A universal fear of anyone who buys new equipment or systems for their company is that they might make the wrong choice and end up with nothing to show for their outlay of expense and effort but a never-used user manual that sits somewhere in their office, mocking them every time they look at it.

Whatever they were trying to do with the best of intentions, somehow instead of hardware or software all they ended up with was shelfware.

I love the word shelfware. Even just the sound of it conveys disappointment and defeat wrapped up in a vague but pervasive sense of shame.

Binderware, a related term, encompasses both shelfware and also any unwanted, unnecessary, and inevitably unused paper documentation of any kind, but it lacks the poetry of shelfware. Binderware said in the right tone might be mistaken for a reputable stationary brand or perhaps an outlandish, newfangled product to promote administrative efficiency.

Shelfware does not offer such a glimmer of hope. ‘Shelf’ is not a word that inspires optimism. To shelve a thing or idea is to abandon it, and if you hear of something sitting on a shelf, the two most likely things that are going to occur to you is that it will either remain there for a very long time, or at some point it will fall off.

In all our conversations about Digital Transformation, how many times have you heard people admit there are a lot of options to choose from, and the risk of making the wrong choice or otherwise not getting demonstrable return on investment is daunting? That’s a fear of shelfware.

It would be wrong of us to only mention bad software decisions when we talk about failure to produce an ROI, of course. Many business leaders rue the day they bought some equipment for the wrong reasons only to discover too late they had lost the opportunity to get something else that would better help them achieve their objectives by making a poorly informed, perhaps impulsive choice on hardware that will never do what another option would have been able to do easily if only given the chance.

While it is true that everyone in a position of authority at one time or another makes a bad call, it is also true that everyone hopes it is not going to be a bad call attached to a lot of capital and time and staff-hours thrown away to no good result.

Why don’t we talk about avoiding shelfware today, and see if we can’t spare someone the specter of failure lurking through their working life for years to come?

Questions Before You Buy

You are going to invest in something new for your business, and you have great ambitions for what it can do for you, your team, and your company? Let’s ask ourselves a few questions before we pull the trigger on something we are going to be committed to for a long while after the decision is made:

  • What exactly are you trying to do? This might seem obvious, but if you do not have a clear vision of the challenge or opportunity you are trying to address with your purchase, you are setting yourselves up for failure in any number of ways. Some of the best-intentioned purchases end up as the biggest failures because a hazy but ambitious, ‘This is going to change everything!’ often ends up changing very little at great expense due to only a tenuous grasp of how it is supposed to engage with the day-to-day of the business.
  • Is this new thing going to be pushed or pulled into your existing operations? Put another way, are you buying this and bringing it into the business because you are trying to change things in a top-down “This is new and better” initiative, or is there something already going on in your company that is asking to be addressed? Now there is nothing wrong with either option, of course, but most companies that are struggling with Digital Transformation —as one very large example of today’s broad theme— are trying to enforce something onto their operations because it’s a good idea, rather than bringing their new tools and technologies into the parts of the business with current challenges where new capabilities are going to be welcomed, actively used, and championed. One is much more likely to end up being shelfware than the other, and so decision-makers would be wise to understand if what they are buying is going to be a ‘push’ onto their business and plan their rollout accordingly.
  • Do you understand the pros and cons of all the options before making your choice? Sometimes the failing of shelfware is not that you bought something you don’t need. Sometimes you bought a perfectly good piece of hardware or software that just isn’t the best fit for you and your business, and sooner or later you’re going to go invest in an alternative, leaving your first rash decision off to one side, discarded and abandoned. Putting the time into getting your research right lets you make the right decision the first time.
  • Who else should you be talking to about this decision? There are very few services and solutions available to a senior executive that would not benefit from the opinion of other subject matter experts, and in many cases even the input of people outside the immediate team that is actually going to use it. How are other departments going to be impacted by it and engage with it, even if only tangentially? There are going to be pluses and minuses brought up in conversations from fresh pairs of eyes with different viewpoints that would not have occurred to you by yourself, and you should get as much access to those other perspectives before making a final decision.
  • What is the plan for making it work, and who is responsible for it? Rollout starts before you have made your purchase, and the person in charge of that rollout should be committed to the project and excited to see it come to fruition from the get-go. If you don’t have those pieces in place at the time of purchase, the scramble to put them in place after the fact offers a lot of opportunities for your new asset to end up failing to meet your expectations.

