Thursday, February 7, 2013

Why some critical HR / HR Technology projects under-perform – or outright fail

As some of my blog followers have commented to me about my reduced blogging frequency the last few months, “blogger guilt” has clearly set in.  The result is to write about an important and relevant topic I’ve been thinking about for a long time – namely, why some critical HR and HR Technology projects under-perform against expectations – or outright fail.

Yes, the unfortunate facts from leading research, consulting and advisory firms over the last 20 years are that MANY complex or broader-scope systems implementations (including HR / Talent Management systems), M&A deals (including addressing people and HR-related issues), and corporate restructurings to support business transformations eventually wind-up in a post-mortem or “what went wrong” discussion.

So let’s look at a dozen (project derailment) causal factors, but break them into 3 groups:

- Four causal factors that were probably more of an issue in past years

- Four still relevant causal factors, even though they likely get ample attention, and

- Four causal factors that should probably be garnering more attention

4 causal factors that were probably more of an issue in past years:

(1) Visible executive sponsorship … after decades of many thousands of people identifying this as a major causal factor in derailed strategic initiatives, this issue seems to be getting addressed in most key initiatives at this point.

(2) Competent project management … due to so much attention in recent years being paid to the need for professional project management, including certifying people as capable project managers, this ‘top 3’ consideration in planning key initiatives is now somewhat less of an issue in derailing or compromising strategic HR / HR Technology initiatives.

(3) The “don’t boil the ocean” mindset … the number of senior people uttering these words has seemingly reached critical mass in recent years. This idiom essentially translates as “break larger initiatives into smaller, more controllable initiatives to minimize risk and unforeseen threats to project success.”

(4) Rounding out this group of 4 is the growing recognition that successful project management - at senior levels - requires solid leadership skills; and that leadership is much more than keeping team members on-task, accountable and hitting their deliverable targets on-time. It also involves sustaining the motivation, commitment and energy level of all team resources needed to achieve project success over a long stretch of what will likely include several bumps in the road, possibly team or inter-personal conflicts (small or large ones), etc.

4 still relevant causal factors, even though they likely get ample attention:

(1) Competing initiatives (for project resources, management support, necessary behavioral or process changes, etc.) is perhaps the area where project risk is most fluid – and therefore what is going on within the organization that can potentially impact the project must be monitored (and coordinated with) very closely.

(2) Communication is absolutely the key to successfully implementing new programs requiring operating or perhaps behavioral changes; and it is especially critical to communicate effectively during periods of de-stabilization (e.g., right after an M&A, major re-structuring or new technology rollout is announced) … EVEN IF all there is to communicate is ‘when’ and ‘what’ leaders will be communicating. Honest communication builds trust, even when all the answers or details are not known.

(3) Lagging indicators and metrics are important, but probably not as important as leading indicators in terms of monitoring the need to make course corrections in projects. One key leading indicator is the result of periodically surveying impacted employees and managers on how they think the changes are going, what they expect, how they believe their lives will change or benefit, etc.

(4) Finally, while change management programs and models continue to get more attention (e.g., Change Management is a large part of the $350-400 billion dollar management consulting market), there are at least 2 key elements of change management that typically get neglected: Change Readiness – and Change Sustainability!

4 causal factors that should probably be garnering more attention:

(1) Critical competency integration at the project governance level" … All competencies needed to drive successful initiatives must be present in those leading (or even advising) key projects or undertakings – INCLUDING the competency to ensure that all key competencies are somehow brought to bear – and well integrated. This is particularly true if the project or initiative leader gets high marks on some but not all critical project leadership competencies. These include but are not limited to effective project planning, risk management, cost management, change management, project communications at all levels, vendor management and key subject matter expertise -- at least enough to corroborate or question what the official SME’s on the project team are representing.

(2) Speaking of project risk management … not being absolutely vigilant in regards to surfacing and mitigating both direct and indirect project risks, continues to plague many key projects, certainly including within the HR / HR technology domain.  The best project and program managers combine experience in a broad range of project contexts -- ALONG WITH "productive thinking" about what can possibly go wrong – something broad experience allows.

(3) The false notion that the successful implementation of a new program, new technology, new set of processes or new org structure occurs when the implementation goes “live” and is very stable. This mindset totally short-changes the need for follow-on programs to continuously drive user adoption of what has changed or been implemented.

(4) Finally, project leaders – like all leaders in general -- MUST have the confidence to course-correct when necessary, and as soon as deemed necessary. First of all, course corrections don’t necessarily reflect poor decisions or strategies. As we often hear politicians say, and they are sometimes even right in saying it, the decision was made based on what we knew at the time. And if that rationale can’t be invoked to explain a project course correction, it’s probably ok just to say that the project is complex, not everything can be anticipated -- and unlike sophisticated computers, humans sometimes make mistakes.

Steve Goldberg
HR Technology & Transformation Advisor
February 2013