How Can a Data Analytics Project Succeed on Paper but Fail in Practice?

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Several years ago, while working at a large pharmaceutical company, I led a team of talented professionals in an initiative to gain greater insight into how our staff delivered our services. We had scores of project managers and contractors delivering projects across the business, and we wanted to manage our portfolio to provide the most benefit at the most reasonable cost. Our needs were fairly simple: we wanted to know how people spent their time, which projects performed well, and how those projects contributed to the performance of the company. We wanted all of this in dashboards that we could use to find levers for better outcomes.

After creating the business case, we evaluated vendors and selected a tool. We locked down the necessary budget and resources, made the rounds of the executives with our presentation, and obtained commitments to adopt the new way of working. The vendor began implementation, and we delivered training on the tool together. Everything looked great. The CEO even complimented us on delivering crisp insights on time and within budget, something we didn’t have a great reputation for doing. By almost any metric, our project was a success.

Any metric but one, that is.

A few months later, our team was in an intense budgeting session. We had committed to delivering some modest cost savings while maintaining or improving project delivery. The discussion was about where we could find the savings, which should have been obvious. It wasn’t. Most of the leads in the room were advocating for their own positions and criticizing others for theirs without the one thing that should have been at our fingertips: data.

Despite having a solid business case, an established partner, and strong executive support--not to mention spending millions on the tool and services supporting it--we had failed. We didn’t fail on project metrics like requirements, schedule, and budget. We didn’t fail on configuring the tool and training the staff to do exactly what we needed to do. We failed in the one place that mattered: adoption.

Even the best seeds can’t grow in barren soil. We had succeeded in project management and delivery in just about every possible way, but we failed completely at change management. We didn’t pay attention to people and processes. We delivered a good tool to an organization that had no incentive to accept it and numerous reasons to reject it, especially given that people were more or less happy with the way they had always worked.

Upon realizing--with a great deal of embarrassment--that we were at risk of wasting millions of dollars and a lot of hard-earned political capital, we planned a reboot. We adopted a change management approach focused on people’s awareness, desire, knowledge, ability, and reinforcement of the new way. We documented before and after workflows. We created incentives for using the tool and its outputs. We did what we should have done in the first place: we prepared our people to succeed.

We eventually transitioned to the new way of working, at which point the tool enabled us to improve delivery and customer satisfaction substantially. The insights we provided to our internal customers and the executive team were sharp and actionable. We didn’t blow millions of dollars--but we almost did. Project management got us halfway there. Change management closed the gap to a healthy return on our investment.

Change management alone will not cause a project to succeed, but the absence of change management almost certainly increases the likelihood of failure.

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