Case Study: Professional Membership Organisation

In Spring 2022, I worked with a small professional membership organisation dealing with a significant hole in their IT budget due to an overrunning project. The overrunning project actually turned out to be just the tip of the iceberg.

When I was brought in, they already had several rounds with both their project management firm and their development partner to try and ensure that the project could complete satisfactorily. However, at that point, it was three years since project inception and they were still not much closer to replacing their old CRM system. In fact, both the new and old CRM systems were still in situ. Additionally, relations between the partners and the client had soured to a point where disputes and not much happening was commonplace, making for a very unhappy relationship.

My first job was to understand the systems picture. While I’d already had many briefings with directors, I had to discover for myself the exact story of the project – the starting off point and the place it was now.

From reviewing the invitation-to-tender documents, the contracts, project board notes and meeting notes I was able to determine how the scope had changed significantly from the initial idea. Originally it had been determined to be a ‘CRM replacement project’, however during the tender process it had been decided (or the client had been persuaded) that the scope should also include ‘the website’ and associated integrations.

This considerable change in scope was recommended by both the project management partner and the development firm. However, the client had since determined that the development partner was not to be the preferred expert for the website change. Therefore another firm was instructed to assist with some of the website work and integration.

Until that point, all of the preparatory workshops had assumed the scope to be CRM only. All timelines and expectations were necessarily shorter and due to the extra time required to negotiate the change in scope as well as find an additional website partner, the project was significantly behind before it had even started. Also little thought by the PM partner or the developer had been given to systems integrations.

The previous CRM and website had been heavily customised and there were CPD (Continuous Professional Development) paths as well as Examination and continuous assessment pieces very closely coupled with both the CRM and the websites. There were both the CMS (Content Management Systems) and two LMS (Learning Management Systems) to take into account.

By the time I had interviewed client, development partner and PM players, and we had drawn up a systems context diagram, it became clear how much complexity the developers had to deal with.

The CRM development partner had further assumed that the data migration from the existing system(s) would be straightforward, having carried out only a limited systems audit to get a picture of the data flows. Therefore data migration was left as the last item to do on the project timeline.

Additionally through a lack of defined milestones, and generous contractual arrangements, there was no way that the client could know when to expect certain elements of the functionality.

Building a Picture

Despite having started with the best intentions, the project overran by significantly more than 100% on time and also more than 100% on budget. Furthermore, partners were not held adequately to account.

Excuses had followed excuses from the partner side, and blame started to stack up. Personnel from the client were made to feel like they were the weak link in the chain both by the development partner and the project management firm. Staff being made to feel that they are somehow failing a poorly set-up project is a classic symptom of a lack of ownership. No-one truly felt responsible for the failures and therefore no-one stood up to defend the client’s best interests during ongoing work.

Recommendations

My recommendations were as follows:

  • Take the responsibility for the project completely in-house as soon as possible.
  • Ensure that all remaining gaps were documented and planned in with the development partner.
  • Look at taking more responsibility for future administration of the CRM in-house. Invest in your applications support staff.
  • Invest in training for the whole organisation.
  • Make a plan for decommissioning the historic CRM and associated website backend.

The key learnings from this piece of work were the following:

  • Outsourcing your project management capability doesn’t mean you can outsource your responsibility for good oversight and project management best practice. Ensure that you put an experienced PM in charge internally. If you don’t have one, hire one.
  • Get a second opinion on any contracts and work through scenarios assuming that things don’t go to plan.
  • Ensure that you have a systems diagram – you know where you are before you attempt to go anywhere.
  • Support your staff. Your partners work for you and they should respect all members of your project team.

More than anything else, this project showed up poor internal communication. Governance, reporting, tracking, sign-off, accountability. All of the areas where you would expect senior leadership to pull together. The lack of a director responsible solely for IT, it being a kind of ‘floating role’, really showed here.

Because of that, there was an inability of those involved at the highest level to take ownership and drive this project through. Coupled with an over-reliance on partners this made for a perfect storm.

How to avoid?

Don’t assume that because you’re paying a third party to do a job for you and that they have good references, that they will do it. Own as much of the process as you can for yourselves, and if you’re not sure, find a trusted partner to help guide you.

Does any of this sound familiar?

Feel free to reach out for a free no-obligation discussion to understand your current situation.