Updated: Jun 26, 2022
As digitalization across workplaces continues after the pandemic forced businesses to jump into the digital age, implementation of new technologies is becoming more commonplace.
No matter how comfortable organizations are with technology, everyone is met with the challenge of hiring expensive consultants or looking in-house for resources to implement often complex and demanding software, programs, and systems.
With over 8-years of experience helping global and Fortune 500 organizations implement risk-management software, plus 4-years leading the digitalization of a mid-sized aviation firm, I can confidently say that no two implementations are alike. Each carries its own unique successes and challenges. Organizations can encourage the success of any technology implementation with a solid game plan, internal ownership (yes, even if you hire external consultants to do the heavy lifting), and an agile mentality.
Below you will find 12 key steps to leading a successful technology implementation from the viewpoint of an internal project manager or project management team:
Product Demo & Early Discovery
Unless you’ve been handed something to take on after the purchasing decision is made, this step typically happens while you are deciding which product to purchase.
Don’t spend a ton of time vetting out everything. I repeat, don’t spend a ton of time vetting out everything. No technology is perfect, and outsourced technologies aren’t designed solely with your company and its processes in mind - there will be challenges and hurdles. The important thing is to have enough confidence in the product and an idea of the specific challenges to expect prior to beginning implementation.
If you can say, “I feel confident about 80% of this, the other 20% might be a challenge or need some extra work during implementation.”, press forward, boss.
Formal Discovery & Implementation Planning
System selection is complete, and agreements are signed. It’s finally time to dive deeper into your processes, and how this new system will be able to handle them. Ensure your company’s key processes and best practices are documented, known, and can be handled smoothly. Then, identify the areas in which your processes will need to change perhaps due to a product feature or limitation.
Depending on the scope of the project, this could be a one-meeting ordeal with the provider and a core implementation group or a several-month series of meetings including stakeholders from multiple sides of the company.
When working with an external party or consultant, the follow-up actions generated from these discussions will generally be passed their way, except for writing, re-writing, and internal communication of company processes and procedures.
Note: For some industries and businesses, Non-Disclosure Agreements (NDAs) are commonplace at this stage basically, a way to protect the technology provider, business, or both from unauthorized sharing of proprietary information. Be sure to check if one is required.
Product Development & Modifications Begin
Again, unless you are doing the development of the tool in-house, this is generally handled by the external provider or consultant. At this point, the goal is to keep the project on track, ask for and communicate status updates, provide feedback on questions about customization or modifications and keep the foot on the gas pedal. A weekly check-in call is a great way to do this alongside a shared document where all groups can contribute asynchronously between calls.
When implementing more mature, standardized products, this will be an incredibly brief part of the project whereas, for less mature products and/or systems that are designed to be heavily customized, this segment of the project may last months or longer.
At this point, you should have at least partial access to the product, and it could be a fully complete product or one still in development. This is the time for the person or team who will serve as the "Administrator" of the new technology to get their feet under them. This person may simply be in charge of assigning access to new hires, the group may be involved in training, nurturing, and scaling up the product internally, or anything in between.
Most widely used products have online knowledge bases and training courses available at no charge. Smaller and more custom tech may have this available too and may even provide hands-on training as part of their implementation service. Know what is offered and take advantage of every bit you can.
Remember that it is in the best interest of a technology provider for their customers to have a strong understanding of their product. They provide these tools because they want you and your team to learn it, know it, and in turn, love it.
Data Migration & Testing
A migration phase of the project is applicable when converting from one system to another. It typically involves special tools that assist with the movement of data. When working with the provider or consultant, they will have these tools in their arsenal.
Bonus points if the data in your existing system is clean before migration starts however, don't wait to roll out new tech until all the data is absolutely perfect. The key in this phase is making sure the right information from system A is moving over to the right place in system B.
Depending on the size of the database, you might decide to handle data migration behind the curtain or involve super users as part of their testing responsibilities.
