HRIS project on hold again?

Make it an opportunity

Keeping momentum behind your Human Resources software projects can be notoriously difficult, even after they’ve been approved by the Executive Team.

Whether it’s a whole new Human Resources Information System (HRIS) or simply adding a Talent Management module, there is often a reassessment of the commitment of funds and IT resources when it comes time for the project launch.

It usually begins in an Executive Team meeting.

“Wow, that’s a lot of money and resources. Is this really necessary?”GettyImages-457984115

“Yes, it is,” you say. You know a recap of your original presentation isn’t necessary; you provided and discussed all the reasons and benefits in detail during the budget process. But several ET members exchange looks, and you suddenly get the feeling that you’re losing ground.

“Look, we’re in a good place to get this work completed,” you say. “We’ve staffed up HR to prepare for the implementation, and we’ve been documenting our business processes with management’s input. We’re working with IT to build the RFP so we find a solution that’s in alignment with their system requirements. And, we did commit to the management team that we will meet their HR process improvement requests.”

Then someone says: “I know. But the Sales Division’s software is a mess. They’ve been working on an outdated proprietary system for 20 years. It’s a patchwork of patches. We’re losing direct revenue because of down time and we’re starting to pile up customer complaints. It’s really not about the cost of your project. It’s about the allocation resources and the revenue we’re losing. Or could lose. I think we really need to direct our IT team and resources there. I’m sorry.”

And just like that, energy begins to line up behind the another division’s project and HR’s is on indefinite hold.

To your credit, you get it. The Sales Division’s software is a mess. It’s absorbing the majority of IT’s resources anyway, and you wouldn’t want that 20-year-old system to be your system. You don’t want the revenue generators to crash into the ocean. After all, you’re in the plane with them.

But knowing all that and being on board with the shift doesn’t make it any easier. You’ve likely been through this before, and it’s frustrating and disheartening. You immediately wonder what you’ll need to do next budget cycle to get it through to completion. You know this shift will be a huge disappointment to the HR team, and to some extent, the broader management team. You’re also afraid that the relevance of the preparatory work your team has done will fade with each passing day.

Best option: stay in the game

It may be tempting to throw up your hands and move onto another project that needs your attention. Don’t do it. Although the project delay is a setback, you can convert it to an incredible opportunity.

The best option is to stay engaged with the new, non-HR project. You’ll gain a broader understanding your HR software needs on an enterprise-wide landscape, and you’ll conduct product research more thoroughly than you could by working solely on the HR product. It’s an opportunity to demonstrate your skills and knowledge on a bigger scale, and as a result, you will develop relationships and recognition throughout the organization. The contributions you make, the knowledge you gain, and the reputation you build will better inform and support your strategy and project in the next budget cycle.

Stay right in the thick of it. You have unique skills to contribute, and there are specific actions you can take to benefit your HR team and your future project. Here are some of them:

Become a project team member

Years of working with internal teams, developing and implementing HR technology and programs, and guiding consultants and contractors on a host of projects has crafted a unique skillset that few in the organization can offer. For example, you understand the difference between a training issue and a process issue, which are two of the most confused elements when defining and mapping business processes and solutions with new technology projects.

You’ve very likely worked with internal IT teams on other HR software projects. At times, IT drives the product selection and implementation based on what they believe is easiest and best for them, and not necessarily what is best for their internal customer. You’ve been through those experiences and learned how to effectively and diplomatically push back.

Precisely because core business divisions (like sales, for example) are focused on their day-to-day production goals, they are typically not equipped to see the broader impact of their new software on other divisions and downstream or upstream processes. They also don’t have experience functioning in a project management environment. You can assist them in both. And, you provide a critical non-IT perspective of the project.

If you’re challenged on your involvement, explain why you are one of the best-prepared and most experienced people in the organization to contribute to the selection and implementation of the new project. Tell the project lead you will not only be able to help them, but that this project will help inform you how HR can better partner with them by developing a deeper understanding of their business processes. Offer to sit on the selection and implementation advisory committees. From there you can provide guidance, input, and oversight outside the day-to-day work of the project teams.

