As the HR profession continues to demonstrate its significant commercial acumen, senior HR roles are increasingly focused upon the effective delivery of project activity. This includes the work of in-house HR teams who are now expected to deliver clear commercial benefits whether delivering isolated HR-specific projects or as support professionals managing workstreams that are integrated in to larger programmes.
Before becoming PRINCE2 qualified in 2015 I had always delivered what are nowadays called agile projects. I had also, somewhat naively, believed that the overwhelming majority of projects are successful. It therefore came as a surprise to me when I learned that a significant number of projects fail, either partially or totally. Recent analysis from the Project Management Institute revealed some frankly shocking statistics. For example, only 53% of projects meet the original budget, 38% do not meet the originally intended business goal and just 49% of projects are completed on time.
Despite these dismal statistics there are a number of things that HR professionals can do to give their own projects the best possible chances of succeeding. As a rough estimate, my own HR project success rate would be well over 80%. Having delivered large projects extensively over a period of many years the majority were successfully completed on time and within -or significantly under- budget. I could give many examples. But the most prominent was probably a highly complex project where I managed a workstream of around £14 million and successfully delivered around £7 million of savings back to the programme. This ultimately brought the whole project of £105 million to within overall financial tolerance.
To give an HR project the best possible chance of success my numerous experiences tell me that the following issues need to be carefully considered from the outset:
1. It’s all about the deliverables |Yes, I’m using jargon but deliverables is a very good word to use here. In other words, what are the goals or objectives of the project? Cost will almost always be an key element. But what else is involved? Perhaps process improvements or technology implementation is also a key aim? Maybe improving engagement and communication are hoped-for benefits?
Whatever the deliverables are these should be agreed at the outset wherever possible. Without deliverables it is impossible to agree quality measures and without clear measures it is difficult and often impossible to track and then summarise the success or otherwise of the project. As the old management saying goes . . . you can’t manage what you can’t measure.
2. Identify key stakeholders | I have seen projects flounder and even fail because key stakeholders have excluded (sometimes on purpose and sometimes by accident) from the project. Even the passive involvement of key stakeholders can reduce resistance and potentially disruptive influences. In the alternative I have also seen projects try to involve too many stakeholders and precious resources are then wasted regurgitating the same information again and again. Through an inadvertant process of detail being diluted an unwanted culture of misinformation can also emerge. The old addage here is that ‘too may cooks can spoil the broth’ (or project in this case!).
Having key stakeholders identified and involved in an appropriate manner will give any project a far better chance of succeeding compared to those that try to operate in a bubble.
3. Keep it commercial at all times- think ROI! |HR is often accused of being a drain on resource that struggles to demonstrate clear return on investment (ROI). This shouldn’t be the case. By identifying the deliverables and associated quality measures, HR should be able to clearly outline the commercial benefits that the work it is doing is going to provide to the organisation. Some projects of course lend themselves to this more easily than others.
For example, if a project seeks to remove £3 million of labour cost and the HR costs associated with the project are £50k this is a relatively easy sell. For a finance professional this might even be viewed as a straightforward 60x ROI. If, on the other hand, the project aims to introduce a flexible benefits scheme costing £500k per annum, key stakeholders (such as operational and finance colleagues) are being asked to take a much bigger leap of faith in terms of the up-front investment being requested.
Even here though, making a compelling case for the project is perfectly feasible. For example, if a large company is losing 50 staff a month (or 600 a year) it is reasonable to say that by applying a £10k wasted cost increment per head lost is driving wastage of around £6 million per annum. A reduction of just 10% linked to better onboarding and flexible benefits/reward would therefore potentially drop £600k back to the bottom line. Allowing for the aforementioned £500k investment in flexible benefits this would therefore drive a potential net saving of £100k per annum. You can almost see the smile on the MD’s/FD’s growing!
This is the kind of commercial mindset that the best HR professionals now employ habitually. It is also the kind of thinking that helps make HR viewed as a value adding function rather than the tea and tissues personnel-type drain on resource of the past.
4. You have to be a natural leader AND a high end technical expert | Certain aspects of leadership can be taught. But the ability to lead naturally and quickly acquire the confidence and respect of others is, in my experience, found in only a relatively small number of individuals. In the HR profession there are many professionals who are technically good but who have very limited leadership ability. There are also a good number who are good leaders but who are technically weak.
The contemporary HR leader has to be technically very strong and also a highly competent, natural leader. With important strategic HR projects there is nowhere to hide. There are also plenty of people who will show little or no sympathy if you fail. Some may even relish this. You can learn a certain amount by reading, observing and even participating in HR activity. But if you do not have an abundance of natural leadership ability and deep-seated technical expertise the chances are that you will fail.
5. Thick skins are needed | If you want to get to the end of an HR project successfully and be warmly applauded for the work you have done, you are most definitely in the wrong profession. Transactional HR can sometimes lend itself to those pink and fluffy moments that HR professionals enjoy. The long-term absentee being counselled back to work, the amicable resolution of a dispute or even the sending of flowers to a bereaved colleague. These are nice and undoubtedly important aspects of transactional HR activity. But they are not what you should expect to happen when seeking to deliver successful strategic HR projects. To make the omelette you have to be prepared to break some eggs. This can and should be done sympathetically and empathetically though.
HR projects often involve highly contentious and unpopular business changes that are happening due to major business decision being made. Sometimes as the project director you will have the genesis of this explained to you. More often than not you will have to find the granular details for yourself. Drivers for these decisions are almost always multifarious. But the need to save money is often a common theme to one extent or another.
Some of the projects I have delivered include: the introduction of a biometric time and attendance system, large-scale headcount reductions, large-scale off-shoring and significant changes to terms and conditions of employment. As the person directing these kind of projects you can expect to experience resistance in a whole raft of forms, bile and even personal attacks on your professionalism and personal integrity. Some people can handle this, most can’t. You have to have a thick skin and a curious ability to operate in collaboration with and in isolation from different people and groupings, depending upon what your relationship with them is. Become familiar with the concept of having lots of dotted reporting lines. You might make a few friends along the way. But if you direct a project with the hope of making lots of friends you are probably going to be disappointed.
To summarise, the role of a senior HR professional is now harder than it has ever been at any time during the relatively short history of the profession. This is now particularly the case for those, like me, who specialise in the delivery of complex and highly challenging HR projects of one type or another. Far from trying to paint a negative picture of this type of work, however, I should also add -in the best interest of balance- that this type of work is some of the most rewarding that any HR professional can do.
Delivering strategic HR projects of various types is probably the one form of HR work where it is easiest to highlight a clear, measurable impact being made upon the organisation. Identifying positive personal impacts from HR projects then allows you to objectively measure the value of the work you have done. Perhaps a similar way to say how a builder takes enjoyment from seeing the finished house that he or she has built brick by brick.
Delivering successful HR projects is not for the fainthearted though and without the highly unusual blend of personal qualities summarised above (and some others beside) the chances of failing are far greater than of succeeding.