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Change Management and Stakeholder Engagement: Involving End Users and Executive Sponsors

The EvoLLLution | Change Management and Stakeholder Engagement: Involving End Users and Executive Sponsors
Properly engaging end users and executive sponsors is critical for the success of a major project and can help to drive buy-in for, and engagement with, the project.

Every system implementation project, large and small, carries both technical and change management risks. However, early and effective engagement with project stakeholders can mitigate these risks. Stakeholders for a system implementation usually include the system’s end users, the executive sponsor, partners, project teams, funding and regulatory agencies, and other groups. Both the end users and project executive sponsor are critical stakeholders, whose successful involvement can determine the project’s success or failure.

Involving End Users

The end users of a new system should be involved early on in the project and kept involved throughout. End users can be identified through stakeholder analysis which can be as simple as brainstorming a list of people impacted (or who might think themselves impacted) by the new system. For each person (or group) rate the level of impact  (high, medium, low is effective), what they might gain from the change, as well as what they might lose.

A stakeholder analysis can also capture information related to motivations, abilities, expectations, and concerns regarding the change. For a deeper analysis into the stakeholders, consideration can be given to their level of influence (formal and informal) within the organization, so that their stated support for the project can then be leveraged, or, if resistance is detected, they can be engaged early to ensure their buy-in and cooperation. This information can be captured through a variety of methods, such as structured interviews, surveys,  and forum discussions to identify potential constraints, conflicts, concerns, as well as preferred methods of communication and engagement.

It’s often simpler to identify impacted users after the project plan is complete and the new system (or process change) is selected. However, waiting until a new system is selected misses an opportunity to involve end users in developing the project business case, the project plan, and system selection. End user input can include developing functional requirements for the new system, feedback on the implementation and training plan, and participation in risk identification.

Early involvement of end users will benefit the quality of the new system as well as change management. Generally, the employees closest to the work (those doing it every day) know it best. They are most familiar with what’s working well, what’s broken, and what is being worked around on a daily basis. Their involvement can help ensure the accuracy of system requirements and help spot issues early on in project planning. When engaging with end users, remember the Lean maxim “Go see, Ask Why, Show Respect.”

Early engagement  with end users as stakeholders also builds commitment within the end users toward the success of the new system. Commitment is built when a change is not being done to them, but instead when end users have helped develop the change and have become partially responsible for its success. A Lean or other type of process improvement workshop can be a powerful tool for involving users.

Several years ago, during the design and launch of a new hiring system, the project manager received a call from a frustrated user struggling with aspects of the business process embedded in the new system. The new hiring process had been designed in a week-long Lean workshop in which the employee was an active participant. Talking through concerns with the now-implemented process, she said “I remember discussing this in the workshop, and why I thought it the best course of action. I’ll make it work.” Every process change and system implementation will have difficulties during launch. However, motivated employees who are committed to project success are a powerful ingredient for working through these issues.

System implementation projects have several stages in which end users can be involved:

  1. Documenting the current state.
  2. Designing the future state (how do we want this process to work in the future?).
  3. Gathering functional requirements (set of statements describing how a system must function to support the future state).
  4. Aligning the desired future state to the reality of the new system. Bought or built, no new system works exactly as envisioned in a process design workshop.
  5. Acting as change agents throughout the project to support their peers through the transition (forum of trusted resources for employees to share questions and feedback regarding the change).
  6. Development of training that covers both the how-to and the why-to.
  7. Involvement in User Acceptance Testing (UAT).

Involving the Executive Sponsor

Every project should have an executive sponsor who authorizes the work and resource expenditure (money and staff time) on behalf of the organization. The executive sponsor should be involved during the writing of the project charter and earlier if necessary to gain their buy-in to the project’s business case.

Selecting the right executive sponsor depends on their alignment with and commitment to the change, the size and visibility of the project, as well as finding a sponsor who can both speak knowledgeably about and champion the project with other executives. Ultimately, the goal is to have an informed champion of the project at your college president’s cabinet (or similar group) able to answer questions about the project, defend the use of resources, and ensure that the project is aligned with the overall college strategy. In addition, it is important to differentiate accountable individuals from those who are responsible. Those accountable (the sponsors) are required to bring the change to completion, whereas those responsible are operationally required to do the day-to-day work of driving the change to achieve its goals and objectives.

The expectations should be made clear to the person taking on this important role, because serving as executive sponsor to a project carries both risks and potential personal and organizational reward. If the project is successful, it will benefit the college mission as well as reflecting well on the executive who supported the project. Projects that go poorly will raise questions about the executive’s judgement and management. Executive sponsors should be advocates for the project, but also advocate for project management best practices. This means being comfortable asking to see a written project plan, keeping track of the budget and schedule, reviewing and having input into the training and communication plan, and being involved in identifying and managing risks. At the same time, circumstances may arise and the project may need to be delayed, put on hold or even cancelled. Executive sponsors should not be afraid to make these decisions, while ensuring that clear and transparent communications go out to all involved.

Few projects in higher education are limited to a single department; many are cross-functional, cross-department projects with many stakeholders. For these types of projects, executive sponsors may want to consider establishing a steering committee to provide guidance. For example, a project focused on course evaluations may want to have representatives from the faculty union, human resources, IT, or other groups.

Any steering committee will need formally defined authority established in a written charter. The steering committee’s scope of authority and their decision-making rules (i.e., consensus vs. majority vote) should be defined before the first decision. As part of defining the steering committee’s authority, the executive sponsor should clarify whether the steering committee is only providing input to decisions or actually making the decisions. Expectations around time commitment should also be made clear, along with a process for replacing members who are not able to stay engaged.

For system implementations, getting end user and executive sponsor engagement right is critical for project success. Expected benefits of involving these key stakeholders include decreased resistance during implementation, more proactive management of issues, better coordination of efforts between leadership, project teams and frontline staff, ability to share quick wins, “what’s in it for me” messaging, and engagement that builds strong connections between stakeholders  and the project. With both groups on board an implementation can move steadily toward a successful outcome.

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