Manage the Message

When the decision is made to delay your project or focus on another division, ask the Executive Committee for a day to get the word out to your HR teams. Send an email or meet with them as quickly as possible. IT teams that were assigned to your project can move unbelievably fast when they are told by their managers they are shifting focus. Don’t let your assigned IT team beat you to the punch by sending an email out or posting an update on social media.

Communicate the decision openly with your HR team, and stress the fact that you support the decision to redirect resources where there is the most need in the organization. At the same time, emphasize that while you are disappointed that there isn’t way to move both projects forward at the same time, there will be a benefit to the HR project by staying involved.

In your email or meeting, emphasize these points:

  • You believe it’s the right thing to do based on the greatest need, not just for the division in question, but for the organization.
  • You recognize the work that has been done to date on the HR project, and want to discuss ways to keep the process mapping work current and ready for implementation at the next available opportunity.
  • You will be a member of the non-HR project team to provide assistance, guidance, and an HR perspective.
  • There will opportunity to learn and benefit from your continuing involvement in the non-HR project in terms of understanding business processes, being exposed to enterprise-wide software solutions, and observing a large IT implementation.
  • You want download that learning to your teams on a regular basis throughout the project.

By consistently communicating these messages to your HR team, and the Leadership and Executive teams, they will likely remember how you handled the shift with diplomacy and tact and by staying involved, rather than throwing up your hands and moving onto something else.

Build Relationships and Reputation

Throughout your involvement with the new non-HR project, you can focus completely on being an advocate. There are times when HR’s role is to deliver unpopular news and decisions to the company, but this is one time when you can absolutely and exclusively advocate for a division.

Listen and help them define and document their needs and their ideas for improvement. Ask questions about their past problems and biggest desires. Answer their questions about your experiences with software selections and implementations thoroughly and promptly. Point out advantages and pitfalls. Help them select the right product based on their needs and no one else’s. Guide them through disagreements with the vendor, implementation contractors, or even the IT division.

Your advocacy will deepen your existing business relationships and create new ones. While you demonstrate your value and expertise, you will learn about the division and develop a deeper understanding of their business operations and synergies. Your interest and education will build credibility both within and outside the division. Those you work with on the project will remember your commitment and effort, and will be more likely to come to your aid when you approach your project again.

Research and Study HR Software

Perhaps the biggest advantage of participating in the non-HR project is that it provides a great way to keep researching your HR solution. Most enterprise-wide software systems and companies offer HR solutions, or they partner with companies that provide them. Regardless of how your organization is focused on their software project (sales, inventory management, general ledger, etc.), you can find a wealth of information and examples of HR software solutions in the mix.

You don’t have to pepper vendors with HRIS questions in their sales presentations and demos: once they know an HR executive is in the process, you can easily find a channel to the sales representative for that product line.

And, as a matter of diplomacy and perception, most software sales reps are savvy about keeping the primary non-HR project in front and center. They understand the nature of HR’s priority in corporate software hierarchy, and that if they contribute to a perception that you’re trying to redirect the project back toward HR needs, their entire sales opportunity could be over.

Nonetheless, be sensitive the perception that you might be over-interested in the possible HR solutions, or that you’re trying to push the current project in a direction that benefits your future HR solution. In addition to not being true to your commitment on the project, just that perception can kill your reputation and relationships in short order, and you may find yourself moved to the edges of (or even off) the project team. Conduct your research with tact and discretion.

There are occasions when, unexpectedly, a connection develops between the current project and the HR solution. For example, the VP of Sales heading the project suddenly identifies a software product that they believe serves both Sales and HR needs. In a perfect world where you both agree on the solution, that might be a great thing. But those agreements are rare, and because the other division is the lead, you may not have a chance to involve your requirements or teams in the selection. The situation can quickly turn awkward if you being to feel like you’re being force-fed an HR solution, or if the other executive feels there’s an advantage to your support of their product by leveraging the HR option. Tread carefully.

