Making changes in companies can be scary. Few companies approach change without serious considerations or a plan in place. Plans come in all forms; some companies leave the planning to a person they trust, while others only have a high-level plan. Still others have tactically intricate plans which are not only detailed, but carefully scheduled. Despite best efforts most plans have gaps. Planning gaps can exist due to a lack of due diligence, inadvertent oversight, or misplaced confidence. These gaps can be known, or should have been known prior to the start of the change. However, there are other gaps that are very difficult to foresee. Unforeseen roadblocks, changes in economic climate, and the development of other initiatives with competing goals can impede even the most well planned project. Successful planning for change should anticipate not only the known tasks and activities but also potential gaps that do and can occur.
Obviously the first step is to have a plan. The plan, even from the very beginning, should have a clear scope, estimated timeline, and projected budget. Risks should be clearly articulated. The development of that plan should include a diverse and cross-functional review. Reviewers should ask questions, test assumptions, and challenge the thinking at all levels of the plan. Project professionals, functional experts, experienced implementers, and even customers should be involved. These people have the ability to see potential pitfalls that have been experienced by other projects and similar initiatives. It might also be a good idea to gather information from completed projects; learning from their successes and failures. We have worked with a company for many years that systematically requires documentation of applicable lessons learned from similar and related projects at the outset of the project. While this does not always ensure that the project team will heed these lessons, it at least provides decision makers a perspective and some helpful experience that can be summoned if needed. A wise executive will question what a project team knows about previous successes or failures to make sure the team’s plan has credibility.
Even with the best laid plans, things change. There will be unforeseen issues and the plan will require modifications. With this in mind, plans need to be flexible, with room to change course and pivot when necessary. A good project plan gives the project team the opportunity to learn from their experiences and leave space for modifications over the course of the transformation. Additionally, the project team needs to take steps throughout the course of the project to remain well-informed. By frequently engaging with impacted groups, related projects, and key executives, the project is able to keep track of any previously unforeseen events that might impact the project. A major real estate initiative moving 5,000 people from a closed-office environment to an open-space design was carefully planned to save the company millions of dollars. Midway through the effort, the industry began enjoying windfall margins. Profits soared and competition for scarce talent rose. What had been an aggressive cost-saving initiative to increase profits was now seen as a potentially negative differentiator in an all-out talent war. The project was slow to respond and no sooner than it was completed, a new project was commissioned to modify the space. Measuring, engaging, and sampling the environment regularly, and often, can help the project team can stay ahead of any changes.
Don’t ignore the “buffers.” The notion of planning and allowing time to re-plan or modify plans seems intuitive, but despite the best intentions, project teams often short change success by eliminating these “buffers” from project plans. My colleagues and I have worked on literally hundreds of technology projects and, with some predictability; the first line item in a schedule to be sacrificed is User Acceptance Testing (UAT). As development timelines run longer than planned and deadlines loom nearer and nearer, UAT becomes a “nice to have” and gets cut. Every project has to deal with compressed timelines or hard dates for go-live events, but completely eliminating tests and time allocated for necessary modifications needed to improve adoption or overall project returns seems counter intuitive. Similarly, removing all contingency out of a project plan to try and condense the timeline will always put a project team at risk. Timelines must be condensed and business must push for more value quicker, but to tell a team that they can only use what they know at the beginning of a project, even if that project is two years from completion, seems, at least on large scale transformative efforts, to be a recipe for disaster.
Moving from a current state to a future state is rarely a simple process. Human behavior, economic conditions, and the time required to produce innovative and imaginative solutions can be difficult to predict. Creating a solid project plan and then allowing time for modifications to that plan are critical to delivering a meaningful change. The project team needs to take steps throughout the course of the project to remain well-informed. Constantly reviewing and measuring progress, engaging with impacted groups frequently, and tracking and monitoring risks are all activities that will help the project team stay ahead of changes and move the project forward effectively.
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