Why is it that some system conversions go well, and some don’t? In my experience, the issue always seems to be more about the personnel than about the product. Ultimately it comes down to the quality of people and whether they have an adequate understanding of the impact of the project on the business. Given that firms change their major business system every 10+ years, it’s highly unlikely that they have the right staff with the right skills and the bandwidth to take on these projects. So how do you address these two critical areas? Invest in two key roles for the duration of large-scale initiatives: a senior-level programme director and a change management expert. Here’s why.
The importance of a senior-level programme director
Many firms walk into system conversion projects without a full appreciation of the effort involved and the quality of that effort. Often they’ll hire a project manager, perhaps a junior-level person, and are then shocked when the project takes longer and costs more money than anticipated – in many cases causing disputes with the software vendor. But if you don’t have excellent people in key roles, swapping-out a major business system like a PMS or ERP is going to be a difficult and traumatic project for all concerned.
The purpose of a programme director is threefold; to manage the overarching project strategy and decision making with the firm’s partnership and executive committee; to manage the project steering board and run tactics with the team delivering the solution within the firm; and also to be the firm’s point of contact for the vendor. This last point is crucial. The person filling this role should be an expert who is able to liaise with the software supplier and already know the supplier’s people and product extremely well.
That’s way more than a typical project manager’s role in terms of the skills and experience required!
During a PMS/ERP project, you have a number of key stages and decisions that have to be made to move the project forward. If you don’t make those decisions – guess what? The project doesn’t concertina and the go-live date keeps getting pushed out! Firm management needs to understand the consequence of not making important decisions within a specific period of time. The person in the programme director role needs to deliver this message and manage that group – which is a challenging environment to be in. Therefore, you need a person that can operate at that level, to mix with CFOs, CIOs, executive directors, and managing partners. This is absolutely not a job for a junior-level person.
Many firms will task senior-level people to work on the project in line with their day job. But it’s not very realistic for a financial consultant to be able to carve out loads of their ‘business as usual’ time for a system swap out. A better approach is to have the aforementioned programme director work with the internal subject matter and process experts to ensure that they are involved in the correct way. Yes, it’s an additional investment, but given the overall investment in the project, the level of scrutiny that will be on it, and the downside of it not going well – surely it pays huge dividends to have an expert keeping your project within scope and on schedule.
How investing in a change management expert pays off
Another key role is a change management expert who manages the journey as the project develops, through the implementation, and critically beyond go live. If you’ve worked on an implementation, you’ll know that typically only a very small group of people are engaged in the software selection process. Sometimes you invite a broader group to participate in demos. But the emotional journey of deciding what to do and how to do it is actually only gone through by a small number of people relative to the firm’s size and the number of staff.
Without an active change management process, the day you go live, you suddenly take everybody else on that journey. If they’ve had little to no preparation for it, things could get dicey. You’ll have a number of people with no idea why the firm made the software change and who have not invested any real time and effort into understanding what was coming. The firm may have signed up for a vanilla and chocolate sundae, but if your users thought they’d also be getting chocolate flakes and whipped cream on top with some crushed nut sprinkles, once the software goes live, they will almost certainly resist using it – and those folks can quickly spread negativity. With a change management expert, you can start that process early and help reinforce a lot of the messaging about why you’re implementing the software and what makes it different and better.
Relying on consultants to fill the gap
Clearly, who you have in key roles influences the outcome. That’s why these two project assurance roles are incredibly important. If you don’t have these resources on staff at your firm then the solution is to fill these roles with reputable consultants.
As the saying goes – fail to prepare, prepare to fail. If you go into these projects without fully preparing, or if you don’t normally do these projects and you don’t have expertise around you to help you to prepare for it, then sadly you’re most likely going to have a very challenging time. Everyone will get a bad experience. However, if you rely on the right resources, you can adequately prepare for the project and see it through to completion. That’s what we call ‘The Wilson Way’!