Continue to focus on using your involvement on the current project to research HR solutions for future use while staying committed to the primary project. You will bring new insights back to the HR project team and be better prepared when your opportunity begins again.

Study and Document Implementation

This is your chance to observe and document what works (and what doesn’t) on major software implementations at a time when there is no direct effect on you or your HR team.

That is a significant strategic planning advantage: you can prepare your HR team on the difficulties and efficiencies you’re seeing, identify the necessary skill sets they need to develop or maintain to be ready, and calculate the internal resources and budget your project will need.

From the beginning to end of the implementation, you can objectively assess the process and result. From the contracting ins and outs with Corporate Legal, the internal IT protocols and requirements, the effectiveness of the contracted implementation firm, the complexities of building system modifications, to how well the implementation teams trained employees on the use of the product … it will all be laid out before you to observe and study.

Get prepared for the next launch … of your project

After you’ve helped the division select and implement their software, don’t hesitate to ask for help to get yours back on the schedule. You should have plenty of support from their project lead, and greater support from the Executive Team overall.

You can reach out to other business partners in the organization to sit on your project  team to help advocate for your project and its implementation.

The good news is that from the delay and initial disappointment, you will have prepared your team for all aspects of the selection process, strengthened relationships and partnerships across the company, and gained knowledge and experience that will help make the implementation more effective than it would have been at the time you originally wanted it to happen.

And, if you’re fortunate enough, perhaps you’ll even have a head start on identifying a few preferred software solutions!



Leveraging the Strengths of Poor Performers

shutterstock_90951146Why executives think it’s a good idea, and why it doesn’t work

One phrase I hear regularly from executives is: “We’re going to leverage their strengths.”

In most cases we’ve been discussing the poor performance of someone in their organization, and I know what’s coming next: an explanation of why moving that person to a special assignment to “leverage their strengths” is a perfect solution.

What comes next for me is explaining why that’s a very bad idea. If I’m not successful in that explanation, and sometimes I’m not, I know what usually follows: a long and difficult road for the employee with performance issues and the executive, and the potential for lots of billed time for their employment attorney.

But before I get into why leveraging strengths rarely works for poor performers, let’s frame the context of why executives really do believe it is a good idea. In short: it works with high performers.

Special Assignments + High Performers = Success

Many senior executives use a highly successful method to pursue new product ideas, build unique programs to outpace the competition, complete projects in the strategic plan, and solve problems that have vexed the organization for years. They start with specific a business need and determine tactical objectives on how to address them. Then they create, fund, and launch focused opportunities in the form of special projects and assignments to address them.

Executives then identify and select their highest performing employees with the right skills to lead those assignments. Those employees may be assigned to special projects, moved into new jobs with specific goals and objectives, or simply have added responsibilities and authority woven into existing jobs. In those focused opportunities, high performers often flourish, grow, and deliver amazing results.

The opportunities are typically limited duration assignments, from several months to several years. They encourage high performing employees to concentrate their focus on mission critical problems or objectives, and they provide the space and support for them to exercise their greatest strengths and talents.

They can also provide the benefit of accelerating an employee’s development and readiness for even larger roles. One of the best parts for the organization: it gets results.

In these circumstances, executives have successfully leveraged the strengths of their employees. They have done so with very little risk: the opportunities were created from specific organizational objectives, and high performers were selected who have demonstrated past success.

Applying the equation to poor performers

I’ve also worked with executives who have told me very earnestly that they are going to “leverage the strengths” of a poor performer in much the same way.

Understandably, they have confidence that the focused opportunity model will work in a variety of situations. They believe it will motivate both the high performer and low performer to operate in a form of directional parallel. The assumption is that if high performers are largely successful on these assignments, then poor performers will develop and flourish as well, even if the same level of success is not achieved.

