Team: Just Another Four-Letter Word

Have you ever wondered why IT projects always fail?

Let’s be real for a moment. If your definition of success involves wide-based, enthusiastic adoption of an IT solution, then the vast majority of IT projects are complete failures. There have been studies after studies, for so many years, and despite all the decades of lessons learned, IT continues to show ridiculously low, single-digit success rates. Now, before you start hurling virtual boulders at me, understand a few things:

  1. I cut my teeth in Silicon Valley working with high-tech firms, spending a lot of my early years either in or very close to IT, so I’m allowed to pick on them.
  2. I have been involved in several successful change efforts, so I know what good and bad looks like.
  3. I am purposely using a very high standard of success because with transformational change, it is the only bar that matters.
  4. It’s true.

So, back to IT. Why do these projects always fail? Because they rarely have the right team deploying the change. If you do not assemble the right team to implement your transformational change, you are almost certainly doomed to fail.

There’s Only One A-Team

Your ability to build the right team for your transformation will show your strength as a leader. It’s easy to be a leader when times are easy, but this is one of those times when things get a little difficult. Here’s why. Building the right team is easy in concept, but difficult in practice. The basic principle is this: you need your best people dedicated to the effort until it is over. By “best people,” I mean your best leaders, your best managers, your best experts, and your best workers. And, by “dedicated” I mean focused on absolutely nothing other than your transformation. And “until it is over” means until the organization has successfully adopted the change, which may be far beyond the initial deployment of the change. Easier said than done, right?

The other thing to note, when assembling your team, is that you need the right influencers. These are people in the organization who have high positions and also people in the organization who have a high level of influence without a high position. In some organizations, front-line supervisors carry more influence than the General Manager because they engage directly with the workforce more. In many organizations, middle management has the most influence because they have the right balance of connection and seniority. In any case, you must identify, what I call, your locus of influence and bring these people onto your team with other key leaders, managers, experts, and workers.

There is only one A-Team in your organization, and I bet you know who they are. When I helped a large, multi-national oil and gas company transform one of its business units, the leader of the organization initially chartered a team that included one of their top leaders to run the project, an amazing deputy project manager who was extremely hard-working and organized and knew the business inside-out, a targeted cross-section of middle management who held most of the influence in the business unit, an internal Organizational Design expert, and an external, high-powered change expert (that would be me!). Once we started the detailed design of the new organization, we hand-picked all the highest performers in the business unit and brought them onto our team. We were clearly the A-Team, and everyone was pulled out of their day job to provide full focus and support to the transformation. That move takes leadership and emphasizes the importance of good sponsorship — kudos to the Vice President of that business unit for his decisiveness and conviction.

When It Is Ok to Use the B-Team

A mistake I often see leaders make is rolling off their A-Team once the change (new structure, new processes, etc.) has been initially deployed. In the worst case, there is no acknowledgment that a managed effort needs to continue; however, even with such acknowledgment there is a tendency to bring in the B-Team to manage post-deployment activities. After all, the best people in the organization need to get back to work as quickly as possible, right? Agreed. But, let’s not forget the basic principle: the effort isn’t over until the workforce has successfully adopted the change. Remember, culture is always part of a transformation, so your effort is not over until your culture is aligned with the rest of the organization’s design. That means, your A-Team must stay in place until there is strong evidence of a culture shift, which may be long after the change is initially deployed. It is never a good idea to bring in a B-Team to “finish off” the transformation.

That said, the B-Team can play a useful part in the transformation while your A-Team continues to lead, manage, and implement the change effort. On your B-Team are the most influential players in your organization who are not on the transformation effort. You will need these people in your run organization to help evangelize the change and champion small wins. One tradeoff in pulling your A-Team onto the transformation effort is that they get disconnected from the operation. This actually sets in pretty quickly because most organizations run at a quick pace. Within a matter of weeks or months, your A-Team will lose touch with what’s going on. It’s nothing to be concerned about, they will still be aware of what’s going on, just not as close as they used to be. This is where your B-Team comes in. A good partnership between the A-Team and the B-Team at this point will not only ensure good adoption, but it will also help the A-Team transition back into the run organization.

One final note on the A- vs. B-Team. It should go without saying, but I’ll say it anyway: don’t explicitly use these labels (i.e., “A-Team” and “B-Team”) with your workforce, especially the B-Team! These are internal labels to help explain the importance of separating your highest performers from the others. Explicitly calling them out as your highest performers will introduce unnecessary social divisiveness, so be cautious in how this is messaged.

Conclusion

The only way to succeed with a transformational effort is with your A-Team: your best leaders, managers, experts, workers, and influencers. Anything less just won’t work. IT projects routinely fail because they are usually staffed with the wrong teams. They rarely have the most influential leaders and managers in the organization dedicated to the project and sometimes even the “experts” assigned to the project team are second- or third-string performers (the best experts are in the run organization keeping the lights on). You just cannot do this with a major transformation. Assemble your best and brightest and keep them on the transformation team until the entire transformation — including a culture-shift — is completed. They aren’t called the A-Team for nothing. Use them when it counts the most.