the critical step
by David Blumenthal and Ray Stoddard
THE PLANNING SESSION for the implementation of a project is the most fundamental, yet overlooked, element in the entire implementation process. That's when the project manager and team establish the values that will exist for as long as they will be working together.
Before you really start to work with your partners and colleagues, imagine the benefits of working with them. Think how you could meet their needs, eliminate their fears, and reinforce the values that are important to them by acting in a certain manner or responding with a special sensitivity.
Implementation planning sessions offer the perfect place to establish the foundation for cooperation. A properly facilitated meeting allows all voices to be heard. Frequently, people discover that someone whom they thought had little to contribute becomes a font of valuable insight. Creative solutions and ideas become the order of the day.
Here's a critical lesson of implementation planning: We assume we understand each other's viewpoints. This is an enormous misconception. The planning meetings, however, by exposing every viewpoint and situation, help grow the knowledge of the group geometrically. While we, as facilitators, benefit from this information, it is the group that most often derives the greatest value.
As a result of the nature and value of these sessions, we believe they are most effective as group workshops rather than private meetings with individuals. Individual meetings provide only two people's perspectives; dialogue or reaction to a statement or position is limited. Differences and nuances in approach or needs will not become apparent.
Since the possibilities of conflict and the forming of relationships must be nurtured at this early stage, we recommend that such meetings be facilitated either by an outside body or by an experienced professional from within the organization. The sessions should be recorded so that minutes can be distributed within 24 hours, and people can have changes recorded and noted while their thoughts remain fresh.
David Blumenthal is CEO and Ray Stoddard is a senior consultant for Flash Creative Management, a Hackensack, N.J., management consulting firm that works with businesses to map strategies and build the supporting technology and processes to achieve their objectives.
Effective implementation planning sessions afford some very tangible benefits. They allow the team to:
Develop a realistic plan for implementing the project
Anticipate where things can go wrong and plan for them
Create an implementation strategy that will address the needs of all members of the organization who will be affected by the changes that occur with successful completion of the project
Foster an implementation strategy that causes minimal disruption within the organization
Provide a plan that can be funded as benefits occur
Detail an activity plan that clearly defines tasks, deliverables, roles, accountabilities, dependabilities, timetables, and costs.
Success will become evident when people begin to change the context within which they speak with one another. When not operating from a plan or a sense of being connected with one another, people report only on their tasks. When operating from within the context of a plan, they report how they are doing according to the plan and the work as it relates to what they have promised to others.
Creating Our Future
In The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People [Simon & Schuster Trade, 1989], Stephen Covey explains that it is most appropriate to “begin with the end in mind.” He bases this “habit” on the principle that all things are created twice: first as a mental creation, then as a physical one.
In software development, there is analysis and design before there is coding. In building a home, design documents precede construction. In starting a business, a business plan should be written before opening the doors.
In project management, then, the natural first step is to understand the end for which we are aiming. What constitutes success? How will we know we were successful? What will it feel like to us and to others who have a stake in the outcome? To do so, we must first imagine what “winning” means. This visioning allows us to appreciate success and gives us a real target.
For example, a completed automation project might mean having new computers with new technology on everyone's desk, less than five phone calls an hour to the help desk, and 90 percent of the staff using this new approach and technology within the first month.
With the “end” now defined, we work backward from the future to the present by asking what has to occur in order to lead to that desired outcome. We call this process a “gap statement.” Since it is created from the future backward to the present, a gap statement tends to provide us with a list of only the necessary tasks required to lead to the envisioned future.
In Critical Chain [The New River Press, 1997], Eliyahu Goldratt identifies many of the reasons behind project delays. Among them is the interjection of activities that will ultimately provide little value to the customer of the project. These tasks are included because someone thinks they might add value or because they are interesting to do.
As project leaders, our responsibilities are to weed out these unnecessary tasks and deliver only what is required to provide the value that the customer requested. Additional features will only delay completion and cause more difficulty than anticipated. It also increases the probability that one's internal or external customers will choose an alternative means of getting their work done. This loss of customers is difficult to recover from.
To fully appreciate this concept, we need to consider the value that a project represents at its various stages of completion.
At its conception, a project has strategic value. It affords leadership an opportunity to put a physical shape and structure around its strategic direction.
In its creation stage, it has marketing value. Sales professionals can market the future result to prospects and clients and organizational leadership can market internally to help prepare the organization for change.
