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Outside observations of a project failure

Redwoods credit: PBlackstaffe

This article was first published as a LinkedIn post; March 19, 2017

update April 5, 2017 – Link: (Executives in department overseeing Phoenix pay system took home $4.8M in performance pay. It would be my suggestion that a full review of how projects are rolled out, from supplier evaluation, project management practices, change management, sustainability, and project governance are performed at all levels. Are there ‘best practices’ being performed?)

Maclean’s Magazine wrote an article in January about the Canadian Government Phoenix Pay System that has been plagued with issues, exceptions and poor results. The impacted numbers are mentioned in the article, a remarkable 82,000 payroll cases brought forward last summer with approximately 8000 remaining cases as of this January. Bear with me as I break down my thoughts on a section of the article about the project, and yes, it does relate to change management because I believe change management has a bigger role to play in projects.

A quote in that article caught my eye and gave me pause…

“In projects like this, especially with an organization like ours, when you have the equivalent of 100 companies implementing a system … there’s going to be … multiple points of failure,” said Marie Lemay

The quote left me uncomfortable for two reasons:

  1. it seemed to justify an expectation of multiple points of failure
  2. with 100 companies implementing, I wonder about fragmented deliverables and project stream silos.

Multiple Points of Failure

In large, complex and technology dense environments, collaboration is a key element to understanding the impacts of a technical roll-out. I don’t have the inside scoop on why 100 companies were integrating or what went wrong with the project, but I can surmise a few points.

First, let me note that if this implementation was a critical infrastructure with human safety at its core, the due diligence would be such that NO point of failure would be acceptable, period.

With large impact and complexity, a person in charge must have the courage to ‘own’ when a project is under-resourced, too fragmented, or the impact has not been fully tested or analyzed. That courage has to come from someone who is more concerned about final results and quality than budget, scope, and schedule (even if their role is on the line). With something that big, RESULTS matter. Budget, scope, and schedule become minuscule when, at the support end of the project, costs to fix the system rise astronomically. This project reached a critical failure for poorly managing a project to sustainability (likely in multiple areas). Add to that the PR nightmare and the pain it has caused hard-working employees, the realization is that technology is never about technology, but rather, the use and impact it has on people. In something this far reaching, expecting points of failure should never be an expectation! Mitigating risks should be.

Fragmented Deliverables – ‘it’s not your scope’

Anytime you have multiple streams of development occurring on a large, complex project, there is a great deal of work to be done to ensure collaboration. I won’t say it is easy, but I will say it is necessary. Whenever project or development teams on a large project are divided into separate streams, and they do not have a history of on-going collaboration, you increase the risk for points of failure. But to expect it rather than pull together work-stream fragmentation is a recipe for disaster. In the case of 100 companies with separate scope and deliverables, this fragmentation needed to be managed very carefully and dollars spent on coordination.

Collaboration efforts are important for identifying gaps. How, you might ask? Well, when tech teams are buried in their work as specialists and subject matter experts, they can lose sight of the forest and get stuck in the trees they know best. Someone neutral or from a different specialty or competency can often see the gaps far better than specialists can see from the inside. But, teams must be open to letting them in.

Collaboration does not happen magically, it needs help and nurturing.

Organizational Change Management for the Project Team?

The two points above line up very well with the most common areas of concern we see in failed complex technical projects.

  1. Failing to mitigate ALL risks and impacts for both the technology and the people impacted.
  2. Fragmented development where the project team is split into separate subject matter areas focusing on deliverables in a separate stream and who are infrequently brought together to collaborate in rich action-oriented sessions.

In the case of one of my clients, there was continual resistance that the technical team gave me – they considered it “butting in” when change management for project workflow was recommended. They wanted to know why I was being included in all technical meetings and decisions. In a recent conversation with a member of that technical team, I was told that because of my insistence we broke through silos and collaborated better as a team, and the project was successful as a result. He said he is now sold on the concept because he has seen it work. Why?

Because change mangement is about ‘people strategy’ and project teams are made up of people, too!

Managing change isn’t just an exercise you toss in at the end of a project to ‘make it nice for the end users’. Change management is a highly researched and well-developed competency that involves many activities to mitigate risk and realize success in adoption and sustainability. When a good change management person, who understands technology and development, is included throughout the entire project, they bring strategies and tactics with them that facilitate team cooperation and collaboration.

