On major implementation projects that end badly, I’ve noticed three warning signs that present themselves with remarkable predictability. If you spot them early, you may have the opportunity to correct your course before it’s too late.
1. Indecisive Decision-makers
Your project is approved and you’re moving forward, but key decisions still haven’t been made. You can’t decide what to include and what to exclude. You can’t decide on an implementation date. You’re not sure what the budget is. Should you do it all at once or phase it in? This list goes on, but what causes it? Sometimes, it’s because the decision-makers are so far removed from the day-to-day workings of the project that they don’t understand it. Not unreasonably, they hesitate to make a decision regarding something of great consequence without comprehending it. But they don’t want to give up their right to make the decision, just the same. A common scenario is when the project is set up with a steering committee of senior leaders from multiple functions. Although structuring a steering committee this way is well intentioned and inclusive, you inevitably end up with a few decision-makers who have no idea what you’re asking them.
Solution: The best decisions are made by those who are close enough to understand the situation and consequences. The further away you get, the poorer the decisions are. Structure your project with decision-makers close to the subject matter who report to senior leaders. If you can’t swing this, see if you can convene a sub-committee of senior leaders close enough to understand the subject, who are responsible for making the decisions and reporting back to others.
Another reason decision-makers become indecisive is because the rules of engagement around decision-making are not clear. Decision-makers wonder: What if I’m wrong? And then change my mind? Can I change my mind? Is this by consensus or majority rule? Can I just keep thinking about this and get back to you later? Will I be held accountable? Is there a time limit?
Solution: Define the rules of engagement early on. Whatever you do, do not make decisions by consensus. Just vote. Record the vote. Report on the vote, in writing, by voter. Videotape it if you can. (I’ve never actually done this, but have always wanted to try it.) Make it clear they can’t change their vote later – even if someone complains about it.
Here are some symptoms of indecisive decision-makers:
• As in “Can we table this until our next meeting?” or “Can we take this offline?”
• Asking for more data and then challenging the data.
• Wanting someone else (in another department, another city, another time zone) to “weigh in” before they voice their opinion.
2. Incommunicado communications
This is easiest to identify when there is no communication plan at all. Alternatively, there may be a plan, but the plan is inadequate for the project. The reasons for this are many. Maybe leaders don’t see the need to communicate it (even though it’s a major implementation). Because knowledge is power, some are reluctant to share information and therefore give away power. Communication that includes a potentially negative message is particularly problematic, even though not delivering bad news and hoping no one notices is never a good strategy. When there are negative elements, it is even more critical to manage the message. Occasionally, leaders believe that employees, vendors, customers or other stakeholders “won’t understand” and therefore should not have access to the information. At times, it’s a simple matter of underestimating the impact of the project.
Solution: Make communications a key component of your project plan. Include someone from the communications department (the higher up, the better) very visibly on your project team. Give them time on the agenda to set forth a communication plan. Be persistent.
Even when a communication plan is in place, it can still fail because it underestimates the need for information or overestimates the impact of minor communications. If you hear “Sure they know about it – we mentioned it once in that staff meeting four months ago”, you know the communication plan is not stellar.
Solution: Make sure your communication plan is robust and considers the impact on all stakeholders, especially operations, well in advance of the implementation date. Get enough out there early for them to react to – this will prompt your next set of communication messages. Include information that you know stakeholders will want to hear, not just what you want to say, even if it’s uncomfortable.
Be aware of these indications that you may have incommunicado communications:
• Hesitation to communicate anything that isn’t “nailed down”, such as the implementation date.
• Changing meaningful language in draft communications to “corporate speak” that conveys little.
• Missing deadlines for communication launches.
• Failure to address any negative impact of your project.
The most common cause for this is setting the implementation date before you create the project plan. Don’t believe this occurs? It happens all the time. ALL. THE. TIME. Somebody somewhere thought you didn’t need to waste time considering what has to get done before setting a go-live date.
Solution: CREATE THE PROJECT PLAN FIRST. Get the Project Management Office involved early to get their help, and by all means consider every stakeholder who will be touched by this along the way. Ask them how long they need to get their part done. Leave adequate time for testing. By the way, you’ll need time to create a good project plan, too, so leave room for this in the timeline while you’re at it.
Another less obvious cause for this is availability of resources. Particularly if it’s a large-scale project and all your A players are busy on other top projects. The timeline may have made sense in the abstract, but in the reality of resource constraints, it might not. Sometimes, the right people to implement the project don’t even work for you. You may need to recruit staff with some different or better talent.
Solution: Consider other major implementation projects going on at the same time. Realistically assess your available talent. Hire better people if you need to. Engage consultants to fill in where there are gaps.
Look for these clues to help you identify untimely timelines:
- Timelines set without a project plan.
- Missing deadlines early in the project.
- Changing key components of the project or sacrificing quality just to keep the timeline.
- The implementation team is completely stressed out.
Based on my experience with implementation plans that have gone awry, there is a common thread to each which relates back to these three warning signs. Be on the lookout for these indicators early on in your project implementation and take them seriously. Your steps to mitigate these can turn the project around and get it headed in the right direction.
Lorraine Bell has over 20 years of experience in business and human resources focusing on total rewards. Ms. Bell began her career with more than a decade as a consultant but moved to industry, ultimately as the Vice President of Total Rewards for a large healthcare system.
Lorraine Bell provides human resources consulting with a focus on complex program implementations or change initiatives. Her focus is strategy development, project planning, managing to deadlines and budgets, and change management including communication support.
Lorraine is a principal consultant at LBell HR Consulting. For more details, please visit: www.lbellhr.com.
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