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Until completion, however—and this is a very critical point—a project remains simply an investment. It realizes its full value only when deployed successfully. As a result, we need to keep the project as simple as possible and complete it as quickly as possible. If more features would be of value, create a second or third project to follow the original one.
Analyzing Risk and Creating Mitigation Strategies. This entails an understanding of all the things that can go wrong and determining which ones we care about so that strategies can be planned to minimize or eliminate their impact. The benefits of planning for such events allow the project team to maintain its focus, gain further confidence that it can achieve its goal, and have a plan of action should something go awry.
There are several elements to this part of the planning process: capturing the risk factors, assessing the probability of the risk occurring, assessing the impact if it occurs, determining acceptable levels of risk for the group, identifying the earliest possible manifestation of that risk occurring, and planning your action in response to it occurring.
The first step is to have the group brainstorm about all of the potential things that could go wrong. Regardless of how unlikely the occurrence, we add it to the list. These risks may be external factors such as the company receiving more orders for business than anticipated and the need to redeploy project staff or internal risks such as the supplied business specifications being inadequate.
Once we've created our list of potential risks, we are in a position to assess the probability or likelihood of the risk occurring. This step is the first of two subjective judgmental phases designed to enable the group to set aside those concerns less likely to transpire so that it can focus exclusively on those risks worthy of attention. We typically characterize likelihood as having a high, medium, or low probability.
We then perform the same exercise as it relates to the impact of each of our potential risk factors by answering the question, “For each and every risk factor, regardless of its probability, what would be the impact if it occurred?”
A high impact indicates that if this risk were to materialize it would prevent us from achieving our objectives. Conversely, low impact items can be managed easily, and represent nothing more than “bumps in the road.”
At this juncture, we've captured every possible risk factor and assessed likelihood and impact rates for each. Determining whether we should mitigate this risk is a subjective exercise, not unlike answering the question, “How much insurance do we need to buy?”
Of the six possible permutations, we recommend that at least two—high probability with high impact and medium probability with high impact—be addressed. A decision on the others would be determined by the group's tolerance levels.
Our very long list of risks has now been reduced to a much more manageable subset. We next must create a mechanism whereby we can recognize when a risk has materialized. These manifestations would represent the first indication that it's time to put our plan into action.
We refer to these manifestations as triggers. For each of these factors, we acknowledge at least one trigger that will prompt us to act. The trigger, for example, that project owners are not willing to devote time to the project might be their absence from two out of three meetings. Corrective action, as a result, would need to be taken.
After completing the triggers for each of our threshold risk factors, we now dedicate ourselves to planning the strategies that will protect the project from damage. After completing this list of mitigation strategies, we revisit the rest of the risk factors to see if any of these strategies can be applied elsewhere to increase the level of team comfort.
We have found that groups literally release a collective sigh once this analysis is completed, physically relieved that they can control their own destiny and that a way exists from them to manage their worst fears.
Creating the Implementation Strategy. An implementation strategy enables us to manage the changes required with minimum disruption to the organization and its various stakeholders, also addressing the concerns of stakeholders outside the project team. We begin the process by compiling a list of other people who are vested in the project's success. At the top of the list would be the project sponsors. The company leadership certainly has a stake in a successful implementation, as do the departments and individuals affected by the project. External customers are also betting their businesses that we will be successful. How the organization and its clients phase-in the new practices, processes, or technology matters most to each of these stakeholders. While the intensity of their concern may vary, they generally all want to minimize the risk associated with massive change.
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The implementation strategy is the way we choose to address the concerns of our stakeholders. Once we know their concerns, we can create a strategy that satisfies them and will allow our implementation program to be approved. We have many avenues and combinations open to us, a number of which are identified below. With each item there are several questions, the answers to which will determine our strategy.
Phased Organizational Approach. What is the sequencing of organizational units for implementation? Which groups should be implemented first? Who should follow and in what sequence? What rationale should be used to determine choice?
Product/Service-Based Approach. What is the sequencing of products and services for implementation? Should the change be introduced for one product or service at a time or for several? Which should be implemented first, which should follow, and in what sequence? What should be the rationale by which we choose?
Customer/Supplier-Based Approach. What is the sequencing of customers and/or suppliers for implementation? Should they be brought into the environment one at a time or grouped and sequenced? Which customers and/or suppliers should be implemented first, which should follow, and in what sequence? What should be the rationale we use?
