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Implementation failure is everywhere: 8 people-based rules to avoid it

Failure is Cool by URBAN ARTefakteFailure to implement and execute new projects and initiatives is common in many organisations. Many excuses are given for lack of implementation – overwork, time constraints, changed priorities – but these are often given retrospectively. The real reasons for the failure tend to have already been baked in at the start of the project or activity, and are very human problems.

This failure to implement and execute has significant costs for organisations, both in terms of lost time and money, but also the impact on culture. The more your business fails to execute new projects and initiatives, as failure becomes accepted, the more your business fails to execute. This leads strategies to be unimplemented and eventually to the long term failure of the business as it becomes increasingly uncompetitive.

McKinsey/ University of Oxford study at the end of 2012 gathered research evidence over 5,400 IT projects: ‘On average, large IT projects run 45 percent over budget and 7 percent over time, while delivering 56 percent less value than predicted’. The total cost overrun was $66 billion.

The solutions to the implementation failure problem are all very people focused because lack of consideration of how best to engage people is the root cause of the problem. An IBM study in 2008 which surveyed 1,500 change management executives found that the biggest barriers to success were listed as people factors: Changing mindsets and attitudes – 58%. Corporate culture – 49%.  Lack of senior management support – 32%

8 people-based rules to avoid implementation failure:

  1. Absolute strategic alignment – from your organisation’s mission above profit down to the tasks that a junior member of the team has to take on a new strategic project, absolute strategic alignment has to be ensured. This means that  new projects and initiatives have to be explicitly sense-checked against the current strategies during the planning stage and then accountability hard-wired to the owning senior leader in your business. When considering a new project or initiative, ask the question, ‘Is this 100% required to deliver strategy X’. If not, carefully consider not doing it. Diffusion of focus and energy is one of the primary ways in which modern businesses act sub-optimally.
  2. ARCIs – you may have heard of RACI. Think ARCI to reflect the importance of the accountable person: Accountable, Responsible, Consulted and Informed. This Wikipedia entry helps explain the categories. Every strategy that your business is executing on should have only one member of your executive board or senior leadership team accountable. There should be no major initiatives or projects which are not 100% aligned to delivering on a strategy. The members of your executive board or senior leadership team should only have accountability for strategic initiatives. They should be owning no other projects or initiatives as explicitly these should be excluded from your focus.
  3. Public accountability – at an early stage of new project or initiative planning you need to build  plans for creating the public accountability of the project team and senior leader who has accountability. This has two purposes: first, there is the obvious pressure of public commitment. Second, is the ability of the team to garner support from the rest of the organisation. This enables alignment with other projects, sharing of resources and general wider planning, or challenge.
  4. Chunk back/ chunk forward – where goals are broken down into concrete substeps during the planning stage, project success is increased. There are two approaches to do this well. Chunking back from the goal means asking the question, ‘for the X to have been delivered to time and budget, what Y would have just happened?’. This Y is the concrete substep immediately before the project or initiative is delivered. When you’ve agreed the Y, re-ask the question, ‘for the Y to have been delivered as planned, what Z would have just happened?’… etc. etc. Chunking forward is just the reverse of the process from the current state, looking at each substep forwards. So the question is the more frequently asked, ‘what do we have to do next?’. Chunking back can be more powerful for a number of reasons. First, it enables you to discover unexpected steps because you’re working back from an unknown end state. Second, it tends to be a more exhaustive process because you’re working hard to imagine the future ratehr than being in the comfort zone of the current state of affairs. Finally, it forces you to visualise the end state more clearly.
  5. Sprints and rewards – project inertia – the equivalent of personal procrastination – can sometimes hinder the pace, momentum and energy in a project delivery. Avoid this by creating sub-goals from the chunk back/ chunk forward process above and then working towards these sub-goals as mini projects or sprints. When sub-deadlines, stage budgets and sub-projects are achieved then ensure you reward the team’s achievement of the sub-goals. Be explicit in advance about these rewards, keep to your commitments and then communicate the sub-goal success widely. For the cost of a team dinner at a posh restaurant or an afternoon at the races, you can keep morale high and the project moving.
  6. Blocker recognition and focus – often projects are slowly rotting away under the veneer of gannt chart updates, project stakeholder memos and general corporate fluffery. A culture of resistance to admit when things are blocked or going wrong can often mean that help isn’t sought in a timely fashion and things become about blame and shame. By writing out or better still drawing out and then publicly displaying project goals in a prominent place, plans become as concrete as possible. Include blocker or delay reporting here with reasons and mitigating actions and the project becomes more easily owned by a wider group of people. The project doesn’t just become something that is someone else’s problem; it is real and shared.
  7. Lack of pre engagement / habit change – in the 2008 IBM study the biggest barriers to to success were the people factors of first failing to change mindsets and attitudes – 58%, and second, failing to change corporate culture – 49%. These are big figures, and mindsets, attitudes and culture are all significantly complex areas of change focus. A number of the steps above such as strategic alignment, public accountability and blocker recognition & focus go some way to prepare the ground for the behavioural change required corporately. The foundations for real change come from early engagement around the practical benefits desired. ‘Engagement around the practical benefits desired’ is not a communications activity, but the most fundamental step in change. The actual users/ recipients/ affected parties of the project or initiative – not amorphous stakeholder groups or user case models – need to have been a vital part of the project from the start. Their requirements should provide the heart of the spec. ‘Corporate’ benefits to the bottom line and to the strategy are important, but secondary to the practical benefits desired. This means extracting these from the actual users/ recipients/ affected parties through all means of facilitation, interviewing, research and involvement. These practical benefits desired need to be signed off as part of the project brief and specification. Then constant reminders of the practical aspects of the benefits of their future vision then need to be listed, regularly reviewed and re-communicated at each of the sprint points. Likely failures to deliver the likely practical benefits need to be addressed openly and not ignored, with work-rounds or steps to address the issue focused on.
  8. Constant Stakeholder engagement – with 32% of projects failing because of lack of senior management support in the IBM study quoted above, very clear and practical steps need to be taken to avoid this. The first points in this list – absolute strategic alignment and ARCIs are 1 & 2 because of the importance of single senior leader accountability. This leader then needs to act as a one-woman engagement team across her colleagues and bosses. It is not acceptable to just rely on project team comms. for the engagement of the senior stakeholders to take place. The single senior leader accountable needs to be an enthusiastic driver of the project across the C-suite. But remember, this isn’t about project ‘sponsorship’. This is about strategic accountability as no projects or initiatives should be being undertaken which aren’t 100% required to drive an agreed strategy. If the project fails, the single senior leader accountable has failed and needs to be performance managed accordingly. That normally tends to change leadership’s perspectives on the importance of ensuring project successes.

So in future, before you accept the standard answers for project failure, first analyse the people factors that could be driving it.

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About Si Conroy

Family man, founder/CEO, investor & CrossFitting ultra runner. Businesses apply cognitive science to goal setting & goal achievement for leaders. Love life.

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