So in the case of the Phoenix Pay System, I wonder what kind of change management was supported, resourced and applied to the implementation of the technology, but moreover, what kind of support was there for a change management team to help mitigate the risks during the project itself?

Organizations have to stop seeing change management as a ‘soft skill’ afterthought that gets applied only to build out a communication and training plan at the end-user stage.

It is high-time that companies realize project managers and change management leads work best as equal partners to provide a rich and well-delivered technical project. The more highly complex and technically dense, the more important it is that a technology/human combined solution is supported at the senior sponsor level.

Focus on collaboration and quality requires the same amount of attention that budget, scope, and schedule do. After all, successful projects are successful when they positively impact people, that is what results are all about. Organizations need to pay attention to critical systems such as this and put dollars into the human side of change when resourcing and do so at the beginning of the project.

The quote gave me pause and made me think, perhaps it’s time we look at a different way of managing projects, especially when they are as complex as the Phoenix Pay System. Deep dives into impact analysis and the benefits of using a full change team partnering with the technical team may have made a difference here.

More articles on the Phoenix System issues:

Eroding Faith In the System

Protest Against Phoenix Pay System

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Did your technology investment fail?

Technology solutions

Efficiency at the cost of humanity may cause more harm to a company than good. Well-designed people strategies and tactical action among teams as aligned with efficiency models, yes, but let’s not try to solve productivity with the implementation of software if people strategies have not been considered in the overall plan.

Let’s decode this from the corporate speak…

If you are going to buy the software there needs to be a plan in place for the people who use it!

Case in Point

Shared with us in a meeting this week was the sad story of an organization who indeed did buy a software solution but put no plan in place for the people who will use it. That plan would have involved the following:

  1. Communicate: Know the desired outcomes for the software and how it is intended to be used, then convey it to the people who will be using it. (Vision)
  2. Implement well: A lot of software has multi-level offerings which allow the product to scale along with your company’s growth by providing additional plugins and add-ons to increase functionality. Hire someone from the vendor site to come in and assist the project team in implementing the solution. Target specific needs and functionality to meet desired outcome. As an added change management strategy, ensure that front line users and decision makers are included in design workshops to make sure the tool is being built and rolled out to meet actual need. This will simplify the task for your IT team who are unfamiliar with the software and generate increased buy-in as teams get involved.
  3. Train: When you ask your employees to self-learn a new software, that software will not give you the bang for your buck that you were hoping for. Your team is likely too busy in their day jobs to find resources and play with the tool. Why would you want them to trade efficiency for a savings on training? Let them learn from an experienced trainer, with all the hints, tips and shortcuts provided in a day or a weekend to benefit your investment rather than the plethora of hours your team is taking away from the day-job as they navigate their way through self-tutelage.

Non-technical people often make the assumption that those who appear tech-savvy instantly know how to use all technology. This, simply, is not the case and why it is so important to provide administrators and users with training and certification courses. In addition to that, you want your team using the software in a consistent manner.

If you want to realize a decent return on your investment (ROI) from your new “efficiency” or “Client Relationship Management” tools, you need to wrap some people strategy around their use. Fail that, and you fail your expected ROI.

I laugh when someone states, “That technology was a waste of money.” When more often than not, the technology was never the problem to begin with, it was the lack of people strategy around the solution.

This version of this post was also presented on Linkedin as “Your Grand Investement and Why it Fails”

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Culture Matters in M&A

ROIEvery company has their own culture – basically, the manner in which employees behave, follow common norms and interact with each other – this includes values, behaviours, assumptions, and the understanding of a common mission. The culture makes up a company’s ‘personality’. Within that, you will find teams and departments that have their own slightly different culture from the overall company culture, ‘mini’ cultures of a sort.

Typically there are many similarities between the two, although it is possible for companies with a highly competitive culture contain mini cultures of collaboration and entrepreneurial kinship. For example; where the operations are somewhat cut-throat yet the development team isolate into a unified and solid group of collaborators.

Most companies have a pretty good unwritten understanding of their own culture and with just a few questions are able to define the existing culture fairly well and then work with us to identify areas of needed growth or change. It is when companies merge or an acquisition has been made that culture becomes a significantly different conversation. Sadly, few mergers and acquisition (M&A) pre-work evaluates the differing cultures to identify risks associated with the merger or acquisition.

