"Tone from the top" - is your project already doomed?

I was in discussion yesterday with a senior manager at a major international bank. They have set up a worldwide business process initiative and were looking for people with my skills and experience to come on board to help. I told them I was happy to do so, and we discussed terms etc.

The main reason for the discussion, though, was for them to understand my skills and expertise when it comes to processes. Obviously they have never met me and they don't know whether I am up to job they were offering. As such this was really a job interview. One question they asked actually got me thinking about a situation which I wanted to discuss with you today.

The questions was "What is the main stumbling block you have encountered when trying to implement a BPA initiative across a large organisation?". The answer to this was actually really, really, easy. It's the same answer that I would give to the questions "What is the main reason a lot of projects do not achieve successful completion?". The answer is 'change management"

I told him that the single most important thing to have in place to ensure the success of such an initiative was a good level of change management. It is too easy when working in a small project of 10 to 15 people to forget that what you are defining and mandating may affect thousands of people in the organisation. In the case of the last company I worked at as an employee they had 45,000 people in their employ. We would be directly affecting a large proportion of them and we were relying on our ability to sell the proposition as a means of making it work. Suffice it to say we had problems.

But as I was talking about this it occurred to me that there was another way of thinking about this. It is a method which is mentioned in my book "The Perfect Process Project" and it is completely applicable here: "Tone from the Top" or senior management buy in.

Let me explain.

Several years ago, at the company I was working in at the time, the top four senior managers in the organisation had a meeting. They were the CEO, the CIO, The VP of finance and the VP of Manufacturing. At this meeting they decided between themselves that they were going to replace all the legacy finance and manufacturing ERP software with a global implementation of SAP. Shortly after this meeting they sent a memo out to all their direct reports telling them "You will implement SAP". These direct reports, in turn, sent this down to their subordinates telling them "They guys at the top want SAP installed. Make it happen". Before long I experienced things such as line managers funding and attending SAP training internally so that they would have knowledge and expertise when the package came on line. Everyone had the 'let's implement SAP' mindset. It was all being led by the 'tone from the top' i.e. the senior management buy-in.

Can you imaging the difference if someone at a lower level had tried to sell this to his people without getting the buy-in from people above him? Can you imagine how much more difficult it would have been to get people motivated if there wasn't someone at a senior level - someone with a written and agreed objective linked to their performance payment - who had made it his mission to make this happen? And now we had the top four people in the organisation buying into this. In words and in actions.

It made a huge difference.

I will say, at this point, that I was one of many people who didn't think that the SAP decision was the correct one. The business case was weak, the benefits were ethereal and the timescales were unrealistic (and indeed with the benefit of hindsight we were proven correct). But this didn't detract from the fact that everyone in the organisation was aligned behind the senior management in making this happen.

Compare this with the previous organisation I worked with. We had been tasked with implementing an ERP system across 13 European countries in 18 months. This was a difficult task at the best of times, but things were about to get a lot worse.

At the project kick-off meeting in Germany (an affiliate that was already running a well established - German - SAP implementation) we were introduced by the Finance Director as follows "Ladies and Gentlemen, Thank you for attending this kick-off meeting today. Gary and Luc are here to put this package in and replace our SAP system. We know that it isn't as good as SAP and we will lose a lot of functionality because of it, but let's let them explain it to us". He then turned around and sat down leaving my boss and I to try and salvage the situation. Talk about the wrong 'Tone from the top'! Needless to say that was a long, drawn-out and difficult implementation.

As you go about your work today - especially those of you working on projects and implementations - ask yourself how many of them are actually being championed by a senior manager in the organisation. A senior manager who has his performance measured on the success or failure of this project. If you don't have one in place, ask yourself if the project is as successful as it could be.

Photo of Barack Obama courtesy of Pete Souza, official White House photographer

Reminder: 'The Perfect Process Project' is still available. Don't miss the chance to get this valuable insight into how to make business processes work for you.

Click this link and follow the instructions to get this book.

For more about me check out my "About Me' page

All information is Copyright (C) G Comerford

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