Control the Narrative
Sometimes things go well, and sometimes they don’t. We often talk about the importance of effective communication on a project, but we often omit timing and context. Messages need to be timely if a project manager is going to guide the narrative.
I spoke with a project manager the other day who is in the final days of implementing a new COTS (commercial off the shelf) application system. The new system replaces one that is old, clunky, and no longer supported by the vendor.
The implementation has been a challenge.
- It has been difficult to get the client department to make time to participate in analysis sessions to understand the current workflow and support configuration and testing. Not a bad client, just an understaffed client who needs to support day to day operations as a priority.
- The vendor has had challenges as well. Significant turnover of the vendor team has resulted in schedule delays and setbacks in knowledge transfer.
- Finally, there is the natural resistance to change what is present in all organizations. Whether it is an option or not (it isn’t), some users of the existing system don’t want to change. They complain the current system works fine and the new system doesn’t look or act exactly the same.
These factors came together recently during a training session leading up to go-live. There were a few outstanding problems with the new system that came up during the training session. This encouraged a particularly vocal member of the client team to decry the system as not ready for prime time and lobby for indefinitely postponing the implementation of the new system. The afternoon of the third day of training devolved into complaints about the new system.
Over the weekend, the vendor diligently resolved the issues identified during the training session (most were workflow issues that resulted from the client not fully participating in discussions of how the new system should work).
My advice to the project manager on Monday morning was to promptly contact the client leadership team to explain the situation and try to get ahead of the gossip that was surely spreading like wildfire in the client department.
This is an example of paying attention to WHEN and HOW a message gets out. Mark Twain reportedly said, “A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth Is putting on Its boots.” I don’t think the client concerns are “lies”, but they are potential toxic distortions of the situation that need to be addressed promptly by senior leadership, or this project may never have a chance of success.
Some of the art of project management is monitoring what people are saying about a project and trying to control messaging—not to mislead people or sugar-coat problems, but to make sure that bad news isn’t improperly amplified and that problems don’t get divorced from their context.
In this case, senior leadership on the client side might want to emphasize:
- We know the look and feel of the new system is different from the old system
- The vendor has been responsive addressing problems identified during the training sessions
- Although implementation might be delayed if issues aren’t addressed to the client’s satisfaction, retaining the current system indefinitely is not an option
- Staff need to keep an open mind and learn to work with the new system
If these messages can get out ahead of everyone in the department being told that “the system sucks”, it might help reduce the normal resistance to change that every implementation experiences. Controlling the narrative here is essential to project success.