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The Politics of Upgrades

Those of us who are technology experts usually can’t wait to get our hands on the shiny new versions our vendors put out every couple of years. As a BusinessObjects specialist, I always keep my ear to the floor to try and see what is coming up around the bend. (As a quick side note, being an ASUG member and participating in Influence Councils are the BEST way to get the inside scoop). But how do you convince the powers-that-be that its time to upgrade? When I first thought about writing up this topic, I was thinking specifically about BusinessObjects, but I think it translates pretty well to most major software system upgrades. The political aspects of a major version upgrade are usually much more difficult to surmount than the technical ones. At least for the technical side you can always lean on SAP Support or a qualified Partner, right?


Some Crucial Role Models

In order to be successful at “selling” an upgrade, I have found you have to role play a little bit. Just being the technical expert is seldom enough. You have to part Technical Expert, part Business Analyst, part Psychologist, part Lawyer, and, as distasteful as it sounds, part Candidate running for Public Office.

Technical Expert

I don’t think this role really needs much explanation. You have to be the one who understands exactly what it is you are getting with this upgrade. It is critical that you can define what you are going to be gaining by going through the upgrade. You need to be able to describe to your leadership what the upgrade means in terms of infrastructure (servers, network, middleware), cost (additional hardware or license fees, training for new features), time, resources (the human kind), effort (easy or hard… almost always the latter, however), and the all important one: RISK. Be prepared for the onslaught of questions regarding the new version maturity, stability, benchmarking and all those other things managers love to ask. They are comfortable where they are, what is in place now works and they at least moderately trust it’s stability and availability. You have to know the product inside and out. If you are able, install a version on a ‘sandbox’ server for yourself to play around with, learn on, and break. Use your peer networks to ask questions (hint: SCN, ASUG!) and find out what issues others are having. Be on the top of your game when you pitch the upgrade to your management team.

Business Analyst

Now I’m not very good at this in my present job. We sell financial services, and I can’t even pretend to be an accountant, stock broker, or financial advisor. So I make sure that I’m on friendly terms with our Business Analysts. I view this relationship as key. So if you can’t do this yourself, solicit come help. But the BA role required for an upgrade is to sit down and document all of these new features that you just educated yourself on, and map each one directly to a Business Need. By showing how each of these new features will directly benefit your end-users, you are loading very powerful ammo into your arsenal. It’s very difficult for a manager to keep saying “No” when they can see benefits in business terms (and not technical jargon they may or may not understand). Take the product of this analysis and put it together in some sort of Executive Summary, because managers don’t have time to read pages and pages of documentation. Put your “heavy hitters” on top to grab their attention, and list your top 10 key features and benefits. For some extra credit, put a high-level overview of what resources (people and infrastructure) you will need for the upgrade, and a very high-level project plan of how you intend to accomplish it.


It is important not to discount the human factor in a Technology project like an Upgrade. Remember that it is a basic human instinct to fear and resist change. This is where it’s very helpful for you to have a “sandbox” environment live so you can show it to people and prove that it does not bite and is easy to use.  Grant them access to the environment (read only) and let them play around and get used to it. It is harder to fear something once you understand what it is and what it does, and more importantly how it will make you work better, faster, and smarter.


The Lawyer part can be exhausting. While this part is a little redundant from what I was describing in the Technical Expert part, I think it is a bit more detailed. So while you’re playing lawyer, you have to build your case, catalog your evidence, interview your witnesses, and prepare to go to trial. You can pretty safely assume that you will be playing the Defense Attorney, and your management team will be the Prosecutor. It is vital for you to be completely prepared for your “trial”. If the “Judge” asks you a question, you need to have evidence to support your claim. Documentation from the software vendor, testimony from an expert that has already been through the upgrade, web site links, performance metrics, etc. All of these things should be at your disposal when you go to pitch the upgrade. The more prepared you are, the more competent you look to management, the harder it is to say “No”.

Candidate Running for Public Office

Like every successful candidate, the electorate needs to know your face and know what you stand for. It helps to get out there and “press the flesh” whenever possible. You need to promote your agenda at every possible opportunity without being overly obnoxious about it. Some might call this role “The Squeaky Wheel”. I find this to be one of the more enjoyable roles in an upgrade pitch because it allows me a modicum of snarky-ness in the workplace.  While discussing current issues, problems, or challenges I always make a habit of pointing out that this issue/problem/challenge would be fixed/addressed/appeased in the new version. Those are golden moments when you can hammer away at your goal for the upgrade. “You want to do ABC? Well we can’t do that today. But that is supported in the Upgrade! ” Balance is needed here, however. Like I mentioned earlier, it’s easy to get obnoxious about this, constantly rubbing the current shortcomings in their face. It is important not to do that too forcefully, or you’ll turn your audience off. You want to draw their attention to these opportunities the upgrade presents at every possible moment without making them feel stupid. This will generate grass-roots support for the upgrade. If you can get enough Developers talking about it, wanting it, NEEDING it, their Development Managers are going to hear about it. If enough Tier 1 Support Technicians talk about it, want it, and NEED it, the Technical Operations manager is going to hear about it. See how easily this becomes like a political campaign? Except there is usually just one or two voters in this, whoever the decision-maker in your company might be. But the more voices you can get to repeat the message, the harder it is to say “No”.