Seven Reasons Why It Doesn’t Work

Unfortunately, and with very little exception, my experience is that these focused opportunities for poor performers end in failure. While the reasons for failure vary somewhat in each situation, here are the seven most common:

  1. The core of the opportunity is designed on a talent or ability that the executive believes they have observed in the poor performer, but has not been definitively demonstrated.
  2. The method of creating the opportunity is reversed: the person is the center of the design, not the business need. This can lead to team resentment of the employee, lack of organizational buy-in to the assignment objectives, resistance to providing resources and connections for success, and a born-to-fail aura that generates workarounds by high performers.
  3. The performance issues that need improvement are removed from the poor performer’s responsibilities during the focused assignment.
  4. The sponsoring executive expects the opportunity itself, due to the nature of its freedoms and creative space, to change the poor performer. Consequently, the executive does not offer the level of individual support and mentoring that the poor performing employee requires.
  5. Employees who are aware of their performance deficiencies are typically extrinsically motivated during the assignment instead of intrinsically motivated like high performers.[1] They are motivated by the reward of improving and/or saving themselves, not on the project goals.
  6. Poor performers see themselves as having two layers of expectations which causes them enormous stress: They must be successful in order to stay employed, and they must also be as successful as, or more successful than, high performers in similar assignments to maintain or re-establish their reputation.
  7. In cases where the poor performer is not aware of their performance deficiencies or does not buy into them, those deficiencies typically amplify during the assignment.

I’ll explore some of these reasons in more detail, but it’s important to call out a two major themes with failed assignments.

First, unlike successful assignments that are easy to wrap up when the objectives are complete, failed assignments tend to linger on and on. Usually no exit strategy is determined at the assignment outset to address the possibility of failure, and after years in an assignment, there may not be an original position for the poor performer to return to. Indeed, the executive may determine that it’s less painful to let the employee sit in the modified (and isolated) assignment and muddle along.

Second, when assignments designed for poor performers fail, they have the ability to fail big rather than small. They can produce complex and immediate problems for the poor performer, their work teams, and the sponsoring executive. They can also seed future problems that sprout up for years.

All that glitters

So what motivates an executive to head down the path of creating focused opportunities for poor performers, even when the Human Resources staff or consultant is advising them against it? They do it with the right intentions, certainly, but not always for the right reasons.

When an executive brings up the idea of leveraging an employee’s strengths in order to manage or improve their performance — and that employee is usually a member of their leadership team — the executive will tell me a familiar story. They have seen a glimmer of talent within the individual that no one else sees, or they have recognized a latent ability that no one has been able to activate.

The executive usually provides me with a specific example that they have observed during an event, say a quarterly leadership update or project team meeting. It shines out to them like a bit of gold along the conversational vein of performance deficiencies. Admittedly, those examples can sound promising. If properly encouraged and guided, the executive argues, that natural talent or latent ability will transform that individual into a better performer. Perhaps even into a high performer.

Executives have confidence in their ability to awaken talent in their leadership team: they have demonstrated success developing high performers and high performing teams. They would not be executives otherwise. Encouraging them to reconsider their plan can be difficult, and when I’m not successful, the plan to “leverage the strengths” of poor performers typically takes one of two forms: a job modification or the creation an entirely new job.

Roads of good intention

The first form, and the most common, involves modifying the poor performer’s current job by removing and adding specific responsibilities. Overall they continue to hold onto some core responsibilities of their original job and job title. Their salary and classification are usually held to those of their original position.[2]

As one might anticipate, the subtraction of responsibilities happens along the lines of what the employee has demonstrated they can’t perform or don’t perform well. This removal of poorly performed responsibilities is actually weakness leveraging, and it often defines the majority of the changes to the person’s job. It takes away the very responsibilities that the person most needs to improve.[3]

The new responsibilities intended to leverage the strengths of the individual are responsibilities the executive believes the employee can perform, even though that person hasn’t previously performed them in any significant measure.

