New Study on Organization Change Management Failure

[The study delivers] a tough, but needed, message. HR leaders get thrown under the bus for these projects too often, which leads them to reach for visible, but ineffective, change implementation tactics.

To that end, I really like the point about realism re: expectations. Many change initiatives are heavy on marketing-style communications, which are easy to produce and point to as a tangible work product. But they’re often only one-way messages about how great the Brave New World will be. A multi-layered stakeholder management approach is a lot tougher, requires sustained effort over time, and has less-tangible payback.

Ultimately, function and process leaders need to own the change initiatives for their areas, which is why CEO ownership and involvement — again, sustained over time — is so critical. Line managers and staff won’t respond if it’s just a speech, new PowerPoint templates, and a monthly newsletter. They will wait until the change project is noticed, measured, and rewarded by the leadership team.

Adapted from my comment on a LinkedIn post re: this Forbes article from Victor Lipman: “New Study Explores Why Change Management Fails – And How To (Perhaps) Succeed“.

More on why projects fail

This post on top reasons for IT project failure by Ron Sheldrick has up on LinkedIn for a while. Here were my two cents, nothing new if you’ve followed for a while:

@James Pastor [a fellow commenter] hit on the scope issue early on in this thread. Back in my SAP days we found that poor knowledge of the contract and SOW — especially among the project team and contractors — was a common thread among troubled projects. The strategic assumptions that underpinned the initiative were lost as the project devolved into satifying immediate, tactical needs…which deviated from the original plan.

We also found that stakeholder and communications went begging. While these stakeholder and communications management techniques are simple in form, we found that many project managers can’t muster the motivation or confidence to execute against them consistently. These “symptoms” are great non-obvious indicators for project health:

  • Projects that consistently linked stakeholder analysis, communications planning, and plan execution stayed out of trouble.
  • Project managers who did not fit into, or could not adapt to, customer cultures, mission-critical projects, etc. were reluctant to escalate projects quickly enough.
  • The most frequent communications mistake was failure to execute planned executive-level messaging, which eroded the project manager’s position in the eyes of sponsors and other leaders.

These stakeholder management findings correspond with recent external studies noting that communication breakdowns – especially “keeping quiet” about known risks or issues – are a primary driver of project failures.

Troubled Projects and Engaging Change Stakeholders

Glen at Herding Cats (here) points to a Center of Business Practices study (here) on the causes of troubled projects.  I’ve posted on some of our own findings about project success (here and here), but I haven’t elaborated on what we’ve found about the composition of change control boards.  Below is an extract from a comment I made on Glen’s post:

Our project debrief analyses have consistently found that the right level of executive presence on change control boards is essential to ensure change is managed, not simply documented. In fact, the lack of such a presence (or regular absences) marks the project as a potential escalation.

When a senior manager vets the prioritization of changes by focusing the project team on the project’s goals and intended outcomes — one should usually find scope, time, and resource changes easier to manage (with fewer, more salient change orders). It also keeps the business invested in the project. Many IT shops resist this measure, but it works wonders once they “get it”. 

Corner Cutting Survey Top Answer: Not communicating with senior management

Executive body language after cancelling too many meetings

The corner cutting poll’s top answer (at 22 percent) remains Executing planned communications with senior management.  This answer matches our own experience within SAP, which indicates that proper stakeholder management decreases the probability of risk events, shortens their duration, and lessens their total impact. 

In our experience, the most frequent communications mistake was failure to execute planned executive-level messaging, which eroded the project manager’s position in the eyes of sponsors and other leaders.  Such an erosion of a project manager’s position leads to negative second-order effects, including:

  • Mistrust of the PM’s ability to lead and prioritize.
  • Senior management bypassing the PM in favor of direct communication with team leads and vice versa.
  • Exclusion from decision-making bodies or meetings.

IT Project Failure — executives asleep at the wheel

Laurie Orlov from Forrester has a great post about how inattention dooms so many transformational projects (here).  From her piece:

[T]here are many good ways to reduce project risk. And there are also guidelines on how and when to kill failing projects.  No need to belabor them.  But trumping all of these, in my view, is the go-to-sleep attitude of enterprise executives (maybe even including the CIO) as these projects proceed….

CIOs who let business executives off the responsibility and oversight hook, if they let them send underlings to meetings, if they provide a status and get no feedback, if the scope of deliverables is intergallactic, if development is not iterative,… are aiding and abetting [t]heir own project failure….

My experience is that CIOs get distracted by “strategery” and forget to focus on the basic blocking and tackling of project and development management.  Per my comment on Laurie’s post, CIOs who aspire to strategic archetypes of IT management (Laurie’s Forrester study is here, behind a firewall) get distracted because:

  1. They’re acting out according to an archetype they want to be, not what is required.
  2. They have a disinterest in building a solid foundation in core functions, so they end up ignoring, then fire-fighting, problems with utility functions like e-mail, voice, etc.
  3. They believe game changing initiatives have to be big, so none of them question a multi-year timeline.

Training and qualifying sponsors

For those who need to educate their sponsors, the approach of the UK’s Home Office might at least inspire your next efforts (here, the syllabus is here).  The content looks very meaty.

This approach may only work in the public sector — I’m not sure how many senior folks in my organization would sit still for this entire curriculum — but we see good results when we put even basic “management awareness” training in place. 

Hat tip: PM Forum News (here)

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