drain on resources. However, only testing the basics (the Top 20%) won’t require a lot of rigor, for the error checks are simplistic and the level of scrutiny is much higher. If you want to do an acceptable amount of decent quality testing, your test cases should involve “the magic in the middle”.
  • Vendors: Bringing them in for a demo? Salesmen typically target business scenarios that are the “low hanging fruit” (in the Top 20%), and it’s easy to understand when the software can’t handle the “worst case scenario” (the Bottom 20%); get the sales team to demo something from “a typical Day In the Life” (the Middle 60%)

The Top 20% group is the easiest to service, the Bottom 20% is the easiest to ignore. The magic is in the middle, and success here separates the excellent from the also-rans in corporate IT.

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Jim MacLennan
Jim MacLennan is Senior Vice President and Chief Information Officer at IDEX Corporation, a Fortune 1000 manufacturer that sells highly engineered products in a variety of markets worldwide. MacLennan has responsibility for Corporate IT services for all IDEX business units, and also drives innovation through initiatives that leverage Information and Technology as growth drivers for the industrial manufacturing space. He regularly publishes his observations and insights on the intersection of business and technology - check out his work at