The Pitch

I have found that it is important to have a “Pitch Meeting” with your Decision Maker(s). I book a meeting room, prepare a couple of PowerPoint Slides, print out my Executive Summary (managers like paper they can take away; as un-environmental as that seems).  Send out the invites, and make sure you get the Decision Maker(s) to accept your invitation. Sometimes that takes a quick phone call or explanatory e-mail. Make sure they know that this meeting is for them, and their attendance is required. If the time doesn’t work for them, ask them for one that does. Then a day or two before the big Pitch, I like to rehearse. I’ll get some of the other key “witnesses” that are going to be my support during the event into a meeting room, and we’ll go over what we intend to present. This gives us a chance to hash out any problem areas as a group, try to anticipate any tough questions, and generally get us all on the same page. Remember, a unified voice is important! Show your decision makers that you have done your homework, show them the real benefits of the upgrade, how long it will take, and all of the steps you’ve taken to minimize the risk.

Now how on Earth can someone still say “No”?


I’m certainly not the authority in getting upgrades approved. I am have been going through this exercise for almost 2 years now, and I have yet to get a definite “Yes” from my decision maker. At least I’m not getting a “No” anymore, now I’m stuck at “Okay, but I don’t know when we can fit this into the schedule”. For now, I’ll take it, while I continue to fill all these roles and keep striving for that “YES”!

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  • With the #BITIteam hammer, of course. 

    I find, as droll as it is, that just writing everything up in a professional looking document (that no one will actually, you know, read) helps more than anything.  As you point out, paper makes people feel comfortable.

  • Good analogies in this piece, I enjoyed it. I tend to think of the “candidate for office” role instead as a project champion. Either description needs someone in the role who is enthusiastic about the upgrade and is eager to talk about it. As you note, it’s a very important piece to understand.
  • And when it comes to change management roles where do the business process practitioners sit in your realm?  Just today I read an article by Paul Harmon of BP Trends who makes the point that back in the sixties, those engaged in business process improvements were actually engaged (like psychologists) in the business of “fixing” employee performance.  According to Harmon, IT was relegated in those days to “back office” so IT had little part in process improvement and change and there wasn’t much technological upgrading.  Fast forward to the teens of the 21st century. What we now need (says Harmon) is “a different mindset from the mindset that many Business Analysts have today – a broader focus that embraces both the human and the software elements that make up large scale processes, that embraces business management, goals and strategies, as well as measurement theory and business innovation. I expect, as in the past, that process practitioners will come from many different areas of the organization. But, I will be very surprised if the Business Analyst community doesn’t expand its role to embrace all of the business process concerns within the organization. “
    It looks like the new Business Analysts ( Harmon actually cites SAP and says the BPXers) are those that combine the role of Psychologists, Business Analyst, Technical Expert, and what you Greg call Candidate for Public office (but I’ll call evangelist if you please 🙂 ). I think all these are essential for upgrades and change to happen and there is a pretty clear correlation.
    To your excellent “role list” I’d add an additonal role in both upgrade and process change scenario and that is educator/trainer/mentor (essential even before the upgrade or process change is initiated)
    Great topic, great blog piece, Greg!
    I think what comes across is that the technical upgrade is just one component of a change process/cycle.  What really drives upgrades are business needs.
  • …and when you are asked about RISK, always have a PowerPoint slide that discusses the RISK of FAILING to EVERGREEN by staying on an older platform that the company is “comfortable with” – but that has….

    A.) Old hardware that is not supported (and getting creaky).
    B.) Old software that is nearing end of Patch-Support (or is past it).
    C.) Old software that may not be compatible with the other software standards that are “evolving” within the company (eg. Browser, OS, etc).
    D.) Older security models that do not meet current Government or Industry “Compliance” standards.

    There is a RISK with any upgrade…but there is also a RISK in doing “nothing”…

    • I definitely agree with you Mark. I also always warn about what I call “patch creep” which invariably gets into any system.
      By Patch Creep I mean things like operating system patches, middleware patches, even smaller things like client machines having java on auto-update, web browser patches and upgrades. All of these things “creep” into your enterprise and can cause issues over time, especially when they are all staying somewhat current and your main application is not. Eventually they will become incompatible with one another.

      It’s also important not to discount the end-users perceptions. We all see things progress with our home computers and to a lesser extent our work computers. People want to use things they get used to. Take Web 2.0 functionality. People expect these types of features now that old, stale versions of software just can’t provide. 

  • Hi Greg,
    For those of us who are stuck between trying to adopt change (Windows n, anyone) and trying to foster change (ECC 6, anyone?) you’ve done a great job of identifying the people/roles that need to be played.  And if necessary, I will resort to kissing babies and puppies.