Surviving a Major System Implementation Part 4, Implementation Planning

Implementation Planning

Major systems implementations can have significant impacts on the success of an organization and its employees, vendors and customers.  If done well, the project can improve transaction speed and accuracy, can elevate customer service, strengthen controls and add value.  In previous parts of this series, we discussed the early phase of an implementation project up through the selection of the system. In part four, we turn our focus on planning for the actual implementation.

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

Implementation Planning is the last step before starting the actual implementation.  Readers have noted that we are several parts into the series called ‘Surviving a Major System Implementation’ and we have not yet discussed the implementation. That is the point, exactly. Surviving a Major System Implementation requires extensive planning, preparation and a whole bunch of groundwork.  There may be pressures to gloss over those phases of the project in order to move the project along faster.  I strongly suggest that you resist those pressures. You will thank me later!

The goal of this part of the project is to build an implementation project plan.  The plan will help your organization navigate the implementation process ahead.

Implementation Planning includes the following;

  • Establishing the Implementation Team
  • Engaging the Organization
  • Managing Vendors/Consultants
  • Setting up a Change Control Process
  • Identifying Progress Milestones/Contingencies
  • Planning for Go Live
  • Building the Communications Plan
  • Developing the Implementation Project Plan


The Implementation Team

Once the project is approved, the vendor selected and agreements signed, it is time to prepare for the implementation.  At this point, there will be a good bit of energy and momentum and folks will want to get going, but there is a lot of work to do before the implementation begins.  The first step is identifying key roles on the implementation team.

Project Sponsor

This senior leader likely has driven the project to date.  She/he is responsible (along with the rest of senior leadership) for successfully completing the project. The Sponsor is that final arbiter for conflicts on the team and must have authority to conduct all of the business of the implementation. The sponsor is typically the Chair of the Steering Committee.

Steering Committee

This is a cross functional team of leaders from the areas impacted by the project. This group is responsible for establishing the plan and actively supporting the plan through implementation. Depending on the size of the organization and the complexity of the project, the committee should be between five and ten leaders. Give preference to people who have been involved in the project previously, specifically those involved in developing requirements.

The steering committee members must understand that they are responsible for the execution of the project plan.  Not just their own part of the plan. This is important. The steering committee is responsible for delivering the entire plan.

Implementation Project Manager

Any significant implementation project needs a project manager.  This team member should be trained and have experience in project management, as well as, direct experience in systems implementations.  If your organization does not have someone with the proper skills and experience, then you will have to outsource this role.  The project manager is critical to the success of the project. He/she will be the only person that engages at every level and step of the project and creates the implementation plan.

The project manager works with the steering committee but has direct access to the project sponsor.

Subject Matter Experts

In each area of functionality for the implementation, you should identify a subject matter expert (SME). The SME will be the primary interface with the system implementation team for issues related to his or her area(s) of expertise.  He/she will be responsible for ensuring that the operational side of the implementation meets the requirements defined earlier in the project.  The SME is also responsible for raising issues to the steering committee when the project hits a roadblock or the system does not meet the predefined requirements.

Liaisons / Advocates

These resources support the communication plan as feet on the ground. They are responsible for fielding employee questions and concerns, responding to those concerns positively and raising any unresolved issues to the steering committee. As the project develops, these folks can become early adopters, test pilots and trainers.  Do not underestimate the value of these participants.  Remember change is frightening to some people and they tend to start off with a negative perspective on the project. Your liaisons and advocates can help shift those perspectives.

Project Team

This is simply everyone that will have a role to play in executing the implementation plan.  This is a wide net. However, it is critical to identify all of the participants so that resource planning can be effective.  Keep this list for recognition at the end of the project. Team members’ levels of activity change during the course of the project. Maintaining a team roster helps to ensure that you don’t forget an early contributor at celebration time.

High Potentials

A major system implementation project is an excellent opportunity to challenge your high-potential employees. Consider appointing HiPos to leadership or SME roles on the project team.  This give them the chance to shine and for you to assess their leadership and teamwork capabilities.  Make sure that you discuss the HiPos with the steering committee so that all senior leaders can help in the assessment and oversight process.

Decision Making

In a perfect world, the Steering Committee should be the primary decision maker for the project, however, you will need a fallback if the committee cannot reach consensus.  In addition, there will be some decisions that have impacts beyond the committee’s perspective.

Nothing is more disruptive to an implementation than slow decision making.  It is important to have a commitment to turning around significant decisions in a short period of time and without multiple meetings. Depending on the length of your implementation plan and the time reserves, you should commit to decisions within 1-2 business days on any major topic.  And you need to stick to your commitment!


Engaging the Organization

At this point it is a good time to communicate to the organization some general information about the project.  Distribute a briefing, either verbal or written memo to all staff introducing the project.  The introduction should include an overview of the project, the expected benefits to the organization and staff, the system selected and a brief discussion of the work done to date. The brief should also identify the implementation team and establish some general targets for the completion of the project.


