On March 16th Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said that she will freeze funds for expanding the virtual fence (a network of cameras, ground sensors and radars) that was supposed to monitor the southern U.S. border with Mexico by 2011.  Having cost the government $672 million so far, a string of technical glitches and delays has put the project in jeopardy.

So how do I equate a $672 million cost with the acronym ROI?  I do so because in this example it means Risk of Ignoring.

You see neither the Department of Homeland Security nor the engineers at prime contractor Boeing bothered to ask the people who would actually be using the surveillance system what they wanted or how they wanted the system to work.  They ignored the very people who would best know the environmental and operational demands the system would have to meet in order to be up to the job.  Had they asked, they would have known that the standard, off-the-shelf surveillance equipment they selected would not be able to handle the heat, high winds, dust and vast distances of the southern Arizona border.  They set out to meet a need they simply did not understand.

So not knowing their market cost you and I the better part of a BILLION dollars (so far).  And I’ll bet that by and large the designers were very smart people and felt they had made sound assumptions about system’s requirements.  They may have been smart, but not smart enough.  They were obviously way too self-assured to think that they needed to speak with the ultimate users of the system.  They didn’t want to hear that their preconceived ideas might be wrong—“I know what I want to do so don’t challenge me with the facts”.

Unfortunately, the avoidance of real customer input is not atypical for many companies.  They create a set of ‘educated’ assumptions about their targeted customers, maybe bounce some ideas off a few colleagues in allied fields (but who look nothing like the target and would never be buyers) and then go design the product.  When they finally bring it to market it becomes painfully clear that they missed a key product feature, or erred in the way it’s delivered, or even that they chose the wrong user types to target.  They not only wasted money, they lost time and credibility by not meeting the revenue time line on which their business case depended.

Don’t be one of those companies.  Know your market first.

Here is the link to the 60 Minutes report on the virtual fence project:http://www.cbsnews.com/video/watch/?id=6078904n&tag=related;photovideo

If you don’t want to watch it in its entirety, the relevant portion falls between 4:45 and 8:00 minutes into the program.  You can skip ahead, but when you do so, you have to first sit through a 60-second commercial.  After that you can move around at will.

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