Don’t Bite Off More Than You Can Chew: Too Much Change Is a Recipe for Project Failure


Thanksgiving feast

It happens every year. The inevitable post-Thanksgiving dinner food coma. There’s just something about having all of that food in one place that seemingly compels us to eat more than we should. After all, who can say no to turkey…and ham.  Or mashed potatoes…and sweet potatoes…and dressing. And don’t forget about the pumpkin, pecan, and cherry pies (not to mention those cut-out cookies)! It’s all there for the taking, so we throw caution to the wind and make the most of it. Twice.

Eventually, though, our stomachs remind us that there are practical limits to how much food we can – and should – consume in one sitting. An afternoon of misery ensues, and we quickly regret that second (or third) plate. Fortunately, a few hours and a few Tums are usually all it takes to make up for our lack of self-control.

Too Much of a Good Thing Isn’t Good

In a similar fashion, organizations going through transformative projects can be just as liable to overload on scope as we are to overload our plates. It’s not hard to see why, since large projects like ERP implementations don’t come around very often. This makes it very tempting to try and do everything while the opportunity presents itself: supply chain transformation…and engineering modernization…and CRM…etc.

But just as there is only so much food that the human body can ingest at once, taking on too much with your ERP project is likewise a recipe for failure. Unlike the pain of Thanksgiving dinner, though, the consequences of failed or under-performing projects can leave organizations regretting their appetites for years to come. And while effectively reigning in and managing scope are essential elements to success, there are other factors that need to be considered if you want to avoid the pain of taking on more change than you can stomach.

Timing is Key

ERP projects are disruptive by nature, and you have to take the “performance dip” into consideration when planning your project. The “dip” is the period after go-live when your users are trying to come up to speed on new systems and processes. Even if your new systems are performing exactly as designed, users are going to have to work through this adjustment period and will not be as productive. Routine tasks will take longer than normal, and exceptions can bring everything to a grinding halt.

This was something that Hershey failed to consider back in 1999. They implemented SAP, Siebel (CRM), and Manugistics (Supply Chain) leading up to Halloween, which ended up hindering their ability to fill customer orders during their busiest sales and distribution period. The ill-timed transition cost them $100M in lost sales and contributed to a 35% decrease in their stock price.

Hershey recovered, but could arguably have avoided the crisis altogether simply by altering the project plan up front. So, when you are in the planning phase of your project, make sure you take your business cycles into consideration. It’s like saying “no” to that extra piece of pie that you know you don’t need.

Crush the Competition

Competing organizational priorities are like kryptonite to ERP projects, since it’s hard enough to hit aggressive schedules when your project team is 100% committed, let alone when you are “timesharing” them with other initiatives. If your team is being asked to work on the project while still doing their “day jobs”, you can be certain that project timelines and/or solution quality are going to suffer. This can translate to project delays as well as increased participation from your SI, both of which are expensive change orders. It’s better to plan for and include enough in the budget to backfill for key project team members at the outset.

Alternatively, competing priorities can take the form of other “top priority projects” that are tapping the same people in your organization for multiple roles. Mergers and acquisitions, divestitures, or similar strategic initiatives will need input from the very same subject matter experts that you are counting on, and people simply can’t be in two places at once. Your IT department can also become a bottleneck as it struggles to accommodate the demands from multiple projects while trying to deal with a new ERP system.

Know Thyself

One of the keys to success for large-scale, transformational projects is the ability of the organization to make informed decisions in a timely fashion. This is especially crucial in the early phases of an ERP project, when decision gridlock can derail timelines and set you up for change orders. When you are in the early phases of building your project plan and assembling your team, don’t underestimate the impact that your corporate culture will have on the project:

  • The wheels of change turn slowly at consensus-based organizations, where change happens in increments that everyone can agree with. While this provides the organization with a sense of stability, it naturally inhibits the kinds of decisions that will need to be made during your ERP project. When building your leadership team, make sure you’ve got a tie-breaker on board who can overcome corporate inertia and keep things moving.
  • If your company is the kind that tends towards “analysis paralysis”, then an ERP project has the potential to send your organization into a tailspin. That’s not to say that reaching a decision is more important than the quality of the decision you make, but at a certain point “perfect is the enemy of good”.

Fortunately, many software providers have adapted their methodologies to provide starting points/templates for organizations to utilize, which both reduces the number of decisions that need to be made and also provides tangible ways for organizations to see the impact of design decisions. Many systems integrators also have industry-specific templates you can leverage, so be sure to take full advantage of these tools and capabilities. They are great ways to expedite critical decisions, to drive alignment, and to keep things moving forward.

Be Realistic

Even if your organization avoids the deadly sin of gluttony when developing your business case, beware of the factors that can effectively over-commit your company to levels of change that range from impractical to insane. Business cycles, competing projects, and company culture all contribute to and exacerbate the complexity of change management on ERP projects, and ignoring them can result in a project that gives you more than a bad case of heartburn. It’s better to think about them before you load up your plate, rather than after.

Follow me on Twitter @sstamp_ue.  Find my other UpperEdge blogs and follow UpperEdge on Twitter and LinkedIn. 

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