IT mega-projects: First 100 days are crucial

Executives wanting success from major IT projects need to be "ruthless" in spruiking their benefits to staff, and should only give their direct reports three months to win employees' hearts and minds before replacing them, a senior PricewaterhouseCoopers analyst has reported in sharing the results of recent research on CEO effectiveness.

Executives wanting success from major IT projects need to be "ruthless" in spruiking their benefits to staff, and should only give their direct reports three months to win employees' hearts and minds before replacing them, a senior PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) analyst has found.

An upcoming report by the consultancy, Insights Into Information, surveyed 40 Australian CEOs about their strategies for managing large IT projects with an average AU$313 million investment. Some 59 per cent of respondents reported that they had a "charismatic" or "visionary" leadership style, but PwC national transformation leader Stephen Woolley warned that these personality traits alone aren't enough to get the job done.

"A visionary and charismatic CEO might think they would win the hearts and minds of their direct reports over a period of 12 months," Woolley told an audience of information executives at a recent AIIA CxO Forum in Melbourne. "The lesson we learned [in the survey] was that you can't wait 12 months, and you can't wait six months. If they haven't gotten on the bus in three months, move them on and get someone that you trust to run it."

Woolley also blasted complacency in building business cases based on long returns on investment, arguing that the most successful business leaders began to leverage the benefits of new systems as early as possible, then built on that success to engender further change throughout the organisation.

"The first 100 days are critical for delivering communications and some quick wins," he explained. "Prioritisation of benefits, and agreement as to what the benefits are [are critical], and so is being quite ruthless with regards to driving those particular projects. They're your quick win stories, and they're the things you hang the rest of your change program on."

However, keeping on top of progress in this way requires a firm and abiding interest on the CEO's part — something that was often lacking when top-down mandates failed to get the buy-in of the CEOs themselves. This is particularly common in government organisations, where strategic priorities change every three to four years, and in local operations of multinational organisations where dramatic change can be almost arbitrarily imposed from overseas masters.

Many CEOs respond to this pressure and their disinterest by delegating day-to-day management of projects to their direct reports — but this approach was fraught with the potential for discontinuity and missed expectations and, Woolley warned, can damage the CEO's credibility with the board.

Having clear objectives, and maintaining the commitment to personally drive their success, is essential. Noting, for example, that CEOs named the most common driver for the surveyed projects as being "cultural change" (named by 27 per cent of respondents), Woolley said those executives needed to have something more concrete to point to in order to keep long-term support for what are often massive transformational projects.

-Can you imagine a CEO going to the board and saying 'I want you to spend AU$313 million, on average, to achieve cultural change'?" Woolley said. -That's a tough ask, so part of the study was to find out how CEOs turn that goal into something that's beneficial for the company."

Stakeholder engagement was cited as key to achieving this aim, and was named by many surveyed CEOs as the biggest problem they had encountered in their own projects. -I asked CEOs at the end of the study what they would do differently," said Woolley. -Almost without fail, they said they knew communications and stakeholder management was important, but that they had under-invested in it and didn't allow enough time for it."

It doesn't just mean canvassing more opinions or building a consensus-based management approach, however: 78 per cent of respondents said consensus management is a disadvantage when trying to drive large change through an organisation.

Equally problematic was failing to recognise the varying interests of stakeholders during communication: -Many also thought that the communications to your staff was the same as the package that needs to go to the board," Woolley said.

-Overall, CEOs told us the key was to hang on to the transformational driver, the burning platform, the reason for change. You want people to understand that the company is changing for a reason, and this is not just another thing to keep them busy."

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