In the past several months, I have had conversations with people involved with systems installations in three large companies. All three installations were slowly failing, at a great cost to the companies in both time and money.
There are three similarities among these situations, and they are conspicuous because they seem to be common in most projects that fail:
- The systems being replaced are ‘legacy’ systems, and many if not most of the individuals using the system were comfortably embedded in ‘the way things are done’.
- Outside consultants were engaged to manage the project at extraordinary cost, with the completion date of the project the principal goal, followed by cost.
- Executive management was not actively engaged in the project, relying solely on the outside consultant’s expertise and experience while paying little to no attention to the concerns of internal leaders responsible for managing the implementation process with the staff.
All three are self-evident slices of the implementation pie. I have written a number of pieces about #’s 1 and 3. This article will focus on #2 with a tangential but critical relationship to #3.
Every major project likely will engage outside consultants, and for very good reason. Few companies have the staff to handle major implementations, so the first key is to add depth to the implementation team.
Second, with legacy systems there is so much complexity embedded in the transition, from data migration to process analysis and modification to testing and training, and so many crucial steps in between, that having outside help to complement existing leadership adds to the intellectual capacity applied to the project.
A third reason is simply the lack of capability of existing staff to undertake a project of the expected scope and complexity; it’s one thing to manage and enhance existing software, it’s another to replace that with something entirely new. There are other reasons, but these are enough to move this conversation along.
Whatever the reason for engaging outside consultants, there are a few cautions when engaging in the transaction:
- The consultants will be driven towards the goals articulated in the contract. If the time to a completed transition is paramount, they will strive to maintain the schedule. If cost, the budget will be meticulously followed. If user satisfaction, that will be the emphasis of their plan. The old adage says that there are three critical elements to a project – time, cost and quality, and you only get to pick two. The predominant goals often give short shrift to others.
- The consultants ‘on the ground’ in the project will change over time, and their competency will vary. Sometimes the leadership changes as well, which influences the dynamic, sometimes dramatically.
- The problems associated by these first two givens can be concealed by the consultant’s process. Every consultant has a visual process that dictates the approach that will be taken, and errors in judgement or problems caused by consultant staff change and variability of competency can be masked.
Which is not to say that consultants are bad, or dishonest or to be avoided at all costs. As I said they are often absolutely necessary. What is typically missing in the engagement, the one solution to the issues above, is #3, executive management involvement.
Real involvement. Intensely uncomfortable involvement, with tough questions and accountability for all concerned.
When there is scope creep or cost overruns or suggestions from knowledgeable staff that all is not well despite ‘hitting targets’, the executive needs to ferret it out. In Agile Scrum terms, the executive is the ‘owner’, but in every instance it is the person with authority, who is taking responsibility for the project (and, unfortunately, sometimes those two are the same person).
Like anything that happens within a company, it boils down to leadership and accountability. How often it is that both are subtly and successfully avoided at every level by executives, staff and consultants alike.
But successful implementations do occur, and they occur because the entire executive team understands what is at stake. They take the pains needed to engage in the project, and one of them, and maybe more than one, rolls up their sleeves and takes it on themselves to stay involved with the team—both internal and external—throughout the implementation. That works.
– Bill Montei, CEO, founded Megalodon Insurance Systems with a simple yet BIG idea: provide small and mid-sized insurance companies powerful policy & claims management software solutions at a price that is within reach. To talk to Bill directly, please call: (608) 709-2154.