Super User Training & User Acceptance Testing (UAT)
For heavily customized products, once there is enough structure in place and early legwork done in terms of working through anticipated and early hurdles, process changes, and if applicable, data migration, it's time to start a formal feedback loop with super users. This may be the same group as the project stakeholders who helped to confirm processes and requirements early on, or a different one depending on the complexity and scale of the implementation.
Start by creating and exposing the group to the set of training materials you plan to offer all users later in the project. (Along with testing the product, use this as an opportunity to try out and improve the training material.)
Once trained, have super users step through key features and functionality. You could purchase software designed for this purpose or simply log "test cases" on a shared spreadsheet and have testers go to town. The goal is to put people who will use the product in their everyday lives in the driver's seat and have them bring up problems and ask questions to be smoothed over before go-live.
Product Development & Modifications End
As super users test the product, developers are hard at work adjusting the tech, and project managers are hard at work adjusting processes and internal references.
It is very important that a hard stop for feedback be put into place around this point. If you fail to do so, the risk is users feeling like the product is not ready to launch (even though they'll always have feedback to give, this is usually false) and spreading negative noise throughout the organization before you've even had a chance to introduce it to everyone.
How users feel about the product is more than half of the battle which makes communication and expectation setting paramount - now and throughout the course of the project. Just because something can still be improved does not mean it cannot be "complete" plus, you'll all have a chance to work on additional improvements and adjustments in a future project phase. If the basic requirements set out earlier in the project are met, you are ready to press forward.
If you or your team are not yet subscribers of the Agile or "Continual Improvement" mentality when it comes to projects and technologies, check out this Masters of Scale ep where Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg and LinkedIn's Reid Hoffman discuss the idea that "Imperfect is Perfect". In other words, if you wait to perfect something, you'll ultimately waste a ton of time, release an imperfect product anyway, and miss the opportunity to get useful customer (or in our case, user) feedback early on.
Now it's time to involve everyone who will be granted access to the product. Until you get a good understanding of how tech-savvy or accepting to change your user base is, it is better to overestimate the amount of training needed - try allocating time for 2x as much training as you originally jotted down.
The scale of the product will determine how training is structured. You might opt for one big, recorded session or smaller hands-on sessions that focus on a topic or group of users.
Since you already have the training materials (at least drafted) from earlier, this is the time to make the final tweaks and let your light shine. Inviting project stakeholders to co-lead training sessions is always encouraged - put your cheerleaders out in front and inform with positivity. Remember, how people feel is as important, if not more, than the quality of the tech itself.
Final adjustments have been made by product developers and project managers and now, it is time to make the final go/no-go decision - a particularly critical moment for major implementations that can halt business operations.
Review with senior management project progress and if applicable any product or system shortcomings. Provide data and examples to help guide the decision to go live on the planned date or fall back to a previous project phase to make additional improvements.
Go-Live and Final Data Migration
At this point, most of the data has been migrated over. Now, it's time to get everyone logged out of and lock down the old system, move over the final data, including changes to existing data, since the last migration and do a final set of checks and balances.
For large-scale implementations, particularly those which are imperative to operations or touch financial transactions, schedule this for an end of period (like the month, quarter, or year), even better if that happens to fall on a Friday.
Note that you didn't hear me mention anything about a "double-entry period". This is an old-school approach that does more harm than good, typically causing users to feel flustered by the extra work and lengthening the time it will take for them to become fully adopted into the new system and processes. Rip off the band-aid now and thank me later.
Make sure your internal administrators get a good night's rest and be prepared for a few days (or longer) of friction and on-the-fly solutions. If you've done your job well, this will be a relatively smooth period, and remember, no feedback might be worse than the opposite so be proactive in engaging the user base, soliciting user feedback, and handling or passing it along accordingly.
If you or the provider do not have a solid request-management system in place to queue up questions, problems, and enhancement requests, make sure to develop one. Check out my post about Workload Management for more on this concept.
Phase II Planning Begins
You've made it to the other side. Congratulations! Give yourself a pat on the back and jump right back on the saddle because it's time to start planning for the next phase of improvements.