The greatest risks associated with bringing two companies together often lay within the strongest reasons why two companies want to join forces in the first place:

Financial – M&A selection is vital to understanding the financial benefits and possibilities due to a complimentary, formerly competitive or growth opportunity into play.

Brand Association – There are some great benefits to leveraging a solid and well-loved brand to create a stronger and more powerful company offering to the customer.

Knowledge – Picking up or combining forces to obtain or grow the technical or industry knowledge for a company, add technical competency or expand an offering based on an additional functionality desired.

All the above sounds pretty great, but what’s great on paper is not always deemed so great by the people being asked to live the change. In fact, the people with the greatest power to make or break a merger or acquisition can be middle management through to front lines and yet those areas are the most often ignored within the M&A transition plan.

Understanding cultural risk, cultural collision and people strategy are vital in making certain that large investments such as M&A actually realize their return on investment.

Transitional planning is needed right from the beginning of a merger, preparing for culture clash or shock, planning around every small change that affects the manner in which people from both organizations do their everyday work, creating a change plan that involves a solid communication strategy, all of these are vital in an M&A program.

Based on research, where does a good transitional plan begin?

  1. Organizational Culture Assessment: a system of shared assumptions, values and beliefs which govern how people behave in organizations. Evaluate each company and determine any commonalities.
  2. Evaluate the 8 Organizational Cultural Characteristics: evaluate the priority that the company values would assign to each of the following organizational characteristics.
    • Innovation – risk orientation – evaluate priority high, moderate, or low.
    • Attention to Detail – precision orientation – high, moderate, or low value?
    • Emphasis on Outcome – achievement orientation- high, moderate, or low?
    • Emphasis on People – fairness orientation – high, moderate, or low?
    • Teamwork – cohesiveness orientation – high, moderate, or low?
    • Aggressiveness – competitive orientation – high, moderate, or low?
    • Stability – maintenance orientation – high, moderate, or low?
    • Agility – change orientation – high, moderate, or low?
  3. Develop a transitional plan based on a comparison of both companies developing action items that address commonalities and friction points.

These are steps for the beginning while the purchasing company is assessing financial risk. Companies putting out money to purchase or merge with another company should understand the cultural risks of the deal. Comparing the two organizations is vital in knowing just where to begin with a transition plan.

Do you have examples of organizations that have merged and failed to do the cultural assessments and develop a solid work it into a solid transition plan?

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(Note: 8 Organizational Culture Characteristics from Professor Roger N. Nagel at Lehigh University – our assessments and research utilizes these characteristics in addition to other organizational research.)

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A Little Bit of Anarchy

People will meet performance evaluation before they exceed expectation.

People will meet performance evaluation before they exceed expectation.

Many businesses going through a transformation do so for two reasons:

1. Their business is struggling and they need to stop the bleeding.
2. Their leadership is intent on maintaining a continual path to improvement and growth as they remain competitive.

The latter speaks for a leadership who understands that a little bit of anarchy or disruption can feed innovative solutions, and perhaps create innovation itself. But these leaders don’t make change for the sake of change.

Fear of change is a well-documented and well-understood reaction to ‘doing things differently’, but it is not necessarily true that people don’t like change itself. Ask anyone who is on the hunt for a new car, a bigger house, a better job, or who has solved a significant problem – change is exciting and worth the anticipation. The kind of change people dislike is the kind that is thrust upon them, without consideration of the impact it has on lives, jobs, teams, or culture.

Companies that ‘change right’ are open to positive anarchy and growth disruption. Their leadership does not need to pretend they know it all, they make great efforts to be involved with the process and are open to learning from their front-line experts.

Leaders who fight change? Sometimes it comes down to ego and those egos might just need a shake while they learn to measure for what they are seeking from their teams.

· Measure performance like you want your teams to innovate, and they will live up to it.
· Measure performance solely based on cost cutting and your teams will live up to it.

On average, people will meet performance evaluation before they exceed expectation.

Straight across cost cutting does not grow a company. Innovative companies that grow are not afraid to investigate ways to grow, many stick to the 70-20-10 rule. 70% of time on core business, 20% of time in supporting efforts for the core business and 10% of time reaching outside the core to innovate and grow the business, and they measure their teams’ performance accordingly, creating an environment for innovation.

Funny, companies with a top-down structure have a fear of disruption, and are often unwilling to change, yet they are the companies who eventually land themselves as the first example; they will struggle and be forced to change to stop the bleeding – somewhere down the road.

Which company do you work for?

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