Perhaps even more interesting is that several of the executives I’ve talked with believe the person can or will perform those duties better than other employees in the organization, even though there has been little or no demonstrative evidence that this is the case. It’s back to the executive’s true investment in the glittering, un-mined nugget.

In the second form of leveraging, the executive creates a new position that is (ostensibly) designed around utilizing the poor performers strongest skills and abilities. In some cases these jobs do focus on the skills and abilities the employee has demonstrated they can perform, and in many cases they perform very well.

However, similar to the job modification approach, there is usually a substantial portion of the new position that is designed around those traits and competencies the executive believes the employee possesses, but hasn’t necessarily demonstrated. These assignments also involve the removal of some responsibilities the employee most needs to improve.

Tough conversations

Human Resources professionals are used to having tough conversations with executives. However, it can be exceptionally difficult to persuade the executive that this course of action with a poor performer may be a mistake.

As I mentioned earlier, the executive has confidence in their ability to identify and build high performing people and teams, has seen a similar model work with their high performers, and wants to break through the problems fast. They want to minimize the impact on the organization and the employee see if they can quickly and efficiently develop a win-win.

I find that starting this discussion in the way we HR types typically do, by focusing on the best practices of managing performance, gets very little initial traction. In fact, I’ve actually received wave offs with “that’s just not going to work.”

Instead, I start with earnestly exploring the details of how the executive will roll out the new assignment out to the poor performer, to their team, and to the organization. I continue the conversation with questions like:

  • How will that assignment be explained to the employee and their team?
  • Who will pick up the duties that poor performer leaves behind?
  • How long will the assignment be?
  • How will success be measured?
  • If they aren’t successful, will they go back to their original position?
  • What process will we use if another employee, perhaps a high performer, complains or feels that they should have been given that opportunity?
  • Will similar opportunities be provided for employees who can’t perform the essential functions of their jobs either with or without a reasonable accommodation?

This exercise of earnestly working to bring the concept into the real world usually creates new realization for the executive. They begin to see the potential problems and pitfalls with the poor performer and their team, the level of commitment required, the effect on the organization, and the undeniable risks of failure. They usually begin to create questions of their own.

During the discussion I share relevant elements of my seven common reasons for failure, and provide some de-identified examples from my 25 years in the business.

At that point executives are most likely to open up and discuss performance improvement best practices. We then explore the processes that have been followed so far, such as developing a performance plan with expectations and measurements, monitoring improvement, and providing regular support and feedback.

If the performance management work has already been done, and there was not satisfactory improvement, we explore if the right course of action is for the executive to have a tough conversation with the employee.

If that work hasn’t been done, it’s time to start on positive path of support and improvement. And in my experience, that has been a much a more successful approach for helping poor performers than “leveraging their strengths.”


[1] I’m borrowing the Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivation definitions used by Julie Dirksen in her book, Design For How People Learn, 2012.

[2] This drives our compensation analysts crazy for really good reasons: market pricing and internal equity are just a couple of them.

[3]The practice of changing the essential functions of a job based on an individual’s performance can set the organization up for considerable risk, not the least of which relates back to the Americans With Disabilities Act and setting organizational precedents. In addition, selecting poor performers for specials assignments can also expose the firm to Title VII, Equal Opportunity, and other legal and fairness issues. See your lawyer for a full menu of potential problems.

©2016 Ryan W. Fleming, All Rights Reserved


Avoid the Performance Review assembly line

Some of the strangest debates I’ve had with Human Resources professionals and executives have been about whether it’s better to administer performance reviews on a fixed calendar Focal Point method, or on an employee Anniversary Date method.

Completing all employees’ performance and salary reviews on a Focal Point (or fixed calendar basis) has become the preferred, modern approach for many companies over the past ten or so years. I’ve administered it both ways, and having had both experiences, I’m firmly in the Anniversary Date camp. I’ve found my reasons for that preference surprise a lot of people, and that fact worries me.

