Everyone knows that using the right tool is essential to doing a good job. Trying to hammer a nail in with a screwdriver is an exercise in frustration, and trying to tighten a screw with a hammer isn’t going to end well either! Whoever has the right tool is going to do a better job.

The same thing is true with software. Using the right software for your business is just like picking the right tool. The right software can make it easier for you and your team to do the right thing, whether that’s follow up on customer complaints, deliver the right end product to the right customer or make sure you remember to order the thank beers you promised your team for last week’s hard work. With the right software, all your tasks become easier, more cost effective and probably more fun too. But to pick the wrong software when your competitors pick the right software is to let them have then an unfair advantage, and that’s never a good idea.

So how do you make sure you make the right choices, and make sure you have better business software than your competitors?

  1. Understand your work
    All the work you do can be broken down into a series of sequential steps, sometimes called a workflow. The steps that whoever does the work has to follow. It’s important to understand these – what are they and how long do they take. It’s important to remember that the people actually doing the work will always understand them better than any analyst can do. So make sure you speak with the people who do the work, and preferably have at least one of them working with you to make your software choice.
  2. Find software to improve one step of your workflow
    The temptation is to try and build software to help with every step of your workflow, but that’s a mistake. It makes it hard to work out what works well and what works poorly, as well as adding a lot of complexity in finding (or creating) software that can do the the entire workflow.

    Instead pick just one step of your workflow and use software to make that faster/better. The step you pick should be the one you think its most amenable to being done better by a computer. There are some tasks computers can do many times better or faster than a human, while other tasks computers will never be able to do very well. No computer is ever going to make an upset customer feel better. Computers are really good at tasks that involve repetition, accuracy, or large amounts of data.The step you pick to improve is closely related to which tool you choose.

    You can use an off the shelf program like a spreadsheet, or a custom written piece of software. Doing this well requires a good understanding of what’s possible with technology. If in doubt get advice from a technology expert who can help you figure out what’s easy, whats possible, and whats impossible
  3. Wait and review the results
    Once you software is doing, or at least augmenting, one step of your workflow, wait a bit and measure how well the entire workflow is working. A common mistake is to just measure whether or not that one step is working better or not. Tempting as that might be, I don’t think it’s something you should measure. It doesn’t matter if one step is working better if the whole system is working worse, and sometimes that happens.

    If you improve one step in your workflow that affects several other steps. This happens because the steps connected with each other and are not independent. Sometimes those effects are beneficial to the entire system, and sometimes they are not. The quickest way to find out is to make a change and watch the result. If the result is negative you can either undo it, or tackle another step in your workflow, if you think fixing that will be better.
  4. Rinse, repeat and simplify
    You can repeat the steps above as many times as you like. As you do you will find that the complexity of your software begins to grow. This is probably because you are using a different software tool for each step in your workflow.

    Every so often it’s worth getting all your team together and reviewing the benefits in your workflow, and comparing them to the complexity of your software. Maybe using the same tool for every step makes some of the tasks a bit harder, but the time saved switching software makes up for it. As a general guideline, simpler software is better. As Einstein said “Make things as simple as possible, but not simpler”
  5. Review regularly
    Now you have software working for you, you need to keep an eye on it. It’s a frustrating fact of business that things change. Customers want new things and you need to change the work you do. So you can’t get away with not changing your software. Keep following the process above and allow your software to evolve over time. If you stop, your system will get out of date, and will start to hold you back rather than helping you lead the pack.