Capitalizing on Success and Learning from Failure

By Patrick Gray

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So much has been written about how to manage implementation efforts; from the nuances of costing and resource allocation, to the latest methodology that will virtually guarantee success, many of us have spent countless hours focusing on the process of driving an implementation to completion.

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The time spent of pouring over business cases and sweating through meetings with C-suite colleagues all strives towards that proverbial light at the end of the tunnel, whether it is a celebration of success or acknowledgement of defeat. While IT has grown immeasurably better at getting off the starting blocks and running the race, we are very poor at knowing what to do once we have reached the finish line.

The Failure of Success

Moments after recovering from post-implementation celebrations, IT leaders and staffers breathe a collective sigh of relief, and then immediately ask, “Now what?;” scattering in the direction of the next opportunity.

Consultants are dismissed to control costs, and business users gallop back to their former positions hoping to parlay their project experience into higher positions. Years of project documentation are hastily shuffled to a folder on a shared drive somewhere, and business cases with painstaking return calculations are stuffed into binders, destined to collect dust for years.

Failed projects create a similar rush of people, from consultants rushing for the exit as soon as another client appears, to project staff abandoning ship for the fear that the failed project will leave a mark on their record. No one wants to pick up the pieces, or harvest anything of value lest they be associated with “that” project. Whatever valuable process designs, technical solutions or new tools that have been developed are abandoned, further compounding the losses incurred by the failed project.

Should anyone’s worst fears of having their career unjustly hampered by the failed project actually come true, the tale will become amplified and added to the lore of the organization, so much so that fear of failure will curtail risk taking and decision making, two keys to a successful IT organization.

Closing Well

Ending an implementation means far more than a cocktail party, slaps on the back or a mass stampede running for cover in the case of failure. Most implementation projects produce significant pieces of valuable work that can be captured and used should a similar implementation be attempted in the future. It can also be fed into another project.

Think of the hundreds of hours spent investigating and documenting current business processes. Even if a technology implementation fails, this work can be used in any effort, be it a process redesign or another technology project. In the case of a successful project, there is often similar process-level documentation detailing the new way of doing business that can feed training efforts, or future process redesign efforts.

A forward-thinking IT organization should develop a project closing plan that can be used as a template for every project. Valuable activities like harvesting documentation and ensuring consultants and vendors have actually completed knowledge transfer, to the more mundane, like tracking cubicles and computers that can be returned to the general population, should all be included in this process.

Ideally, a PMO-type organization will create this plan, and, in some cases, can actually carry out the closing process, since it must begin well before an implementation completes, and would place an unnecessary burden on line-level project managers.

With such a plan in place, instead of the post-project shuffle, everyone knows what they are expected to do before heading off for other opportunities. Their success should rest as much on their ability to close the project successfully as it did on reaching the go-live date in the first place.

Capturing Value

As a CIO, one of your key interests should be developing your people. HR is often an afterthought as an implementation nears its critical dates, creating much angst among employees wondering what will happen to their careers, regardless of whether the project is a success or failure.

In either extreme, there is a high risk that the new talents and experiences an employee may have garnered are tarnished based on the outcome of an implementation, or not documented in the rush to move to the next effort.

A manager’s actions during a failing project may demonstrate their leadership abilities far more dramatically than one who coasts through a textbook victory. Capturing these experiences and feeding them into the HR process is critical, and is an activity that should be one of the top tasks for the CIO as a large implementation nears its end.

The losses from failing to monitor the post-implementation process are even more acute than losing process documentation and any completed technical work, as some of your best people may be thrown out in the zeal to cleanse the organization’s palate after a bad implementation.

Build a Better Project

The intent of all these activities — capturing anything of value from an implementation that can be leveraged in a future project, closing a project efficiently and ensuring people are rewarded and their talents recognized independently of the status of a project — are all tools to make future implementations more successful.

Combining these efforts with a periodical review of past implementations that tracks them against their original business cases can improve an organizations ability to design projects and predict returns.

Combine this “post mortem” review with effective management of the closing process and you will capture additional value that is traditionally left untapped, especially in the case of a failed effort.

Getting to the finish line is only half the battle, capitalizing on success or learning from failure will give you a head start before the next implementation even begins.

Patrick Gray is the founder and President of Prevoyance Group, located in Harrison, NY. Prevoyance Group provides strategic IT consulting services. Past clients include Gillette, Pitney Bowes, OfficeMax and several other Fortune 500 and 1000 companies. Patrick can be reached at patrick.gray@prevoyancegroup.com.