There are articles published all over the web and in HR magazines saying the Focal Point method is the most organizationally efficient way to get the work done. It allows managers and supervisors to connect employee goals to the organization’s goals, and it encourages them to communicate quarterly with employees. If timed correctly, it can also tie fiscal year results to each employee’s performance results, and employees can see how they contributed to company’s bottom line.

Many of the articles argue that Focal Point is also the ultimate blessing for HR. It’s easier to administer once a year for everyone; it allows more effective annual salary budgeting (and forced distribution for some); it allows HR to do its job and market survey work more efficiently; and, perhaps the most vigorously argued point, is that it allows companies to use new software solutions that brings the business of reviewing performance and administering salary into the modern era.

I find it interesting that those arguments are often made in articles written by people who work for software companies.

But what is most interesting and disconcerting to me, is that if you start the discussion about what’s better, Focal Point or Anniversary date reviews, most people never start with the consideration of what’s better for the employee.

When I’ve pointed that out to colleagues, there’s usually a snort and discussion that ultimately suggests, “Hey, this isn’t about the employees, this is about process. We need to get this done. The other way is a nightmare. Get on board here.”

I believe that thinking is dead wrong regardless of your preference for process. On the contrary, performance reviews are all about the employee. Just ask employees.

Certainly, both methods have their advantages, and the selection of one or the other is often dependent on the company’s culture, business, and overall business model.

However, I need to say this again, because I still feel the echo of those past debates being ended by dismissive hand waves and changing of the subject. Performance review process is about the employee.

We should do what is better for the employee, particularly when it comes to reviewing their performance and sharing that assessment with them. We otherwise dismiss the crucial connection to employees and workplace culture. Performance reviews and the process of their administration must build the employee’s trust in their manager, belief in the mission and objective of the organization, and investment in providing the best ideas, innovation, and service possible.

From administering both types of methods, I’ve experienced that Focal Point poses the greatest danger to employee engagement and workplace culture. The focus on administrative efficiency, from salary budgeting to the cattle call of pushing everyone through at once, de-emphasizes the individual employee and their contributions.

Even with the most modern, up-to-date intentions and aspirations, the Focal Point method can eventually erode the humanity from the process. It becomes an assembly line for managers as they work to pump out reviews and salary recommendations for all their employees over a compressed period of time. I’ve never seen a Focal Point method help a manager stick to a quarterly review schedule in the off-season. It becomes a “one and thank God I’m done” mentality.

Depending on how many people need to approve those draft reviews and approve the salary increases in Focal Point method, the timeframe becomes even more compressed. Managers often stack performance review meetings like cordwood on their calendars, and operate a revolving door of individual meetings to get through the messages quickly and mechanically, sending another strong message to their employees. Let’s get you in and out.

Talking with management over the last twenty years, those who sit down to write reviews on the employee’s anniversary date don’t dread it. They recognize it as a regular, ongoing part of their job duties, and it becomes a welcome event to connect with their employees.

It also keeps managers tuned on how to write reviews, share difficult messages, and recognize accomplishments. It keeps performance discussions happening throughout the year on a regular basis, and it encourages them to have those quarterly discussions with the other members of their teams. In short, managers and their employees in an Anniversary Date method consistently said to me that they understand the importance of those connections and valued the process.

I’ve also experienced far fewer employee complaints about their performance reviews and managers in an Anniversary Date method. Complaints of being unfairly compared and rated against team members, of being rushed through their meetings, of being held accountable for performance issues they never knew existed, and of not getting along with their manager have been significantly less in an Anniversary Date system.

Regardless of your company’s preference or necessity for Focal Point or Anniversary Date performance reviews, the process should balance what’s right for employees with what is necessary to meet the business need and objectives. In a Focal Point environment, it takes more effort to ensure that the process doesn’t overtake the individual. In an Anniversary Date environment, it takes more effort to manage the process for each individual. That can mean more work for HR.

Just so you know, I’m okay with that.