Why Watching "Lost" Is Like Managing ERP

You've got your bewildering subplots (confusing vendor roadmaps), spectacular crashes (ERP project failures), island archetypes (penny-pinching CFOs) and smoke monsters (scary upgrades). Need we say more?

Since the fall of 2004, I've invested a lot of time, given way too much thought to, and probably annoyed plenty of people over all things Lost. Like a crazy, unpredictable friend in your life, the show has consumed me, frustrated me, surprised me, exasperated me and kept me on my toes.

Which is very similar to another part of my life: My fascination with the coverage of ERP systems and enterprise software for CIO.com. So in honor of Lost (the final season kicked off Tuesday), here's how watching the show is just like managing ERP systems. (Warning: If you haven't watched through season 5, there might be some spoilers in here.)

Lost and ERP

I'm on Their Side—For Now

It's tough to know whose side everyone's really on when watching Lost, especially as frequent flashbacks, flashforwards and jarring time travel occurs. In the "Exploring the Devil's Triangle" blog, as promulgated by industry consultant Michael Krigsman, he describes the dysfunctional relationships among software vendors, system integrators and the customers' teams that all-too-often propel many ERP projects toward failure. There's a real parallel to this in the Lost universe, and the three people encompassing the Devil's Triangle would be: the ageless Richard Alpert, the untrustworthy Ben Linus and mythical John Locke.

The "Smoke" Monster Always Wreaks Havoc

"What the hell was that?" ask flummoxed and terrified island inhabitants upon seeing the smoky, worm-like creature that has perplexed Lost viewers for years. The beast comes and goes without warning—just like those unexpected integration and customization headaches that terrorize ERP implementation projects. When will they strike? "No idea, Hoss," one can imagine a smart-mouthed Sawyer saying.

Those Numbers!!

Lost's vexing number set that won't go away: 4 8 15 16 23 42.

ERP's vexing number that won't go away: 22%. Archetypes

Just as you can always count on Hurley to say "Dude" and Desmond to say "Brotha," Ben to lie to everyone, and Kate to do the opposite of what she should do, there are several archetypes that do and say the same types of things when dealing with ERP systems. There's the "Ostrich" executive, the CFO "Penny Pincher," the dangerous Power User and many more akin to our Lost archetypes, as outlined in Infoworld.com's IT's Greatest Enemies.

The Jungle Is One Scary Place

Many of the mysterious "Island" inhabitants spend long periods of time in the jungle—hearing whispers from dead friends, running from the smoke monster and polar bears, and typically trying not to get shot by the "Others." A new report provides an analogous situation for the ERP world: "Welcome to the Jungle: Lessons from ERP Software Implementation Failures," by Panorama Consulting Group. What's life like in the ERP Jungle? Let's see: 65 percent of enterprise software implementations fail, according to Panorama research. "Dude, that's really bad," Hurley would most likely say regarding those results.

Whom to Trust? No One, Apparently

It seems like not an episode goes by when some Oceanic 815 crash survivor will advise another survivor or "Other" or Dharma Initiative worker to "never trust a word [insert name here] says." When dealing with ERP vendors, the same sentiment can occasionally be observed when it comes to the viability of future product roadmaps, frequency of acquisitions or truthfulness of entrenched competitors.

The Hero Complex

John Locke is the savior of the Lost universe. Next episode he's not. Wait, he's the anointed one yet again. No, this week he's dead. Wait, he's alive again! Every ERP implementation has its share of heroes and saviors who rescue projects from the brink of failure. Who's your John Locke?

The Ramifications of the "Random" Appearance

You know something is up when these seemingly "in the background" crash survivors suddenly become important and speak a few lines in an episode. It's almost certain that they're going to be killed off very, very soon. The same thing happens with ERP projects: A random senior exec starts appearing at project meetings (the "Ostrich"), asking questions that should have been asked long ago, and making his status and his needs known to everyone. The result: The project changes drastically (and fails) or gets killed outright. Either way, somebody's getting knocked off.

We Have to Go Back!!

On Lost, the six "survivors" of the Oceanic 815 crash inexplicably go back to the Island (because that's what the Island wants!!). For those companies that have invested millions in their ERP systems, finally solved integration challenges and actually gotten users to use the application suite, then comes the dreaded, expensive and taxing upgrade decision—which, for many companies, takes them right back to all the pain and suffering of the past. Welcome back to the ERP Island!

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