4 Critical Questions to Ask Before Starting an AI Project

More businesses are taking on AI projects, but many still aren’t finding success. Here’s what you need to know before taking on your first artificial intelligence project.

Mark Runyon, Director of Consulting, Improving

October 30, 2020

4 Min Read
Image: sdecoret - stock.adobe.com

If it feels like everyone is implementing artificial intelligence, it’s largely because they are. AI projects are poised to double this year with 40% of companies deploying AI by the end of 2020 according to Gartner. Statistics like these can create pressure on CIOs as their executive team wonders why we aren’t innovating in this space.

Underneath all the optimism and hype around artificial intelligence lies a harsh truth. A study by MIT-Sloan/BCG found 65% of companies reported seeing no value from their AI projects. With value being elusive for so many, how can we beat the odds to deliver success for our business? Let’s look at four critical questions you need to ask before taking on your first artificial intelligence project 

1. Where can AI provide a quick win?

People hear every day how artificial intelligence is revolutionizing business. While that’s true, starting a revolution shouldn’t be the goal of your first AI project. Instead, target a small project that can deliver a quick win. Success breeds confidence and can set you on a path for continued success.

With that first project, you are looking to cut your teeth by gaining knowledge and showing how AI can make an impact on your business. Choose a project with visibility at the highest levels of the organization. Find something that closely aligns with existing business processes so that impact can be felt. When you deliver the project successfully, shout it from the rooftops, and find ways to reward every contributor who made it a success. You want AI to become infectious throughout your organization where department heads start asking how this technology can facilitate impactful change for us.

2. What does your data look like?

AI and machine learning hinge on data -- lots of it. We need to analyze our data store to see what limitations might hinder our project. Is our data skinny? Is it dirty? If it takes years to adequately compile enough data, the project isn’t viable. If our data is a mess, we have to determine what effort is involved by our data scientists to cleanse it. 

Regardless, perfect data doesn’t exist, and we can’t let that hold us back. Don’t settle on a low-impact project because another dataset is more complete. The discovery stage is the perfect time to jump in and explore what you have. Take some time to model the data to determine if you can tell the story with less. 

3. Are you creating value?

When deciding on a project, adding value should always be your focus. This could be cutting costs, augmenting revenue streams or simply streamlining business processes. Where do you have processes that are inefficient? Where can you make better decisions? The value proposition should always be supported by data and never by gut instinct. We need to show top executives why we are targeting this initiative, and what we expect to gain from it.

When we look at potential AI projects, we want to pinpoint tasks and not massive overhauls. It’s ideal to select processes that are repetitive, have clearly defined rules, are prone to human error and come with the data to support them. We need to construct logic around these processes so there’s little room for gray areas.

4. Do you know what your definition of success is?

Difficulties delivering a successful project isn’t unique to AI. This problem vexes countless project teams for a lot of the same reasons. It usually boils down some combination of unrealistic timelines, going over budget, scope creep and not having the right expertise to properly execute. Planning is key.

Disassemble the silos. AI engineers and data scientists need to work hand in hand with business analysts and end users to understand the problem and discover what a successful outcome looks like. Find a team lead who can not only bring cross-disciplinary teams together but can also talk about the AI solution in plain language so pivotal stakeholders will have a clear understanding of what impact AI will have, and where it won’t. 

Also, don’t assume you can hire your way to success. Lean on trusted partners to provide the necessary AI expertise your team will need as they ramp up and face those technical hurdles that are sure to come during those first projects. 

Artificial intelligence is a game changer. According to McKinsey, AI will create $13 trillion in GDP growth by 2030. Seventy two percent of executives believe AI will be the business advantage of the future based on a study by PwC. It isn’t a question of if you’ll be implementing artificial intelligence but when. By thinking through these critical questions, you can be one of those rare success stories. That success will help you establish a culture where AI can thrive and improve every facet of your business.

About the Author(s)

Mark Runyon

Director of Consulting, Improving

Mark Runyon works as a director of consulting for Improving. For the past 20 years, he has designed and implemented innovative technology solutions for companies in the finance, logistics, and pharmaceutical space. He is a frequent speaker at technology conferences and is a contributing writer at The Enterprisers Project. He focuses on IT management, DevOps, cloud, and artificial intelligence. Mark holds a Master of Science in Information Systems from Georgia State University.

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