Stop Calling it a Technology Project!

"There are no exclusive technology projects. There are however, people projects that use technology". This subtle language shift can have profound impact on the success of an enterprise initiative. What's the difference in this apparent play on words?

Managed as "technology initiatives", with all the expected breakdowns in the development of a new system (crashes, system bugs, improper coding), these projects often produce normative, not exceptional results. On the other hand, focusing on organizational impact, from project charter to design and finally to implementation, has a significantly greater chance of creating results consistent with the initial vision of the effort; i.e. results that are forward looking and serve the desired goals of the entire organization. Easier said than done, I realize.

As articulated by Rick Zahniser:

"This is why so many breakthroughs happen in new, small companies. Circumstances give them no choice; if they don't produce extraordinary results with the resources they have, they die. Large organizations must learn to create these same small company conditions if they expect breakthroughs"

What's an example of breakthrough or exceptional organizational results? Take GE's transition from a slow-growing industrial goods manufacturer into a financial services powerhouse; Dell's ability to satisfy customer demands around quality, responsiveness, and competitive pricing; the work of the Boston Consortium for Higher Education to act as an external resource for colleges and universities, creating collaborative environments for cost saving and quality improvement ideas.

These organizations use technology as an enabling force to conceive of and produce superior organizational results.

A New Way Of Doing Business

Organizational improvement projects start with a vision, leading to the formation of a project charter. Inspired by promises of cost savings, increased profits and employee efficiencies, the vision often centers on "a new way of doing business". In the transition from concept to design, project management strategies get integrated to negotiate disparate groups toward a common purpose. Unfortunately, it doesn't take long for the realized design to become a shadow of the original promise.

True, the vision needs to be replaced with step-by- step approaches to implementing a new process or system. However, too much is given over to the technologists. The business value gets lost or watered down in an almost obsessive attempt to put something in place. Instead of continuing to measure project progress against the initial vision or charter, "what's possible" becomes encumbered by the silos of those doing the hard work, but removed from the business outcomes. It's not uncommon that by the time the project comes to a close, multimillions of dollars are spent creating a variation of the original system that barely satisfies its stakeholders.

There are so many factors that contribute to this gap in vision and implementation; vendor over promises, a lack of customer understanding and project team overwhelm, just to name a few.

With these expected challenges in complex initiatives, what are some things to be mindful of in maintaining a focus on organizational impact?

Personal Limiting Views

Breakthrough success in organizational projects is a function of each persons willingness to honestly reflect on personal limiting views of what's possible, and shifting these view. Preserving ones image and avoiding criticism is one way that people limit what's possible on a project. The human tendency is to reach for the excuse rather than speak frankly about what's working and not working. This is one example how individuals can unconsciously sabotage a team effort.

From sponsors on down, personal limiting views need to be revealed to overcome the inertia of group inaction. Uncovering these unconscious behaviors and mental modes of thinking contribute directly to individuals bringing a commitment to the larger vision or goals of the project.

Authentic Commitment

Commitment cannot be forced, but it can be uncovered, generated, and affect others in a positive way. Authentic commitment starts with a genuine assumption of choice ("I can say no"). On enterprise initiatives, employees are often given the opportunity to participate in the design phase of a project. For some, this is what they've been waiting for to take their skills and knowledge to the next level, while others have no interest in the pace and challenge of project work. Not giving employees a genuine opportunity to opt out is the equivalent of forcing your kids to play an instrument after it's clear they have no interest. They may go through the motions, but the motivation does not self-generate and like disinterested employees, you'll be pulling teeth the whole way.

Authentic commitment also opens the door to genuine teamwork, i.e. a commitment to the success of an entire effort, not just the incremental successes brought by sub-teams. Project silos are a result of a lack of personal commitment to the final results, with one sub-team able to derail the larger project effort.

The desire for meaning and risk

People will not necessarily reveal that they will take on risk to give meaning to their work. Contrary to the popular notion that individuals resist risk at all costs, the greater the risk they take, the more likely they'll surround themselves with others prepared to follow them, toward success or failure.

People need to be explicitly asked to rise to the occasion and want to know that their work is critical to the success of the overall effort. Exceptional results occur when an opportunity presents itself that wakes people up to what's possible. In the eyes of the beholder, the outcome must be out of the ordinary, because as everyone knows, with great risk, comes great reward.

Labeling change efforts "technology project" devalues the impact these projects can have on customers and lower expectations of those making genuine attempts to make a difference. Raise expectations by reminding people what it really is, i.e. organizational change. Also, keep reminding people of the risks and rewards. The leaders you're looking for will jump to the front of the line.

Presentation No No’s!

In any presentation, your primary goal is to capture and hold your audience's attention. Distributing the presentation on paper may give you and your audience comfort, however, you run the risk of diminishing the value of what you have to say. It comes down to, where do you want their attention and listening? You may want to keep the mystery of the next slide to yourself!