Having been buried in a couple of customer projects for the past few weeks, yesterday morning the sun was shining and I finally had time to ride one of the horses… and naturally spotted some similarities between riding and the projects…

Both projects involved reviewing and updating existing information systems – one focused more on content management, one focused on collaboration, both introducing new working methods into the organisation. And introducing new methods means introducing change.

Project number 3 – Harry, the horse I was riding – shares this last point. Harry has been rested for over 6 months and is unfit with a thick winter coat and not much muscle – looks more like a seaside donkey than the show jumper pictured on my Contacts page. This was our first session together, and the rider’s condition is not much better than the horse, with the exception of the hairy coat 🙂 Some serious change is required.

When you bring a competition horse back into work after a period of rest, you go through three initial steps:

    • assess the current condition of the horse: fitness, muscle tone, suppleness


  • estimate time to first competition (how much work is required before we’ll be ready for our first event)



  • identify target competition (the first ‘serious’ event we want to aim for)



1. Assess current condition:

The only way to do this is to get on and ride, discover what works and what doesn’t. Despite the long rest, Harry went better than expected. Completely unfit, (clipping scheduled for the weekend, goodbye hairy coat), muscle tone not great but not bad, and suppleness is still there (thanks to his breeding – part Lusitano, the breed of horse traditionally used in Spanish bull fights and they are naturally very agile)

2. Estimate time to first competition

Thanks to his suppleness, we’ll get to a competition earlier than with other horses as long as we do some basic fitness and muscle work. Provided he’s ridden regularly, we’ll be ready to start competing in about 4 weeks (normally it would be 6 – 8 weeks)

3. Identify target competition

Here in the UK, we have a Winter National Championships held in April, and he would be ready by then… unfortunately, qualifiers run from October through to 2nd week in March. I should have started 6 weeks ago because we aren’t going to be ready in time for the last round of qualifiers. In a word – tough. The Winter champs are out, so we’ll focus on preparing for the Summer season. The first major outdoor show we usually go to is Leicester County show, held over May Bank Holiday, so that’s our target. Our stretch target will be the Royal Windsor Horse Show, held 2 weeks later with an annual championship class that we will be eligible for this year… and it’s held in Queenie’s back garden, – it’s a cool show to be at. Our ‘quick win’ target will be to compete in the warm-up classes at the Winter champs, that don’t require pre-qualification.

And there’s a fourth step that spans all three – me. As the rider, I also have to commit to change – I’m not much use to Harry if I’m unfit and slopping about the saddle like a sack of potatoes, and I’ve got to be prepared to put in the time and effort riding him – he won’t put his own saddle on and exercise himself in the arena.

So what does all that have to do with I.T. projects? … 🙂

1. Assess current system

Too often, organisations fail to assess what they’ve already got before implementing new systems. I highlighted this in ‘why is KM so difficult?‘. You need to know what you are working with – existing solutions should be examined and a decision made regarding their role in the new system. Understand what those existing solutions actually do – what works and what doesn’t. And don’t guess, don’t make assumptions – find out for real (example: I.T. dept “our people just use Office for basic stuff, word processing and the like”, Accountant: “yup, we pretty much run the business off these 14 spreadsheets…”, Me (on investigation) “you mean, those 14 spreadsheets linked to 100+ other spreadsheets and a handful of databases?”)

Just like with horses, you can’t build an accurate plan if you don’t truly know your starting point.

2. Estimate time to first milestone

How long will it take to provide something (anything) for the business to try out? I often get strange looks from I.T folk when I ask this one. The usual plan is to spend an inordinate amount of time designing the taxonomy, process and other gumpf, and then launch the perfect, tightly controlled, system upon the end-users, perhaps with a small managed pilot along the way. And wonder why it gets ignored as people carry on doing their work as normal…

If there’s one thing I’ve learned over the years with knowledge-based systems, they rarely get used the way you anticipated. You need to test them live, in their real working environment, and then tweak based on the results. With horses, you don’t really know how well the training plan is going until you’ve completed your first competition. Sure, you can hire out an arena and school round a set of show jumps, but that’s just a pilot test. The first competition is the real milestone – seeing how we perform under show conditions. The same is true for many I.T. projects – the sooner you get a live test, the better. A pilot is just a practice run, it’s not real.

3. Identify the target achievement

Most I.T. projects have an end goal, a vision to be achieved (and hopefully a benefits case to prove some return on investment). That’s all fine and dandy, but knowledge-based projects are not 5-minute affairs. They take time to bed-in and become a seamless part of the organisation. A target set 2 years in the distance will seem a long way away at the start of the project. I’ve got an idea where I want Harry to be competing in 2 years time, but to get there I need to focus on the here and now. The same can apply to I.T. projects – identify a strong short-term target to focus your efforts and demonstrate significant value to the business at the earliest possible opportunity. But don’t get all giddy and excited about ‘ideal’ targets. Be tough, focus on what can be done, not what you’d like to do. (Just like I have to accept I’ve left it too late to qualify for this year’s Winter champs.)

Once you’ve got your first big target and your initial milestone, look for the quick-wins – goals that can be achieved along the journey that serve as regular check points that the strategy is on track. Quick wins help maintain momentum and commitment to the changes being introduced – they also provide instant feedback that can help adjust the plan if needed.

And as for that fourth step – I.T. projects cannot be successful on their own, they need the organisation to be fully committed to the change being introduced. Without support across the organisation, any new knowledge-based system is at high risk of failure. Just like with horses – whilst it is the horse that has to do the jumping, the rider has to commit to presenting the horse at the right jump, at the right pace, and at the right time. It’s a partnership.

See, I keep telling people that working with I.T is just like working with horses 🙂

…and then it all goes horribly wrong

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Join the conversation! 2 Comments

  1. You build a good case for working together for win-win results and I loved the examples you gave. That could have been another angle for the "Horse Whisterer" to consider… but adds to my thinking about how I join hands with others to add value to the work!

  2. Thanks. I find horses to be great levellers and a useful reality check. They can't talk with us, but that doesn't stop them from communicating 🙂

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