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Five Tips to Avoid Costly Project Pitfalls

Have you ever served on a project team responsible for implementing a new enterprise software solution that failed to launch? There’s nothing more frustrating than juggling your day job while also participating on a time-intensive project team—only to find that despite everyone’s best efforts to go live under budget and on schedule, the project just falls short.

Many companies do a great job of researching, evaluating, and selecting solutions. But few take the necessary steps to ensure the implementation meets their original goals. Companies select and purchase solutions when spreadsheets, shared drives, and emails prohibit them from running the business effectively. They turn to “nirvana” in the form of an enterprise-level system like a product lifecycle management(PLM) solution to streamline business processes, improve product quality, and speed time to market. These companies hope to capitalize on industry-standard platforms and best business practices for their internal teams and supply chain partners.

Over the past 25 years, I’ve been helping cross-functional teams implement software solutions, and all projects flirt with failure at some point. Although impossible to predict at the onset what the exact project challenges might be, the common denominator to many successful projects is the executive sponsor.

Virtually every company I’ve worked with realizes that enterprise software touches many departments. The core project implementation team should, and often does, include cross-functional, cross-departmental key process stakeholders and subject matter experts (SMEs). But who is at the helm? Without an executive sponsor to lead the team, implementations can fall subject to costly pitfalls and indecision that threaten the scope, schedule, and/or ultimate success of the implementation.

Here are the top five challenges, with tips and examples, where executive sponsors help ensure successful implementations:

Challenge #1: You don’t know what you don’t know

What you know on day one of a project and at go-live are typically very different. You may learn that there are sub-processes and resources that are only known through tribal knowledge. There are a myriad of unknowns or blind spots that come to light only after cross-functional project teams begin to interact. For example, when scrap costs exceed $5,000, engineering teams might be required to include the finance department to approve proposed engineering design changes. Or, the team may need niche skills for data extraction or analysis.

I recall leading a five-month implementation project where we hit a major snag in the final month that threatened to derail the entire project. Dashboards quickly escalated to red alerts on cost, schedule, and deliverables—we were at a complete impasse. The executive sponsor coordinated consensus at the management level that postponing go-live by one month was an acceptable mitigation. So, while we were on hiatus, the executive sponsor rallied to re-allocate resources on a downstream system to address the critical roadblock.

Tip: The executive sponsor can mitigate the risk of knowledge gaps by communicating and connecting with appropriate internal or external resources.

Challenge #2: Your team’s plate is already full

No one has a room full of subject matter experts (SMEs) sitting around with nothing to do. Your employees already have a full plate when they join the implementation team. So, it is understandable and unfortunate that the implementation project must continue to compete for mindshare and scheduled deliverables.

In my experience, the implementation project doesn’t always win the priority battle. However, I have had executive sponsors successfully negotiate for alternate resources and, in one case, our go-live date was postponed, accommodating a key project release date with management’s blessing.

Tip: The executive sponsor has a broader business perspective and can communicate vertically or laterally in the organization to ensure that the project receives appropriate priority and resource allocation in the context of other company priorities.

#3: Scope creep

Scope creep is the common enemy of all projects and project teams. The core team is convened for a specific time and with a limited budget to deliver agreed-upon business objectives. It’s easy for team members to want more than was originally planned as they learn more about features and functions of the new system. However, as the project progresses, the scope of the implementation can morph and expand significantly. Given decentralized decision-making by the core team, scope creep commonly goes unchecked.

In my least successful project (one notably without an executive sponsor), the scope creep was so prevalent and pervasive that we ran out of budget before the project could be launched. Much to the dismay of the project team and the company, they were forced to re-launch the implementation two years later.

Tip: The executive sponsor can help mitigate the risk of scope creep by monitoring and vetting initial scope and changing requirements and the inherent impact on the project schedule, cost, and quality of core functionality to be delivered. And, the sponsor can be the ultimate referee when the team can’t reach consensus or tries to expand beyond the original stated goals and statement of work: Are these changes in the company’s best interest?

Challenge #4: Failure to adapt and adopt

Unless the entire company reads the book “Who Moved My Cheese? to learn how to deal with change, the core team will likely encounter entrenchment and resistance to change, as well as challenges rolling out the solution to the entire company.

On a complicated, multi-track implementation, a small design team in one location dug in—they would not use the new software unless it included additional features they deemed necessary. We couldn’t go live with partial adoption—it was an all-or-nothing endeavor. After a few unsuccessful meetings to address their concerns, we invited the executive sponsor to the next meeting. He listened, summarized, and acknowledged their concerns, and then delivered the corporate directive: adapt and adopt. Without the intervention and support of the executive sponsor, no one on the project team had the authority to make this mandate stick.

Tip: Acting as the “change champion,” the executive sponsor is department agnostic and ensures the organization is informed and prepared to “adapt and adopt” before and after the new system goes live.

Challenge #5: “Those who do not know history are doomed to repeat it.” – Edmund Burke

Enterprise-level projects are ripe with opportunities for continuous improvement. Although each one has its own unique challenges and solutions, a 360-degree project post-mortem assessment helps harvest institutional learning.

On one PLM implementation, the project team’s subjective opinion was that the project was successful, and more interestingly, objective records of tracked issues confirmed: the issues log was significantly smaller than other projects of the same size and complexity. In the project post-mortem, the executive sponsor helped identify project participants, characteristics, and deliverables that translated directly to project success. Our implementation became the project standard to which all future projects should aspire.

Tip: The executive sponsor is in a unique position to recognize and acknowledge individuals, key contributions, project metrics for success, and methodologies that will help the business execute its next project better, faster, and stronger than the last.

Organizations dig deep for enterprise-level project budgets, and few can afford to scrap those efforts and start again from scratch. Implementations cost companies significant time, money, and company resources. Leading implementation teams for over 20 years has proven the value of having executive sponsors from initial project scoping through production go-live. The cost of enterprise software might be small or large, but having an executive sponsor is priceless.