Bob leads the ThreeWill Client Success practice focused on increasing value clients realize from technology initiatives. He is a senior management professional with 28+ years of experience in successful domestic and international technology initiatives across multiple industries.
The past year has certainly been a time of unexpected challenges on many fronts. I’ve seen more than one blogger invoke the “VUCA” acronym to describe it. If you aren’t familiar with that acronym, it stands for “Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, and Ambiguity” and has been used by the U.S. Army to describe modern military environments.
We’ve had conversations with many organizations over the past year that seem to have a “VUCA” perspective in planning technology initiatives. We’ve seen a surge in organizations pursuing key technology initiatives that provide efficiencies, cost reductions, and competitive advantages to deal with a “VUCA” environment.
Regardless of the type of initiative (e.g., Digital Transformation, Application Modernization, Merger/Divestiture Consolidations, etc.), they are equally laser-focused on trimming implementation budgets to the bone and/or breaking large initiatives into multiple smaller pieces to permit course corrections or revised priorities if needed. This results in increased scrutiny of initiatives and related plans to ensure that promised benefits are provided and all unnecessary costs have been removed.
The Non-Technology Gap In Your Planning for Technology Initiatives
If this scenario is familiar to you, I want to encourage you not to overlook a critical potential “gap” in your initiative planning activities. This is a “gap” we’ve seen in the thought process used by some organizations planning technology initiatives in a “VUCA” world this year. I want to describe the gap and propose a few questions that might prevent you from overlooking an important consideration for your initiative.
The “gap” I’m describing is an “accountability gap”. One of the key concepts we stress in our ThreeWill Digital Workplace Workshops is “start with why” when trying to design your digital workplace. This concept was originally mentioned by Simon Sinek in his famous “Golden Circle” talk where he used it to explain how leaders and organizations can most effectively inspire and differentiate their brand. The core idea is that understanding and articulating your “why” in any endeavor is the most effective basis for a strong value proposition.
The same is true for technology initiatives. In other words, you can make the most effective business case for a proposed initiative by focusing on “why” and then developing success criteria to support your “why”. For many initiatives, success ultimately relates to how “the business” aka “people” leverage the outputs of the initiative to solve business problems, save money, increase efficiency, increase revenue, improve customer satisfaction, etc. So, how can accountability be established for achieving desired success criteria? In most cases, it has to rely on how “people” impact the outcome of the initiative.
This accountability gap can only be bridged by considering the “people impact” of the initiative or change. You probably know where I’m going with this…when you hear people talking about the “people” side of technology change initiatives, they are probably talking about OCM (Organizational Change Management) or more commonly referred to as “Change Management”. However, “Change Management” can be a confusing and misleading term. Some people think this refers to the traditional IT service management discipline which is really about change control processes for IT services, i.e., “the process side of change”. OCM on the other hand focuses on how change impacts people and organizations, i.e., “the people side of change”. This is one of the reasons why Microsoft typically refers to OCM-type services/activities as “ACM (Adoption and Change Management)”. For this discussion, let’s just refer to this as “adoption & proficiency”.
Bottom line…you need to consider how “adoption & proficiency” for users(people) will influence the success of your initiative, how that success can be achieved, and how it can be measured. When you consider promoting success in relation to “adoption & proficiency”, some people might think this means “send an announcement email, deliver training, then go-live”. Those activities do represent tools that are part of common ACM frameworks. However, truly being accountable for initiative success from a people perspective involves much more, including identifying specific success measures and taking action based on those measures.
Ignoring the “people impacts” accountability gap could have an important negative impact on the success of your initiative.
Questions to Consider
A simple way to think through whether your initiative plan has this “non-technology” gap, is to consider a series of questions (each building upon the next).
As you consider the questions I’ve proposed below, make sure that you maintain a mindset focused on outcomes and not outputs of your initiative. Ensuring that implementation projects keep promises on deliverables (outputs) at a specified cost and on a specified schedule is important. However, being able to identify tangible business benefits and show that the project delivers those benefits (by comparing before & after measures) is equally, if not more, important.
1) What is the “people impact” on my initiative business case?
Most initiatives will have a business case (formal or informal) that identifies a Return on Investment (ROI) or a list of benefits. Think through how your ROI/benefits would be impacted if you had no people adoption & proficiency. That’s right…consider if there is any impact if you did not “move the needle” at all on adoption & proficiency. Not all initiatives have high impacts on adoption & proficiency. Consider these sample migration initiatives:
A) Migration of cloud services from single geolocation to multi-geo locations: This is purely a technical initiative that, if delivered properly, should require no changes in how people access and use the system as users are routed to the appropriate geo-location-based on best performance or in a hot-swap back up scenario. The main benefits here are redundancies for system outages and some possible system performance improvements.
B) Migration of users from one cloud-based file storage system to another system as part of an M&A scenario: The additional twist on this scenario is that this initiative is an initial phase for “lightweight” users and users are expected to manually migrate their own content.
C) Migration of users from a legacy content management system (CMS) to a new CMS: This initiative is primarily motivated by cost savings as the costs for the new CMS are bundled into an existing cloud-based SAS agreement. The goal is to achieve the cost savings by eliminating the legacy system and provide access to content in the new system with similar features for users, i.e., no new features/enhanced capabilities are planned. Consequently, this initiative should complete the technical migration as quickly and cost-effectively as possible.
How would you classify these initiatives for “adoption & proficiency” impact? While most initiatives will have some people impact, initiative “A” should be transparent to users. So, it would probably have little or no people impact if properly executed. Initiative “B” is likely at the other end of the spectrum as “people impacts” are huge. If people don’t understand how (and if) they are supposed to migrate their content, the entire initiative could fail.
