Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 3, Issue 10;   March 12, 2003: Some Costs of COTS

Some Costs of COTS

by

As a way of managing risk, we sometimes steer our organizations towards commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) components, methodologies, designs, and processes. But to gain a competitive edge, we need creative differentiation.

By the time Jane arrived, Dave and Judith had already been over the question several times. A little out of breath, Jane sat down, sipped some of her famously strong coffee from the mug she always carried, and said, "So, what do you think?"

Judith began, "It comes down to Quasar or Elise. Quasar has a long list of big clients. Clearly they can do the work — they've done it before. On the other hand, Elise and her team have the know-how, and some clever ideas. And from their work on Marigold they know the business and everyone involved."

Commercial off-the-shelf (COTS)
solutions are more likely to work,
but custom solutions are
more likely to give you the edge
Jane sipped. "Tough choice."

Dave wondered if Jane ever slept. "Elise's proposal intrigues me," he said. "It could be the key to same-day approval. I just don't know if they can do it. Quasar has done it."

"Not same-day approval, they haven't," Judith said. "They've done big systems successfully, I'm convinced. But we need same-day approval."

Jane, Dave, and Judith are making a choice between a low risk, tried-and-true approach with little innovation, and a higher-risk, innovative approach that could provide competitive differentiation. Something similar is happening right now in hundreds of organizations around the world. It's always a difficult choice.

Commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) solutions are more likely to work, but they're less likely to give you the edge. Here are some thoughts to prepare you for the day when your turn comes to make this choice.

Compliance has a downside
An organization that overvalues compliance by its employees risks inhibiting their ability to innovate. Find a way to communicate to employees that compliance is important in some areas, and that creative differentiation is important in others. Off-the-shelf employees make an off-the-shelf organization.
You aren't buying a toaster
A toasterThe term COTS is misleading — it suggests near-zero risk, as if the project were a toaster. There are no guarantees in complex projects. If "…you want a guarantee, buy a toaster." [Eastwood 1990]
Your situation is one-of-a-kind
Every product, service, and organization is unique. Their uniqueness creates risk. Using a vendor or technology that has been successful elsewhere isn't a mitigation strategy for the risks that arise from uniqueness.
To run ahead of the herd, you must leave the herd behind
To gain a competitive edge, you must do something different, something unique. Nobody ever got ahead by doing what everyone else was already doing.
Make uniqueness a strategy
Processes that won't differentiate your organization are candidates for COTS. But if you want to differentiate your organization, you'll have to do something different. Focus on processes that matter in a customer-visible way.

Customer expectations are rising continuously. What delights customers now will soon become the bare minimum. COTS helps you catch up when you're behind, but it can't put you in the lead. Go to top Top  Next issue: Games for Meetings: III  Next Issue

[Eastwood 1990]
Order from AmazonNick Pulovski (character played by Clint Eastwood) in The Rookie. Dir. Clint Eastwood. Clint Eastwood, Charlie Sheen. 1990. Order from Amazon.com.
Back

Rick BrennerThe article you've been reading is an archived issue of Point Lookout, my weekly newsletter. I've been publishing it since January, 2001, free to all subscribers, over the Web, and via RSS. You can help keep it free by donating either as an individual or as an organization. You'll receive in return my sincere thanks — and the comfort of knowing that you've helped to propagate insights and perspectives that can help make our workplaces a little more human-friendly. More

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenmmKKuHQTnHHfkNyzner@ChacprcgLybVxcwAjYGKoCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.

About Point Lookout

Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.

Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive of past issues. Subscribe for free.

Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout, as an individual or as an organization.

Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in, anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.

Related articles

More articles on Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness:

A bookshelfSmart Bookshelves
If you like to browse in bookstores, you probably know the thrill of new ideas and new perspectives. When I find a book worth reading, I want to own it, and that's how it gets to my shelf. Here are some tips to help you read more of what you really want to read.
A vernier caliperGetting Around Hawthorne
The Hawthorne Effect appears when we measure employee attitudes or behavior — when people know they're being measured, they modify their behavior. How can we measure attitudes with a minimum of distortion from the Hawthorne Effect?
A cup of coffeeHelp for Asking for Help
When we ask for help, from peers or from those with organizational power, we have some choices. How we go about it can determine whether we get the help we need, in time for the help to help.
Well-wishers greet physicist Stephen Hawking (in wheelchair) at the Kennedy Space Center Shuttle Landing FacilityLogically Illogical
Discussions in meetings and in written media can get long and complex. When a chain of reasoning gets long enough, we sometimes make fundamental errors of logic, especially when we're under time pressure. Here are just a few.
Two F-22A raptors line up for refuelingSymbolic Self-Completion and Projects
The theory of symbolic self-completion holds that to define themselves, humans sometimes assert indicators of achievement that either they do not have, or that do not mean what they seem to mean. This behavior has consequences for managing project-oriented organizations.

See also Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

Office equipment — or is it office toys?Coming July 25: Exploiting Functional Fixedness: II
A cognitive bias called functional fixedness causes difficulty in recognizing new uses for familiar things. It also makes for difficulty in recognizing devious uses of everyday behaviors. Here's Part II of a catalog of deviousness based on functional fixedness. Available here and by RSS on July 25.
Tim Murphy, official photo for the 112th CongressAnd on August 1: Strategies of Verbal Abusers
Verbal abuse at work has special properties, because it takes place in an environment in which verbal abuse is supposedly proscribed. Yet verbal abuse does happen at work. Here are three strategies abusers rely on to avoid disciplinary action. Available here and by RSS on August 1.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenLthPkrrNeqzMTDWGner@ChacDloHaYKMmeVmSmBDoCanyon.com or (650) 787-6475, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.

Get the ebook!

Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:

Reprinting this article

Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info

Public seminars

The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
Many The Power Affect: How We Express Personal Powerpeople who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at Twitter, or share a tweet Follow me at Google+ or share a post Subscribe to RSS feeds Subscribe to RSS feeds
The message of Point Lookout is unique. Help get the message out. Please donate to help keep Point Lookout available for free to everyone.
Technical Debt for Policymakers BlogMy blog, Technical Debt for Policymakers, offers resources, insights, and conversations of interest to policymakers who are concerned with managing technical debt within their organizations. Get the millstone of technical debt off the neck of your organization!
52 Tips for Leaders of Project-Oriented OrganizationsAre your project teams plagued by turnover, burnout, and high defect rates? Turn your culture around.
Go For It: Sometimes It's Easier If You RunBad boss, long commute, troubling ethical questions, hateful colleague? Learn what we can do when we love the work but not the job.
Reader Comments About My Newsletter
A sampling:
  • Your stuff is brilliant! Thank you!
  • You and Scott Adams both secretly work here, right?
  • I really enjoy my weekly newsletters. I appreciate the quick read.
  • A sort of Dr. Phil for Management!
  • …extremely accurate, inspiring and applicable to day-to-day … invaluable.
  • More
101 Tips for Managing ConflictFed up with tense, explosive meetings? Are you the target of a bully? Learn how to make peace with conflict.
Ebooks, booklets and tip books on project management, conflict, writing email, effective meetings and more.
Comprehensive collection of all e-books and e-bookletsSave a bundle and even more important save time! Order the Combo Package and download all ebooks and tips books at once.