Managing Vendors/Consultants

Major systems implementations generally require the aid of external resources. These may come from the system vendor or as unrelated consultants or advisors. Contracting these resources and aligning them to the general timeline of the project is important to ensure the best resources are available.  The steering committee should review the backgrounds of key consultants proposed for the projects.

The steering committee establishes clear instructions on who is authorized to make decisions on the project.  There are SME level decisions and there are broader decisions. The committee needs to make sure that the consultants understand the difference.  An SME in one functional area should not be making decisions that impact other areas without an agreement from that area’s SME or the steering committee.


Change Control

System requirements were defined in an earlier phase of the project and the system was procured based on those requirements.  Any change to those requirements, any significant alteration of the project plan or any change that impacts multiple functions in the system must go through a formal change control process.  The change control process is the responsibility of the steering committee.  Major systems are integrated, so a change in one area often impacts others.  An effective change management process will save your team a lot of stress as the project proceeds.


Progress Milestones/Contingencies


Identifying major implementation milestones is necessary in order to build the implementation action plan. The milestones provide general major segment timeframes, as well as establish a general time flow for the project. The consultants will be able to provide milestone data.  This may be an iterative process since some decisions have not yet been made.


Every project plan needs some room for unexpected delays.  If your project needs to be done in three months and your plan requires exactly three months, then you may miss your goal.  Build in contingencies for those issues that you cannot avoid. There may be a competing initiative that arises, such as a business issue or if someone on the team becomes ill or leaves the company. Contingencies help the project team avoid overcommitting.

The project manager is responsible for monitoring the contingency and will report to the steering committee on a regular basis the status of the project contingency balance and usage.


Go Live Planning

The team will need to identify how and when the system will come online. Will you go live at year end or mid-year? Will it be a hot cut-over at a point in time or will components come online at different times? Are you expecting to run the systems in parallel for testing?

It is important to remember in planning go-live that not all processes in an organization align. January 1st is a popular go-live date; however, payroll hardly ever starts or ends on that date. In addition, benefits enrollment usually happens a month or so prior.  Are your financial auditors doing testing in December, right when you are planning on running parallel on the new system?  Lots to consider.


Communication Plan

While the project is ongoing, it is very important to have a mechanism in place to share information about the project with the organization. The communications plan should include the who, what, where, why and when for the implementation project. It is a delicate balance between too much information and not enough. I tend to err on the side of too much (shocking, I’m sure, to those of you reading my blog).

The communication plan should include less formal opportunities, such as one on one update lunches with steering committee members or liaisons.

The communication plan must be external facing as well.  Develop communications to customers and vendors. Consider any other organizations that may be impacted by the change.  Steering committee members with responsibility for each of those relationships should have input as to the method and timing of communications.


Implementation Project Plan

With all the information gained through this point, the project manager should be able to construct the implementation Project Plan. Every project manager will do this a bit differently, but the basics of the plan include the following;

  • Actions – SMEs or teams will complete
  • Resources – assigned to each action, internal and external support
  • Dependencies – actions that require previous actions to be completed prior to starting
  • Blackouts – unavailable times such as vacations, holidays, company events (Board meetings, etc.)
  • Competing Projects – times when resources are not available due to business initiatives (need to be kept up to date as projects progress)
  • Data Conversion – time and effort associated with moving data from the legacy system to the new system, automatically or manually
  • Interfaces – Systems have many connections to vendors, customers and others, so the plan needs to identify all interfaces in the legacy system and include time and resources for updating
  • Testing – Time for SME’s and users to test functionality as it becomes available. May start as small pilots and grow larger to check system scalability
  • Training – How and when to train staff?
  • Acceptance – once all parts of the system are ready for go-live the steering committee along with the program manager and the sponsor need to review testing data to ensure the system meets the requirements established. Complete this step in order to then make the Go/No Go decision
  • Fall back – what will the organization do if the system is not ready on time or has a major unresolved issue?
  • Phases – the plan should include the primary functionality and should identify any functionality expected to be brought online at a later date
  • Post Go-Live actions – any additional testing or assessments done after the system is live


Wrap Up

Implementation planning is a critical step in surviving a major system implementation with your team and your sanity intact.  Establish an implementation team with expertise to provide insight and oversight. Develop the project and communications plans to provide the path forward for the team.  Predetermine decision processes, contingencies and fallback plans.  The implementation planning phase sets the stage for the implementation plan execution, which we will cover in the next part of this series.

Check out previous parts in this series…

One – Early Planning

Two – Procurement

Three – Selection


Learning is a shared experience, so please share your thoughts on this topic in the comments section.

If this article has been valuable for you, please check out the rest of my blog, Not for Profit Beyond the Numbers – click the following link. NFPBeyondtheNumbers 

Thanks! –mike