What is a vanilla implementation?

It’s doesn’t matter what type of software you’re implementing or for what purpose, Einstein’s quote is the guide to success; finding the balance point of simple is the key to a vanilla implementation.

Software is created to perform a function, typically a function that many people do on a regular basis. The product designers spend lots of time understanding the commonalties of the function in order to create a product that follows Pareto’s Principle or the 80-20 Rule. The 80% is the same for everyone; it’s standard/vanilla and is going to work just fine for your purposes. It’s how you handle the 20% that determines how vanilla your implementation will be.

From the software application perspective, here are three rules of keeping things vanilla.

Rule #1: Extend – never replace. If the application does it, use it. If shipping capabilities exist within the software then use it. Don’t reinvent the wheel; extend from the hub to add the uniqueness you require. That’s kind of your own 80-20 rule; you can use 80% of the functionality of the code that’s there and just add on your own 20%. The total cost of ownership for the 20% is a lot less expensive than 100% of your own development and support. Plus, you’ve already paid for the capability (and continue to pay support) so you certainly don’t want to pay twice! The question to ask in regard to Rule #1: Why doesn’t the standard capability work for my company? 99 times out of 100, there is just one specific situation where you need something a little bit different.

Rule #2: Extend – never change. Never modify standard application code or data structures. I have always told my teams: “Tell me the 25 other ways you’ve considered before saying you have to modify standard application code”. Almost every software manufacturer provides a method to extend the functional capabilities of their package. You may need to do some unique calculation or capture some additional data. Use the hooks provided to interrupt the flow of the process, do what you need to do, then come right back in where you left off in the application flow. This is what allows you to continue to upgrade as new versions of the software are released. In my career (many, many moons), there have only been two times when a standard code change was required. And believe me – everyone who ever worked with that section of the application knew about it and how to deal with it, talk about documentation!

Rule #3: Data drives flexibility and scalability. Every software application is configured to distinguish Company A from Company B. The data values that drive the function you are automating is what makes your company yours and allows you to extend the functionality to meet the unique needs of your organization. For example, imagine you are a company that provides financing directly to some of your best customers. Only 1% of the time is this option selected. By creating a unique value, “Financed” associated to the quote and order, you can create a hook when that value appears to capture additional data and determine differentiated pricing, for instance. You don’t change the way quotes and orders are entered or processed, you just add to it and perhaps do some overrides. If you decide later you’re not going to do that anymore or do it in a different way, then inactivate the “Financed” value or add a new value to drive behavior differently. You’ve handled the 1% and left the 99% as business as usual: vanilla.

If you follow these three rules you use what is there and have not modified the code or data structures as provided by the software manufacturer; you have a vanilla implementation. You added your 20% of uniqueness in a way that maintains the integrity of the supplied software. The ease of doing this varies based on the tools associated with the specific software application; some suppliers force the behavior, with others you have to be more diligent.

Of course, there is a bit more to it than that. How you implement in a vanilla fashion is one thing, the bigger measure of the “vanilla-ness” of your implementation is what you choose to put into the 20%. As I described in the rules, this is a question of uniqueness and value; unless there is something to differentiate you from your competitors, why spend the money? How do you know what is truly unique and differentiating about your company; where is the balance point for simple as described by Einstein? Software can do anything you can imagine but you probably can’t afford for it to do everything.  I always like to say “Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should”.

Start by understanding the best practices for the function and in your industry (the 80%) and then state specifically (in writing) what is really special about your company in these areas (the 20%). Be aware if anyone says, “We’ve always done this, we have to have it!” For every unique factor, describe how this differentiates you from your competitors and what benefits are derived. Don’t forget about reporting; you will look at your data differently from others and you may need to feed your business intelligence applications for a more holistic look. Based on this, have a rating and ranking exercise performed by the program sponsors and executive leadership. This sets you up to find the balance point of simple for your implementation.

Vanilla now becomes a budget decision. Figure costs for environments, configuration, testing and change management, that’s your baseline. Determine rough estimates for the ranked list (only go as far as you think necessary). From there you can determine the cut line based on the budget for the program (or adjust your budget accordingly). Voila, vanilla!

There are three simple rules to follow for a vanilla implementation: never replace, never change and drive with data. The harder part is the choice of where to differentiate your implementation and your company. Vanilla is permission to play; the balance of simple is winning.

© Ellen Terwilliger 2012

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