Image: a toy replica of the DeLorean Time Machine from the 1985 film “Back to the Future,” photo by J.D. Hancock, CC license

Company P is a firm I have worked with that helps companies to achieve ambitious goals. One of the firm’s methods is to engage in a “Merlin” exercise – so named for the legendary magician who claimed to come from the future. In this exercise, groups describe in words or illustrations the future of their company in three, five or more years, pretending that ambitious goals have already been achieved.

How did the company get there? What do processes look like? The more detail, the better. How did we get rid of all that non-value-added work? How did we double business with the same number of people?

This is the approach you need in order to define how your software investment is going to change your business results.

Ignore the systems for now. For now, don’t try to imagine your current system with great new features. That is too limiting. For this part of the project, keep “the system” generic. It can and should appear in your future plans, with specific capabilities, but not as a specific system. When you have selected specific software and become aware of its capabilities and limitations, come back and re-draw the future processes as they will be executed with that particular application.

Define what problems are fixed in the future state. The present must have some characteristics that people want to change, or else there would be no interest in a new system investment. So start with a few problem statements to articulate why you want the future to be different from the present, such as “While visiting customers, the sales team cannot access order history nor place additional sales orders, resulting in lost revenue to the company.”

Imagine. When the problems identified are resolved, what does that look like? What would it look like if, for example, the problem of having to delete and re-enter a customer order just to change it were fixed? “Service reps can retrieve from the system a customer order, go into an edit process, make any change required, including products ordered, quantities, delivery dates, method of payment, and shipping options, then save the order.”

Don’t be constrained by today’s business situation, type of system architecture, or preferences of senior management. Don’t limit your thinking to just small problems. Imagine a bigger picture, years into the future, when the company is transformed from what it is today…what would that look like?

Start with the big picture – “Sales have doubled” – and work backwards to specifics from there. “We started selling through a web portal.” The big picture is the eventual outcome you want, the specifics – a web portal, for example – will be the things around which new business processes will be formed. The new processes are what you want the new technology to enable.