Technology projects fail for many reasons, most of which can be traced to poorly managed communication. What does it mean that a mediocre technology that is managed well has so much more success than a superb technology that is run poorly?
In this article, we will explore ways you can better manage group expectations on change projects so that individual and groups stay focused on positive outcomes throughout the transition.
Failure is an inherent possibility in any complex initiative. As the one ultimately responsible for ensuring success, how can you face the risk of failure intelligently? First, select strong project managers and encourage them to consider the following key points before planning or implementing a change project. Then, support them in their efforts to follow these guidelines. Doing so will minimize negative outcomes on large-scale change efforts.
I. Identify and manage stakeholder fears
As stakeholders consider the implications of a large- scale change in their organization, they initially fit into three main groups. Identifying the members of these groups and addressing their unique needs is a first step to attaining stakeholder buy-in.
The first group includes people for whom failure is an unspoken concern. In this group, which often includes many senior managers, no one voluntarily wants to acknowledge the possibility of failure, lest they be associated with it. Everyone would rather talk about what success would look like, which can easily digress into unrealistic, feel-good objectives that don't address reality. Superstition suggests that to speak about failure only increases its possibility. However, the reverse is actually true and our unwillingness to ask the tough questions causes our worst concerns to become true.
To engage this group, ask individual members what they think failure on this project would look like and what they think could cause that failure. Their answers will reveal more about the true pitfalls than any other question you could ask. Offer the assurance that thoughtfulness at this stage will be useful in anticipating and addressing potential pitfalls before they materialize and will therefore maximize the chance for success.
The second group includes people for whom failure seems inevitable. Front-line staff are likely to populate this group as are people who have previous experience with unsuccessful change projects. The members of this group are likely to be so focused on potential problems that they are unwilling to think about what success could look like.
The key to managing this group effectively is to genuinely acknowledge their expertise and portray confidence in your ability to investigate, prevent, or address the issues that they have identified. It is helpful to carefully facilitate these discussions, giving equal time to identifying problems and identifying possible solutions. Do not let negativity impede the optimistic but realistic goals for the project.
Successful facilitation with the first two groups will bolster membership in a third group. This group is comprised of those that are willing to consider the possibility of pitfalls and are also willing to think about how to be proactive in addressing them without losing sight of realistic outcomes. Members of this group are likely to feel particularly appreciated and engaged in the process and will often act as models for other staff. They will have the ability to address concerns they hear of in an optimistic way. This will be very helpful during the implementation stage of the project.
II. Solicit input widely without striving for consensus
Nothing kills a project faster than the need for decisions to be built around consensus. There is a great difference between consensus building and decision- making but the lines often get blurred. Projects fail or get delayed because leaders do not recognize the difference and are not clear with stakeholders about what the decision making process will look like.
How can you avoid this? Listen to everyone. However, be clear from the very beginning that while each stakeholder's input is important, you will ultimately be responsible for making key decisions. Be clear also that while your decisions will reflect the input you receive, it will not be feasible to satisfy every concern. If you facilitate this well, people will respect your decisions even when they disagree.
Going for agreement, especially on large projects is a black hole and will set the project up to stall in the face of as many opinions as there are people. Unfortunately, some stakeholders already have a set expectation that the typical approach to decision- making--getting everyone to agree and then taking action--should be used in every situation. If you encounter this, acknowledge that this may be a good tactic to employ for some decisions, but that it is not effective for decisions regarding large change projects. Try saying something like "we have different points of view and need to consider them all to make an informed decision, but it is not realistic in this case to achieve consensus."
III. Recognize and address internal politics
There is no getting around the fact that some people will quietly, or not so quietly, hope your project fails. People align themselves with different groups and are either part of the solution or part of the problem. This is the trickiest part of the game, and must be dealt with carefully. In the worst case, people with influence can sabotage a project for their own personal gain.
Before going too far down this path, consider that most people speak poorly about an initiative because they feel excluded from the process. Everyone wants to be associated with successful initiatives, and people pull back because of fear or resentment. Keeping the lines of communication open, asking for people's feedback while telling the truth about how decisions will be made, will decrease the internal politics that sometimes disrupt an otherwise successful initiative. Healthy politics is about dialogue, unhealthy politics is fueled by exclusion. Focus on what you can do to show respect to the other side. You will often be met halfway, which is far more advantageous than eliciting resentment, jealousy, and a desire to cause failure.
IV. Avoid over promising and under delivering
Over promising starts when management attempts to sell an idea to the executive team. It then easily works its way into the development group that is responsible for building a new system or process. Buy-in may initially come from promising the moon, but will quickly bite you in the you-know-what when it's time to deliver. It's a classic silo approach--get the sale then let others deal with how to deliver. We over promise because we believe it's the only way to push people to excel. If we want a 10, we ask for a 12. In that way we'll get a 10. It's a lazy approach and causes resentment among developers, and worse, resignation among customers. Again, good communication and expectation setting is at the heart of avoiding this problem. Articulate what you expect from your team, the executive group, and customers. Be willing to deal with, in a wholistic way, the dilemma of how to create buy-in without setting inaccurate or unrealistic expectations. Like other elements of your project, your promises need to be manageable.
Across the board, properly managing expectations is the key to building trust, confidence and momentum on large projects. Demonstrate these principles and the example you set will cause positive effects to ripple down throughout your organization. As you and your project managers make an effort to apply them, you will find a change of attitude in your team as well as in your customers.