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Where's My Flying Car? Wed 07 Jul 10

Unlike futurists, IT has to deliver on its possibilities.

Flying car marcus_jb1973 Massachusetts based Terrafugia, Inc. recently announced that it has successfully completed its flight test program for its "Flying Car." Terrafugia hopes to have the first delivery of its beta prototype in 2011.

While Terrafugia's endeavor may very well be successful, it won't be what we felt we were "promised" by all those earnest futurists back in the 1950s up through the dawn of the space age. I'm not knocking Terrafugia. I applaud their efforts.

It's just that we were expecting the flying cars the  Jetsons had. Instead, we may finally get many years late something less than we expected. It's the frustration that was typified by the IBM commercial from 2000 that asks, "Where are the flying cars?"

Flying cars and jet packs have become the bane of futurists.  And while World Future Society spokesman, Patrick Tucker explains that life is "okay" without flying cars and jet packs somehow we still feel cheated.

Reading Terrafugia's announcement, I couldn't help making the comparison with IT promising the equivalent of flying cars and jet packs. No wonder people often feel disappointed by what we deliver. Like Tucker, we can explain that they are okay but still they feel disappointed.

Too often we give wildly optimistic estimates of what it takes to do the task. We give the perfect world scenario without all the "ifs." If resources are available, if we agree on the specs, if there are no changes--and the big if: If we can work on it uninterrupted by other priorities (like that ever happens).

If… If… If… It all adds up.

Too often we gloss over what it really takes to make the new system work. We go into our software salesman mode and simply sell everyone on oversimplified concepts: Just click on this button and make a few selections and your answer magically appears.

Never mind all those things that we'll have to do before that ever has a chance of happening. Things like data cleanup, implementing a good data management process, rigorous testing, process changes and, of course, adequate and frequent training.

Just as Tucker explains that flying cars à la the Jetsons may never really be practical, we may find ourselves explaining why, despite delivering a good, workable solution that has real benefits, it wasn't really practical to deliver what they were expecting.

While we may understand the impracticality of flying cars as we envisioned them to be, we can't help but ask, "Why didn't you tell us this before you sold us on the concept? Why didn't you know that this wouldn't (or couldn't) work? Aren't you the experts?"

And just as we ask those questions of the futurists who predicted a life with flying cars, our end-users ask the same of us about the systems we deliver.

Yes, we have to be dreamers, and, yes, we have to sell the dream of the possibilities of what technology can do. We have to imagine things and ways to use technology that previously hadn't been possible. To use the trite cliché, we do have to think outside the box, and we have to convince our end-users to do the same.

All of these things make us similar to the futurists where we imagine the possibilities. However, working in IT is different from being a futurist in one important aspect: We have to deliver on our possibilities. We have to make them happen.

To do this, we have to work on controlling expectations. We need to outline exactly what a new system is capable of doing and, perhaps more importantly, what it won't be capable of doing.

We have to be realistic with our end-users. Make sure they understand what we can provide and, most importantly, what is expected of them. Gone are the days of "turn it over to the computer guys and let them work their magic." The "magic" of a simple spreadsheet to automate a complicated task is no longer sufficient, and the demands of what our end-users want can no longer be fulfilled by IT alone. It is a joint effort and everyone needs to understand that and be willing to do their part.

All of this requires that we be close to our end-users and have frank and realistic discussions. It requires trust and a true partnership relationship.

If we do it correctly the next time, we'll deliver a new system where folks won't be asking, "Where's my flying car?"

"Flying car" photo by marcus_jb1973/ CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

This article is also posted on Forbes.com.  Feel free to join in the discussion either on this site or at Forbes.com

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