‘The art of the possible’

We hear and use this phrase a fair bit when we first meet with our clients. Most are seeking to transform their business in some way and our role is to help them achieve some or all of that through reviewing their existing and/or selecting new business systems. Whilst we don’t write the code or even implement solutions, we do offer the best independent advice based on our extensive business transformation experience going right back to 1997.

It’s often the case in our introductory call or first meeting with a potential client; when asked what they are hoping to gain from updating or replacing their core ERP or CRM system, they either struggle to articulate this or are dreaming of perfection.

At this point, we begin to talk about needing to understand and then focus on the “art of the possible”.

Let me explain what we mean by that.

The origins of the phrase go a long way back – to Otto von Bismarck in the 19th Century, in fact. Quite when, as the then Chancellor of Germany, he said this, I’m not sure, but his take was “Politics is the art of the possible, the attainable — the art of the next best”.

Why would anyone try to aim too high or settle for next best – well a couple of examples spring to mind from our client base.


Client A

Whilst a delight to work with, the project stakeholders freely admitted that since they had been in the business for some time (some as founders), they knew little of the capabilities of modern systems, in their case Finance. As with many other of our clients, the “accounts” system first installed by their accountants had become less than fit for purpose, and their team had adopted manual and paper-based workarounds.

These combined to create a real blocker to business growth.

The challenge they identified, when prompted, was they found it difficult to define or articulate what they needed or expected from a system, and so, by default, believed they should aim for the biggest and best, but within a limited budget.


Client B

As a manufacturer, this client were experts at what they did and had some very clever and innovative operational staff. Whilst their current ERP solution covered most of what they needed, particularly in terms of materials planning and production scheduling, their reporting and use of business intelligence was falling behind.

Some key users had seen more modern systems before they joined the business and so knew more about “the art of the possible” than many colleagues.

A different challenge for us – how to embrace this knowledge but still ensure the real priorities for the business were satisfied ahead of spending a great deal of time and effort creating and polishing dashboards.


In contrast to these examples, one of our most successful recent projects, as measured against budget, timescales and achievement of a successful transition to a new ERP system, was very focussed on what was really needed and, indeed, possible for day one running. Four simple objectives were defined early on by the CEO and these became the mantra at all solution design and project steering committee meetings.

If something didn’t help meet at least one of those four aims, then it was seen as aiming for perfection and consequently moved to the Phase 2 list.

Looking at this challenge from a different angle, solution vendors often make the mistake of trying too hard to demonstrate the breadth and depth of their systems and, hence, lose focus and even bewilder the clients during demos.

Gradient’s “Spec and Select” process for new systems is very clear – we have a mix of open and closed questions when it comes to requirements.  When we need to know the art of the possible, we will be more open and want a vendor to give us the full picture. Then we can better agree with our client what is in and out of scope for Phase 1. When we just want to know if a solution can cover a very specific functional need, then we ask for a Yes or No (despite this, yesterday, a vendor sent me a 200-word answer!).

I will close by quoting another Statesman, of a slightly more recent era, Winston Churchill, who said: “Perfection is the enemy of progress”.

It’s all about agreeing on what you are trying to achieve, then being realistic in terms of your timescales, budgets and available resources and defining a clear scope for a new system. It is far better to get to your go-live with a solution that meets your essential “must-have” needs than to have a protracted and expensive project that means your users lose interest and the return on your investment is delayed.

Gradient Transforming have followed an ‘art of the possible’ approach with many clients since we started, and we believe it’s really key to successful business transformation.

Give us a call or contact us if you want to understand what’s possible for you and your business.