Capstone: Surviving a Major System Implementation

Major systems implementations have significant impacts on the success of an organization and its employees, vendors and customers.  These projects can transform organizations, but can also strain teams and stress team leaders.  Previous articles in this series have shared tips and best practices for each stage of the implementation process. This capstone article identifies and discusses system implementation success factors in the areas of Project Mechanics, Team Dynamics and Leadership Practices.

If you missed any of the previous articles in this series, they are available on my blog:  Not for Profit Beyond the Numbers

Series Capstone: Key Success Factors

Project Mechanics

  • Build a Plan and Follow It, Mostly – Don’t be a slave to the plan, but be very thoughtful when thinking about tinkering with it.
  • Communicate Robustly – Have a communication plan covering the entirety of the project and don’t ignore it if the project hits a roadblock.
  • Don’t Drop the Ball on Current Operations – The plan must include resources and processes designed to support normal operations during the implementation. Keep in mind that normal operations are seldom all that normal.

Team Dynamics

  • Engage Broadly – Change Management is the job of everyone on the team. All participants should be able to help others understand the objectives and status of the project.
  • Collaborate Constantly – No one crosses the finish line until everyone does. These projects are the ultimate example of shared responsibility. The team must always be helping each other solve problems in ways that do not create problems elsewhere.
  • Encourage Ownership via Positively Channeled Conflict – These projects come with their share of problems along the way. Project leaders need to foster ownership and accountability at all levels.  Help participants to advocate positions assertively, but not aggressively.
  • Learn and Build Relationships – Large scope projects provide a golden opportunity to knock down silos and forge solid team bonds both within and outside of the organization. This includes vendors, customers, other organizations that use the same system.

Leadership Practices

  • Ignore the Siren’s Song: Perfection – Do not let the project get bogged down in making the system work perfectly.  Instead, focus on “doing it well.” It will never approach perfect if the project does not get done.
  • Manage Expectations – Proactively get ahead of issues. Remind participants of the process and reinforce processes.  Extoll the benefits of the project but do not over promise. Help participants see the future benefits to get past the struggle of the day.
  • Step-Back – Don’t lose perspective. It is easy to get overwhelmed several months into the project, when there does not appear to be light at the end of the tunnel. Stick to the plan and keep everyone moving forward. Beware of scope creep.
  • Get Help When You Need It – no further explanation needed.
  • Work the Problem – When things go wrong (and they will), keep laser focused on addressing the issue at hand. Do not extrapolate the issue into a bigger problem.  Do not engage in the blame game. Demonstrate to the team that you are prepared to face the challenge.
  • Humor is Often the Best Medicine – I saved the best for last. These projects are hard.  Do not allow the team to get too serious.  Challenge yourself and your team to find ways to laugh, even about the problems.  Take time out during the project for team bonding and building.  Celebrate heartily the small victories along the way and the successful completion of the project.


Bottom Line

Systems implementation projects are daunting.  They can easily get out of control and can damage relationships and deliver poor results.  Success is achievable if you establish sound project mechanics, manage your team dynamics effectively and provide strong, thoughtful leadership. Be conscious in your planning. Engage stakeholders. Resource the project. Execute the plan and follow through.  Follow these steps and practices and you will survive a major systems implementation with your team and your sanity intact.


Author’s Note

I have led or been involved in numerous major system implementations and experienced the good, the bad and the really ugly.  This series is an accumulation of learnings from those experiences.  I share this information in the hopes that it provides perspective to project leaders and participants.  These types of projects do not travel along easy roads and rarely end up quite where expected, but the journey is worth the effort. Bonds built, challenges overcome and friendships discovered are just a few of the benefits that can be gained.  If you are embarking on a major implementation project, I wish you every success.  If you need a hand, or some encouragement along the way, don’t hesitate to reach out.


Please share your thoughts on this topic in the comments section.

For more information on this or other NFP Leadership topics, follow me or connect on LinkedIn and check my blog, Not for Profit Beyond the Numbers, each week for new content.

Thanks! –mike