At first glance, you might think initiative “C” is similar to initiative “A”, i.e., benefits/ROI are mainly related to cost savings for the legacy system. However, real-world experience indicates this is not true! This initiative involved some significant “moving of user’s cheese” from one system to an entirely new system. While achieving a “like for like” migration was a goal, the reality is likely to be different. People impacts play a significant role in the initiative. For example, suppose a key business process has to be changed due to the capabilities of the new system and this initially causes confusion with users and results in initially slower process execution and impacts customers. These unplanned business scenarios generate unplanned cost and revenue impacts which ultimately reduce the original planned ROI based on legacy system cost savings alone.
The bottom line here is that if at least some percentage of planned ROI/benefits are dependent upon people adoption & proficiency, you need to consider management investments in this area. The return on these investments can be justified by the portion of your overall ROI/benefits that would be zero without people adoption & proficiency. McKinsey, Prosci, and many others have published multiple studies showing the dramatic positive impact of an effective program for user adoption & proficiency. However, the biggest “eye-opener” occurs when initiative planners look at this in terms of “how much of my planned ROI am I putting at risk or leaving on the table by ignoring user adoption & proficiency?”.
2) What is my organizational context for change?
Every organization has a specific “context” when it comes to managing the people side of change, both for technology and non-technology initiatives. By “context”, I mean how does your organization cope with/manage change? There are lots of “maturity models” available (Prosci and ChangeFirst to name a few) that attempt to classify how well management of change is “baked into the DNA of the organization”. Most of these models have levels based upon scope. Starting with little or no proactive management of change and proceeding up through management of change at an individual project, portfolio, and organizational levels.
Your organizational context plays a big role in determining the level of partner support you might need for your initiative. If you are considering engaging a partner for the technical side of your initiative and your organization is at the upper end of this spectrum and say, for example, you already have a dedicated team for managing change, then you might only need that partner to provide guidelines and best practices related to managing change that are specific to the type of technical engagement they are performing. On the other hand, if you have little or no “built-in” resources for managing change, you might decide to engage a partner for a full suite of services to deliver a program to manage change for your initiative.
One final thought on organizational context…we have seen an increase in technology initiatives where people within the organization are being subjected to multiple concurrent change initiatives and are reaching a “saturation point” with change. This trend is not new and has been described by many others, including Prosci’s Tim Creasey. Even if your initiative might have a lower “people impact”, you should consider if your initiative might tip the “change saturation scale” for your users due to other ongoing initiatives within your organization.
3) Should I focus on technology first and CM later?
We’ve also seen some organizations thinking about delaying adoption & proficiency considerations until after an initial technology deployment or proof-of-concept phase is completed. As with other questions in this list, there are industry studies related to this question. These studies invariably show programs aimed at managing change are less effective if not synchronized with/run in parallel to the technology portion of an initiative. A lot of this is common sense if you consider the benefits of better communication, availability of feedback loops between technology and change activities, risk mitigation (significant misses uncovered after technology deployment is completed), and greater alignment (technology implementation achieves better alignment with user needs and less rework required). For this reason, ThreeWill engagements typically include Project Managers that cover both “technology” and “people” workstreams.
This discussion reminds me of a quote from a blog written by Brian Potts that I like: “OCM cannot ride on a separate horse and needs to inherently build into and be owned by the project plan. This requires your change consultant(s) to have an understanding of digital transformation and be able to connect the change tools and workstreams to align with the technology implementation.” (from “Why Organizational Change Management Is So Frustrating” blog, March 2020, Third Stage Consulting). This relates to the concept that people managing the change should also have an understanding (at least from the user level) of the technology change as well.
If not clear from the above points, we humbly suggest that you answer “no” to this question.
4) Do I have coverage for “people impacts” in my initiative plan – really?
The answer to this question can be heavily influenced by another question… ”Does my organization really understand how to manage the people side of change?”. Sometimes we see IT teams with overall responsibility for an initiative include a minimal or token effort to address the people aspect of change. In extreme cases, as mentioned above, this might take the form of a “send an announcement email, deliver training, then go-live” approach. The problem with this is again one of focusing on “outputs” (announcement emails and training decks) rather than “outcomes” (motivated, enthusiastic, and capable users showing measurable benefits).
5) Who outside of the technical project team can help with business adoption and be the “face” of change to users?
This question needs to be answered regardless of whether or not you engage a partner to assist with managing the people impacts of your initiative. We’ve seen that the most effective programs for adoption & proficiency build consideration and management of the people side of change into the DNA of the project team, sponsors, and business stakeholders. Most people tend to resist change when management of that change is handled by a standalone team that may go away after the technical implementation is complete. Instead, key business stakeholders should “own” the management of the people side change. These stakeholders (called by many names… champions, department leads/managers, early adopters, etc.) are then guided and supported by/integrated with the core project team managing the change, and the benefits they provide continue after the implementation project is completed.
6) Can I “tell the story” for “why”?
This question really brings us back to where we started – finding our “why”. As mentioned above, this is the most compelling way to articulate your value proposition and you will need to answer this question in order to build an effective business case for your initiative, regardless of whether there are significant “people impacts” or not. As with most communications aimed at persuasion, a story-telling approach tends to engage your target audience better. You certainly will have facts and figures supporting your “why” and enumerated business benefits. However, oftentimes, this ultimately comes down to “telling the story” of how people are impacted by the proposed initiative. Understanding the need for managing this impact and how the project can be held accountable for measuring and delivering promised results/benefits will help you to identify and close the “accountability gap”.
I hope you found the above list of questions helpful in deciding if you have a gap in your technology initiative plans and I wish you good luck in planning your initiatives in a “world of VUCA”.