To Implement or Not to Implement - That is the Question

When you car battery dies, you jumpstart it or buy a new battery. Simple problem, straightforward solution. In your organization, when voices are heard up and down the hallways that people feel misled, kept out of a process, or don't think changes are necessary, the remedy is not as straightforward as replacing your car battery.

Complex enterprise projects are unique from conception to completion. There is no script that guarantees success.

"Problems can be solved while dilemma's need to be managed." Enterprise projects are perpetual dilemmas.

Unfortunately, human nature attempts to place simple labels on these complex projects; Success, failure, good, bad; these are insufficient descriptions of what's really going on.

In a commentary by Lloyd Rain titled "IT Project Failure", he states:

"The truth is that the great majority of IT projects do not fail - most simply do not go as well as originally hoped, take longer than planned and cost more than anticipated. These are really not failures at all; you might classify them as "discouraging successes." Almost all IT projects are discouraging successes. Unfortunately, managers, outsiders and even users view them as failures to some degree."

"Discouraging successes" is that grey in the middle, which points to one of the least understood elements of project work; the art of communication and managing expectations.

"Don't Look Behind The Curtain"

Too often, the early-selling phase of an IT project focuses exclusively on buy-in from senior management. As long as funding is secured, the rest are just "details, details, details".

The problem starts with the dialogue and decision- making leading up to the actual execution of the work. It can be characterized as "don't look behind the curtain". In order to get this buy-in, vendors, consultants and even internal project teams get caught up in creating a misleading or incomplete impression of the "true value" of an IT implementation.

How else can you explain The Standish Groups CHAOS report of thousands of IT projects;

  • 31% cancelled before completion
  • 53% doubled their original cost estimate
  • 16% completed on time and on budget

Of those completed on time, only 42% had the original proposed features and functions.

Less than one tenth of all projects deliver on the proposed features after making it through the acceptance phase!

What factors contribute to these statistics? It starts with the tone and execution of communication. The two extremes could be characterized as "full disclosure" and "complete fluff". Full disclosure might look something like this:

"The price for this project will triple by the time all the functionality is in place. Our people will be overworked for the next 12-18 months and stakeholders will continuously question management's rationale for this investment."

OK. I think we all agree. Too much information. How about...

"We'll be on-time, on-budget, with all functionality on day-one."

At best, this one is disingenuous, at worst - irresponsible. So what should be communicated?

The Middle Ground

Selling the project means balancing the need to create positive momentum (funding, enthusiasm and resources) with setting appropriate expectation. "Full disclosure" doesn't work but neither does playing it so close to the vest that no one knows what's coming.

The grey in the middle means recognizing the importance of creating a shared vision, along with an acknowledgement of the very real challenges in bringing change to an organization. And if you don't believe these challenges are real, re- read the statistics.

A simple yet infrequently performed task is to initiate a dialogue with sponsors and project champions around the type of communication desired.

  • Will we share bad news?
  • Will we include difficult stakeholders in the process?
  • What does it mean to have a balanced communication strategy?

Having this conversation will go a long way toward establishing a clear message throughout the project.

Influencers Vs. Decision Makers

Think of the following complementary roles: Nurses and doctors, administration and faculty, staff and managers. What makes them complementary? Some roles hold the key, while others know how to open the door. Both groups are critical to running a smooth organization or implementing a successful project.

An influencer may be a respected employee, an effective communicator or a trusted advisor to management. Influencers don't control the final decision, but they do provide key information to decision makers about the direction the organization should go. Decision-makers rely on influencers more than you know.

Find out who the influencers are in your organzation. Ask the decision makers who they will use to help make their key project decisions? And finally, approach the influencers and find out what their concerns are. It's selling 101 - "What's the pain they want to avoid or what opportunity do they want to take advantage of?"

The Language of Senior Management

It comes down to putting yourself in the shoes of those making the decision. The language of senior management is simple. It's either:

  • What is the risk they're trying to mitigate?
  • How can they improve the bottom line?

Everything else is just details. Remember, senior management is also responsible to someone, whether it be the board or other governing bodies. You can help senior management by giving them a simple framework to evaluate projects.

Using the following four categories, ask management to place each project in its proper place:

  1. Not important and not urgent
  2. Important, but not urgent
  3. Urgent, but not important
  4. Important and Urgent

This will do a number of things. One, it will clarify which priorities will probably get funding. Two, it will reveal which projects need more data before they can decide and third, it will help you understand senior management goals and where to put your own resources.

"To Be or Not To Be"

Finding that middle ground in your communication strategy, drawing up influencers in the decision-making process, and speaking the language of senior management - these are three elements that have great impact on getting a project off the ground properly.

Facilitation Tip

Regardless of how much information you need to speak to in your presentation, reserve the last twenty minutes for group reflection, otherwise known as "the debrief".

The most frequent mistake made is not leaving enough time to recognize what attendees have learned. Say something like:

"There's more content that we can cover in the last 20 minutes. Instead, let's look back on the last 3 hours and discuss what we've learned or next steps that should be taken."

This is one of those common sense actions that most agree with, but few make happen.

Remember, what YOU say is less important than the results you produce in others.