Technology-Based Approach. How should new technologies be introduced to stakeholders? Must interim technology changes be made first? Should the new technology be introduced to everyone at the same time? Do we need to purchase all the new technology at one time or can we more effectively manage the costs by phasing in this facet of the implementation? How will we eliminate or phase-out legacy systems? If we decide to phase-in the new technology, how will the systems exist in parallel? What changes will we need to make to our processes, training efforts, and ways of doing things to accommodate this approach?
Geographical-Based Approach. Should we phase-in certain locations before others? What is the sequencing? Should they be brought in one at a time or grouped? How should we choose?
Process-Based Approach. Should certain processes be transitioned to the new approach before others? If so, which ones, and why? What dependencies must we take into consideration? Is there a set of core changes that must occur before we even implement one process?
Creating the Implementation Activity Plan. By now, we have built the foundation for creating a detailed activity plan that will be prepared from the documents that have already been developed: the gap statement and the implementation planning strategy.
The gap statement represents the events that must occur. The implementation strategy represents the rollout program for the project. Before we can develop goals and measures for success, the implementation strategy must be integrated with the gap statement.
The gap statement provides a list of events; the implementation strategy refines the manner in which those events must be accomplished to address the unique concerns of the organization's stakeholders.
We can now create measures of success to indicate that a phase has been completed successfully. We call these measures, “goals.”
Goals should be S-M-A-R-T, which means specific, measurable, achievable, related to your primary objective, and time-based. An effective goal needs to focus on the specific results we wish to achieve, rather than on completion of a single task. One should be able to measure the goal to be certain it has been achieved. It should be related to the overall project for it to be meaningful, and it should have a time constraint attached to it.
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Effective, well-written performance objectives should contain an action verb, a result, a time frame, and a measurement (e.g., a cost or other quantifier). An example of this type of performance objective might be “To create (action verb) a budget (results) by 1 June 1999 (time frame) that is approved by our chief financial officer (measurement).”
Stakeholders need to agree on what constitutes achievement. We have seen many projects in which the implementation team prepares and implements a strategy and, to its dismay, finds that one or more of its stakeholders label its results insufficient and refuse to go forward.
Defining the Rules of Engagement. For groups to be effective, the environment and culture in which they operate must be considered. Without appropriate rules or traditions, people will likely be disappointed with their colleagues’ responses. People often feel uncomfortable when their expectations are inconsistent with actions taken.
We recommend that certain basic responsibilities be clearly defined at the outset and unanimously agreed upon. This includes procedures for honoring commitments; communicating progress and breakdowns; identifying new risks (as they may arise) and recommending ways to mitigate them; monitoring the implementation; and making decisions and resolving issues.
The group should also assess those specific areas not covered in the preceding list that uniquely concern it. Clear rules and/or guidelines should be created for those areas.
Designing an Accountability Plan. The final stage, fashioning a project team accountability plan, helps identify the makeup of the team and the authority necessary to deliver the project successfully.
Organizational leaders will want to know two things about a project: what it will cost in time, money, and people; what will be the return on investment.
Both the organization's leadership and the project team must experience a confidence that both items will be answered satisfactorily. The reasons for the first group are obvious, since they decide whether or not to fund the project. The confidence of the project team becomes bulletproof when a detailed plan and individual accountabilities are known to all.
There are two steps toward attaining this confidence. The first is to fully understand the task at hand. This begins by focusing on several core management areas that, within each project, require attention: communication management, cultural change management, education and training management, technology development, and proof-of-concept (if appropriate). Each area's set of activities should be documented. This will allow us to identify what needs to be accomplished and what skill sets need to exist on each team. Armed with this information, we have a basis by which to request the participation of specific team members needed to get the job done.
The second step is to assign accountable parties from our roster of team members and request estimates in terms of time frames for the delivery of each item. People need to enter the time it will take them to accomplish each task without any safety margins or buffers. It is better to keep the team members focused on completing their individual tasks in the shortest time frame so that the work does not expand to fit the allotted time. We will, however, allow for unexpected or untoward events occurring by buffering the project as a whole rather than individual tasks within the project. This gives us the most latitude for effective project management.
How much detail is necessary in the implementation activity plan? Our view is that there should be enough detail so that people can take their direction from the plan. The plan should be the “last word,” rather than the word of the members of the project team.
ARMED WITH A PROJECT plan that addresses all the key concerns, we are in a position to lead our team and provide sound project management.
Reader Service Number 027
October 1999 PM Network