The Product Champion

Woman at KeyboardIf you’re implementing a project control system, or any enterprise-wide system, one of the most significant elements to consider is the product champion. Without a knight (of either gender) to champion the cause, the chances for a successful implementation drop dramatically.

So what is a product champion? It’s a person who is held to account for the success of the system implementation. It’s a person who on a given day stood up and said, “You can count on me. I’ll make sure that this system works for us.” A champion, just like a Knight of the Round Table has to be backed by the king. Without any authority from management, few people would (and no one really should) take on being accountable for a system implementation project.

There are several key elements to implementing any enterprise-wide core system which could handicapped or even block a successful implementation. We see this almost every day in deploying our enterprise timekeeping system or project management software.

These elements include:

Lack of Planning
Can I say this enough? Make sure you manage the implementation of your project management system with a project plan! We estimate that 4 out of every 5 implementations are attempted with little or no planning whatsoever. Without a project plan, the chances of being successful are slim. Without clearly defined goals, a well thought out budget, a manager who is committed to achieve those goals and management support for making the plan work, there’s little hope of getting anywhere. One of my favourite Chinese proverbs says “If you don’t know where you’re going, any path will take you there.” If there’s no clearly identified goal that everyone is committed to then how could you achieve it?

Duration of the Plan
There is an illusion that a project management software implementation (and many other enterprise systems) are complete as soon as the software is purchased. For anyone who has been involved in deploying such a system you know that purchasing the software is usually just the start of the most difficult aspect of the implementation process. If there are unrealistic expectations that the project will only last a few weeks, or a couple of months, then as the implementation drags into its sixth or seventh month, it may lose critical support. An enterprise-wide implementation for a mid-sized company can easily last a year. ERP implementations are often targeted at 2-3 years. This can test the most patient of supporters. Without the champion keeping the project alive, keeping people enrolled in the project and keeping the group enthusiastic about the end result, focus will ultimately be lost.

Lack of long-term support
Many things can affect long-term support for an implementation project. Management changes where responsibility shifts from one manager to another can be a key factor. Staff changes which change the composition of a selection committee or removes a key resource can have a dramatic impact. Before the process even starts, it should be made clear that the people signing on are signing on for the duration and are made aware of how long that support will need to last. A Product Champion may be the only continuity in a project which sees many changes around them. It is their responsibility to keep the project on track.

Lack of Focus
When you’re starting your system-wide implementation project, everything will seem very simple. After all, the core team who are starting the process will be comparatively simple to bring to a consensus on varying issues. Once the deployment of the system starts however, life will take a dramatic turn. Suddenly every personal, individual, conflicting interest in the organization surfaces as “must-do” requirements. Interests which for a variety of reasons will be defended to the utmost by the people who support them. It is here that focus will become the most important aspect of the implementation. Without a central figure to reaffirm the project’s goals, these divergent interests can drag the project right off the rails.

Power sharing
While I’m sure this is not an issue in your own organization, I must confess I’ve seen this occur in some organizations across the country. As it becomes apparent to people throughout the organization that the enterprise-wide system will actually impact them, some people will perceive this as a threat to whatever “power-base” they’ve created by using their own personalized systems. These people may have a great resistance to fully participating in the new system. Those who are very public about their concerns are the easiest to deal with. The most difficult (and I’m confident that most of you have never experienced this) are those who publicly proclaim their support of the system while in the background do just the opposite. The only way of overcoming this phenomenon is to have a central person who enrols or re-enrols these people in the vision for the whole organization, in the benefits for everyone that will come from cooperating. Someone who has the knowledge and authority to resolve their concerns. The person most invested in making this work is always the product champion. This particular subject is dealt with in much more detail by Peter Senge in his book “The Fifth Discipline”.

All of this points to a single solution; an individual who will hold the goals of the project against any and all resistance; someone who believes in the project and who knows they will deliver; someone who has both the desire and the support to make the project successful.

“Oh wait,” you say, “we’ve got just the thing. Our implementation committee are absolutely committed to the project and include all kinds of skills. Surely this is even better than your ‘product champion’”.

Sorry. Not so. A committee is one of those entities with many legs and no intelligence. It almost always results in management by consensus or worse. The keyword here is accountability. You can’t hold a group to account. You can make them responsible but there’s no way to hold them to account like you can with an individual. If you’re an executive sitting with your implementation committee and wondering if the project has any chance of making it your request should be this, “Would the person who is ready to personally promise me that this implementation project will be successful please stand up.” That’s your product champion. Don’t get started without them.