A Checklist for After You Buy

You’ve taken the plunge and committed time, money, staff, and other resources to your purchase. What should you be doing now to make this new tool pay off rather than fizzle out? Let’s remember change is not often welcome, but change management is all about winning hearts and minds to the new way of doing things. Here’s a checklist for making sure the capabilities you are investing in get used to their fullest:

  • Tell everyone involved what is going on and why. Again, this might seem pretty self-evident, but how many times has something unexpected and little-known been rolled out by the IT team or the maintenance staff or the accounting department without a clear explanation for why the change is happening and why it’s a good thing? How often does that roll out end up going smoothly with the end result meeting or exceeding expectations? Siloing information means one group ends up surprising others with something different, unwelcome, and unusual, and people tend to resist that in their working lives. Get everyone on the same page, be transparent, and let the people who are engaging with the change communicate what they are seeing and doing to allow them to have a sense of ownership during the adjustment period. A two-way exchange of information can go a long way to making the successful outcome something everyone cares about.
  • Support the person in charge of the rollout. It is perfectly natural that the person making the decision to buy something may not be the same person responsible for making it work on a daily basis, but there has to be some ongoing connection and commitment between the leader with the authority to set things in motion and the individual keeping it in motion. As one example, if the COO of a company buys a Quality Management System, he is in regular contact with the leaders of the QA/QC team to make sure they have everything they need until that new system is up and running in an acceptable way. The handover to the people who will be hands-on does not mean the decision-maker can be hands off until that decision proves to be a success.
  • Monitor progress based on the plan. What kind of timeline did you set for getting this new asset up and running? What were the performance metrics you wanted to see? When do you plan to determine if something is a success or a failure, and what are you doing to course-correct and troubleshoot throughout the project lifecycle to ensure a positive outcome? There is a vital period of time during any new launch where things are fluid and much is possible, but after a certain period of time things set, and they are much, much harder to change after that early time of possibilities ends. The difference between shelfware and success may depend on a clear understanding of how things are unfolding in the days and weeks after things kick off. Give your decision the attention it deserves.
  • Make a point of celebrating achievement. Once you are confident things are working as they will continue to work from now on, take the time to announce to everyone involved that the new thing is a success, that they all had a hand in that success, and that the business is going to move forward with this new capability from now on. Nothing gets buy-in like demonstrating the positive change something has brought, is bringing, and will continue to bring to the table. By declaring the end of the rollout a success, you are enshrining that new tool into everyone’s normal working life and demarcating a before and after into their understanding of what they do and how they do it. No piece of shelfware ever gets publicly hailed as a victory, and so the very act of doing so once you are confident your decision was the right one exorcises the possibility of your choice being reduced to an unread manual sitting regretfully somewhere within line of sight of your desk.

Final Thoughts

Almost all of this is common sense, and that is the point. Shelfware becomes shelfware nine times out of ten because of things that were entirely within your power to avoid just by thinking through what you are doing and taking the right steps to ensure your decision pays dividends. Everyone has regretful lapses, but they are exactly that: Lapses.

Paying attention, asking questions, thinking through the facts, and making an informed choice, then sticking to your guns until that decision is demonstrated to be the correct one is not a difficult progression, but it does require clarity and commitment. Know what you want and why you want it. Tell others and listen to what they have to say. Remain engaged until you are confident things are going to be alright.

I feel like I could write that last paragraph to end most of these columns, but it is especially true when trying to avoid the curse of shelfware.

Geoff Micks
Head of Content & Research
Executive Platforms

Geoff joined the industry events business as a conference producer in 2010 after four years working in print media. He has researched, planned, organized, run, and contributed to more than a hundred events across North America and Europe for senior leaders, with special emphasis on the energy, mining, manufacturing, maintenance, supply chain, human resources, pharmaceutical, food and beverage, finance, and sustainability sectors. As part of his role as Head of Content & Research, Geoff hosts Executive Platforms’ bluEPrint Podcast series as well as a weekly blog focusing on issues relevant to Executive Platforms’ network of business leaders.

Geoff is the author of five works of historical fiction: Inca, Zulu, Beginning, Middle, and End. The New York Times and National Public Radio have interviewed him about his writing, and he wrote and narrated an animated short for Vice Media that appeared on HBO. He has a BA Honours with High Distinction from the University of Toronto specializing in Journalism with a Double Minor in History and Classical Studies, as well as Diploma in Journalism from Centennial College.