Many organizations want to know why astronomical budgets are wasted on so many failed projects, while trying to understand the mind-blowing project failure rates. HR projects are no different and have a tendency to fail. From simple projects like documenting business processes to more complex projects with a huge operational impact like the implementation of a new HRIS or time registration system. One might say that failure is simply the opportunity to begin again, this time more intelligently. Think again. There have been tons of books written, studies done, surveys completed and lessons learned debriefs held on how to manage projects. And based on LinkedIn profiles half of the world’s working population holds project management skills (believe us: they don’t). But projects still fail big time. Ever wondered why?
HR projects are not easy.
HR projects are not a walk in the park. They are different and they are done differently. HR projects might even be one of the most difficult projects to manage (probably with the exception of Nasa projects like building a sustainable human colony on Mars).
- Your project team must have relevant HR expertise or your project is lost before it even begins. And this most definitely applies to the project manager as well. No free pass here. And you need at least one Googler (keep reading!)
- HR projects always involve many stakeholders. And yes, they all want their say in the matter. Large and complex projects involve almost every department in your organization. If that is not the case, then you’re doing it wrong and they will come after you at some point. Avoid that. Or run as fast as you can.
- HR data is used in many different non-HR processes: IT user provisioning, access control, finance, etc. etc. Every change will have ripple effects downstream that need to be managed. The domino effect.
- The impact is often huge. With a direct impact on your employees and an indirect impact on your business and customers. Unhappy employees are unhappy customers.
It’s all about ownership.
There are of course many reasons why projects fail. The traditional reasons (or better said: excuses) are scope, budget and time. Often given by theory-driven, spreadsheet-based project managers. We have seen our share of mismanaged projects going South. And they all had one thing in common: missing some serious ownership at all levels.
Ownership is crucial for the success of every project, and this at every stage of the project. Without ownership of the team, business or operations, the project is doomed to fail.
The A team
Great projects are not done by one person. They are done by a team of people. The right people. The team defines the success and the quality of the project. Make sure that the project team is selected wisely.
Doing projects is a challenge to some, but a death sentence to many others. It requires a totally different skill set. Don’t expect all your employees to be eager to take on additional projects or even have the ability to take on project responsibilities. Organizations often make the mistake of assigning the employee with the most experience and knowledge on the subject to the project. Although their input might be valuable, they might not be the ideal project member. If they don’t have the necessary skill set, or just don’t want to take on the extra work, don’t force them to because this will end in a lack of ownership and involvement which will impact the project for the worse. Yes, you need subject matter experts on almost every project, but having a Googler is even better. As said before, many subject matter experts don’t have the time or eagerness to take on additional projects meaning that useful knowledge is unavailable to the project team. So instead of trying to convince them to commit to your project and lack ownership, find someone who is eager to be involved, is an assertive go getter and has excellent Google skills. They might not have all the knowledge you need but nowadays you can Google just about everything. And going old school is also an option: picking up the phone, sending an email or dropping by someone’s desk. It still works in 2020. Crazy right?
At the same time, don’t make the mistake to underestimate the value of internal employees that are eager to take on projects. These are the subject matter experts you need! They know the organization. They are experienced. These kinds of resources are truly priceless for every project. However, projects always come on top of the day-to-day work so statistically speaking your employees can’t have the time to take on projects (unless you’re very bad at workforce planning). Make sure they get the time to focus on the project responsibilities. If necessary reduce the day-to-day work pressure by taking on temporary operational support. Because no time means no ownership.
The ownership within the business has two layers, both equally important: leadership and (middle and lower) management. Leadership needs to sponsor the project, while providing the team with the resources they need to achieve a smashing success. Management is mainly responsible for the buy-in from the business, crucial for the success of the go-live and normal operations afterwards.
Leadership support is crucial from ideation over implementation to normal operations. If they don’t back you, you’re doomed. Leadership is often enthusiastic by the idea and happy to sponsor the project until things tend to go below the Mason Dixon line. Doing projects is not a playdate with unicorns and every project flirts with the Mason Dixon line at some point. But a strong leadership team continues to support the project, and more importantly continues to believe in the capabilities of the project team and will back you up during these difficult times. When your leadership is weak and feels the heat below their feet, they might do a 180° on the project to save their own career. We are not talking about pulling the plug because the project is as dead as a doornail, but rather about putting individual needs above the collective needs of the project (and organization). The latter means trouble. And big time.
Leadership is a walking billboard for your project and crucial to get the message across the organization. In support of the leadership, management is also key to the success of the project and especially if they are the end user. They will translate the business needs and why of the project to their team, creating a much needed support base by getting them excited about the project, upcoming rollout and operational use later on. Kick off change management as soon as possible to get everyone in the organization aligned. Open communication is key and works both ways so listening might get you valuable input.
The operational team
When the A team takes off, the operational team comes in. A project can be delivered successfully, and still fail big time afterwards. This is due to the lack of ownership of the operational team.
So what went wrong? More than often projects are done without even involving the operational team. By the end of the project a handover is scheduled, dropping everything in their lap and off you go. Problem one, they don’t have any feeling with the project as they were not involved. So they might not understand why they need to use new tools or business processes while nothing is wrong with the old ones. They are clearly missing out on the why of the project. Problem two, missing ownership might kill your project faster than you can count to ten. People don’t like change. If you don’t give them the right context, tools and support, they will go back to the old way of working in no time. This is why projects might still fail after a successful go live.
The operational team does not need to be part of the project team to be involved or kept in the loop. It is often even a good idea to not include them in the project team, but always make sure you involve them by:
- Organizing workshops to gather relevant input. They know way more than you. All you have to do is ask, listen and take notes.
- Include them in regular status meetings (not more than once a week!). They take part in the meeting and get an update on steroids.
Believe us. This is not a waste of time!
Project management is obviously our firepower. We love doing projects, big and small, and are very good at it. It’s like our brains are wired like that. Over the years we have done (and saved) a lot of projects, even those that were already below the Mason Dixon line before it was dropped in our lap. This gave us the chance and expertise to develop our own project methodology EASD. Is this the answer to the huge failure rates in project management? Hell no but it is a good start! EASD is an agile methodology that allows you to effectively manage your projects while optimizing the ownership from stakeholders. It stimulates involvement and increases the quality of the output drastically, while reducing time spent on the project.
Disclosure: We know that the mind-blowing project failure rates are not limited to HR. Projects fail elsewhere too. And big time. But we’re in the HR business, so we limited our point of view to HR.