A large part of my job is project management. I oversee the results of the training program I manage, I motivate and energise the teams involved in it, and I implement smaller projects within the program to improve it and reduce cost. This year, we’re hoping to make a lot of innovations, though of course it is all dependent on resource and time. What do I mean by innovations? Obviously we make changes to improve things all the time. What I mean here are significant changes where we take giant leaps of faith, completely changing the way we do things or using completely new products / services / technologies. This involves a lot of research, development, training and support.
Deciding which innovative projects to implement and the strategy you’re going to adopt can be difficult when technology is involved, especially if there is a significant difference in the old and new technologies. However it gets even more difficult when large numbers of people need to be brought on board, with big changes in competence. You not only have to work out which personnel are going to help you drive the innovation, but also train large numbers of people and this is in addition to making the change.
I’ve been asked several times over the last year, why did we change this piece of software, or why did we implement that program. Often people assume it’s about cost (because let’s face it, in business it usually is) but sometimes, it’s about the user experience as well. As a trainer, I won’t adopt software just because it’s cheap; for me it has to be easy to use and somewhat intuitive if possible. When I decide to make a change, it’s because I believe in the change. Nothing less will do. Why? Because implementations are risky.
When you decide to do something, to implement a new program, to change existing working methods, your credibility is on the line. In short you are publicly telling your team and any other staff in your vicinity that “We can do it!” When you consider that all implementations involve large scale changes (and this means Risk with a capital “R”), it is definitely scary putting your reputation on the line.
If the implementation is successful, then your credibility soars, you get moved to larger projects and you are seen as being innovative. However, it is not just you who is responsible for the implementation. Other members of your team / service / site / factories are involved and their commitment to the implementation will have an effect. Unfortunately, this is just one of many factors that you have to take into consideration, assess and put measures in place to control. If the implementation goes badly, you and your team can spend years trying to recover and overcome the negative backlash.
In addition to involving multiple people in the implementation, others will be impacted by the change as well. For the implementation to be successful, these impacts need to be analysed carefully and training programs / communication plans put into place, otherwise they will have a negative impact later. What is the population of people affected by the change? Are they young, old? Is there a culture of continuous improvement in place? Are they used to change? Remember the old adage “You can’t teach and old dog new tricks”? Imagine trying to get them to adopt new technology, new software. Change is hard, especially on thosewho are out of the habit of learning and are set in their ways.
Implementations also involve beginnings, ends and changes. Regardless of the type of innovation, (new contracts, changes to programs or software) there are expectations when we use the word implementation. Expectations that can be unrealistic or unachievable given the current level of resource / budget. Delays or over spending of the budget brings along with it fiscal and contractual risk. What exactly are your managers expecting? What exactly do you and your team expect? What exactly do the end users expect? Are they the same thing?
Managing the risk is vital, starting with understanding what is at stake. This is often underestimated and a common mistake is thinking that the person controlling the purse strings / budget “likes you and / or understands where you are coming from.” They may like you, but ultimately, they will do what is right for them. Instead think WIIFT, or what’s in it for them. Why are they willing to invest? What do they get out of it? Meeting their needs, rather than yours should be first on your to do list.
Does any of this mean that you shouldn’t innovate though? No, far from it. It simply means that when you innovate, you need to accept that there is an element of risk. Make thorough plans, make as much of the process as possible completely transparent and get early buy in from your team. Some argue that getting early buy in from your managers is risky. If they don’t like the initial idea, they can shut it down before it even starts. In addition, even when you have done further research to prove your idea many will still dislike it, simply because it is human nature to see what you want to see, in this case they will find holes in the project as they are expecting to see holes to back up their earlier assessment. However, if you do plenty of research beforehand and work out what is in it for your investor / manager, you are more likely to get support and early support can make the difference when reducing possible delays and smoothing over difficulties.
Accept also that you are going to make mistakes and where possible budget for the mistakes. This may sound odd especially when you need to get buy in from managers above you, but a good management team will understand that mistakes happen when you are being innovative and will respect you more if you plan for them. I remember one project a few years ago that was actually successful, but needed much more support and effort on my side than I could ever have envisaged. We’re planning another change this year along similar lines and I simply will not do the change in the same way. The software we currently use to create training material is somewhat cumbersome now (although when we first got it, it was top of the line). I plan to change it; however this means updating all of the existing training content, training all of the current team and changing the way we work significantly. Instead of asking my local teams to make the change with their limited resources, I’m going to create a small central team of specialists who will do the bulk of the changeover work for the local teams, leaving just end user training to do with the bulk of the people who will eventually use it. This will significantly lessen the impact of the change on the majority of the people and so increase the chance that the end users will accept the change more readily. Of course, I am also planning to market the new software and I’ve identified the key people in my organisation who will be open to the change and find it immediately see the usefulness and so have incentive to make the change. Once they are sold on the new software, they will in turn impact their networks and so on and so on. You are always more receptive to an idea from someone you trust.
Another point I would advice is to give yourself leeway in terms of time and don’t underestimate or overestimate how much you are going to spend in an effort to look good. When you spend significantly less than what you plan to spend it shows bad management just as over spending does. Quite simply, you haven’t planned correctly. Gantt charts are great and I use them a lot, but you need to put thought behind the calculations. Allow for human error, but still aim to optimise the time you have. It’s a balancing act!
Once you have identified all of your risks and then assessed their impact, you will know which risks could cripple your project and which ones have a high likelihood of occurrence. You can then take it one step further and identify ways to reduce the risks that have a high likelihood and high severity. You are more likely to be successful if you have contingency plans in place. Obviously you cannot plan for every eventuality, but you can identify most of them.
Finally, if you can’t be passionate about the change, no one will be. If you are nervous about the change, others around you will be even more so. Accept the risks, plan to mitigate them as much as possible, acknowledge your mistakes and improve your strategy as a result of them. Put good people in place around you, who also believe in the plan and are optimistic about it. Then and only then will you succeed!