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Sales Operations: Project Success Factors

September 01, 2014

Successful implementation of operational improvement initiatives requires careful assessment, planning and organizational commitment

A group changes in three stages, theorized psychologist Kurt Lewin (1890-1947). During the “unfreezing” stage, an existing mindset is dismantled. During the second stage, the actual change occurs, and confusion may prevail as the group makes the transition. During the third stage, “freezing,” the new mindset crystallizes and the group’s level of comfort returns to its initial state.

Completing an operational improvement project within a b-to-b sales organization requires a new process, tool or behavior to be consistently adopted. But if the project isn’t well planned and executed, persistent confusion may result from an unsuccessful transition, and the organization will never realize the intended benefits. Sales operations must ensure that the sales organization is aligned and ready to implement, adopt and sustain the chosen initiative. In this issue of SiriusPerspectives, we describe three sets of best practices that sales operations should apply to ensure project success.

Project Success

One: Preparation

Before the first cross-functional meeting to discuss a project, sales operations should evaluate organizational readiness, the impact of the proposed initiative, the metrics that will be used to govern and judge impact, and the resources required to ensure project success. Consider the following preparation elements:

  • Evaluation. Evaluate the project using a prioritization matrix to validate assumptions about scope, schedule and budget, and to identify potential risks that may impede effective execution. At this point, the purpose is to develop a deeper understanding of the project’s goals, potential barriers to success, budget, required resources and effort, activities and timing.

  • Metrics. Progress toward the project’s business objectives (e.g. acquire new customers, increase revenue per rep, reduce cost of sales) should be tracked via metrics that can reveal successes or problems as the project is executed. For example, if the project is designed to increase revenue per rep, metrics may include average deal size per rep, ramp time to proficiency, and time spent in core selling activities. If the project goal is to improve forecast accuracy, metrics may include forecast vs. actual revenue variance, cycle time by sales stage and forecast accuracy by region.

  • Plan. Complete and approve a detailed project plan that addresses the work breakdown, budget, roles, responsibilities (e.g. owner, contributor, influencer), deliverables, milestones and timelines. Segment large projects to deliver enhancements in phases of short duration. Key activities, objectives, timeline and feedback mechanisms should be identified for each phase.

  • Governance. The project’s governance and execution structure must include a steering committee, executive sponsor(s) and a sales operations project manager. The project manager must have the skills needed to plan the project, manage constraints (e.g. cost, time, scope, quality), and execute and complete the project. He or she also must bridge gaps between field and headquarters organizations or between functional organizations (e.g. marketing, product management, finance, IT). The project manager is also responsible for identifying, assembling and managing the core and extended teams.

  • Organizational alignment. Team members often come from a variety of disciplines (e.g. finance, IT, marketing, channel management, service and/or customer support, product management). Budgets and resources must be aligned with project objectives and approved by executive leadership and across teams. Identify the project’s impact on operational support processes (e.g. bid management, pricing, request for proposal response, professional services, fulfillment, information management). Hand-offs, responsibilities and expectations may need to be defined or modified.


Two: Execution

During a formal project launch meeting, resources are committed, timelines and checkpoints are determined, executive sponsors are identified and project sub-teams (if needed) are formed. As the project is executed, apply the following best practices:

  • In-process checkpoints. Hold regularly scheduled meetings of the full project team, as well as smaller meetings for each working group or sub-team to review the project workstream, identify barriers to success and address points of failure. Discuss and promptly address issues such as missed project milestones (e.g. delivery dates), cost overruns, changing requirements, unavailability of critical resources (e.g. people, processes or systems) or other changes that introduce uncertainty. If needed, perform a mid-project assessment using the project prioritization matrix to facilitate root cause analysis. For large projects, use multiple formal checkpoints or gates to verify achievement of key milestones.

  • Executive engagement. Senior leaders must recognize that the project represents a long-term investment in sales productivity and move beyond sponsorship to provide active, visible engagement in the project. They must commit their own time as well as resources from their respective organizations. Executive alignment exercises, often conducted in a facilitated workshop, should answer three specific questions: What are we doing (what is the project and how does it align with corporate objectives)? Why are we doing this (e.g. what are the goals, objectives and expected outcomes)? What is my role in making this successful (e.g. what behaviors do I need to change)? If the level of executive sponsorship and engagement changes (e.g. following a leadership change), re-evaluate the project.

  • Communications and change management. Develop a communications and change management plan that identifies the parties impacted by the changes that the project introduces and describes the messages to be communicated to those parties. The plan must also outline the timing and delivery mechanism(s) of communications and describe how the impact of communications will be measured. Each member of the project team, executive sponsor(s) and the governance committee must understand his or her role in communications and change management. Change management will not be complete until the new process, system or behavior is embedded in the culture of the sales organization and becomes the norm rather than the exception.

Three: Project Wrap-Up

In their rush to move to the next task or activity, sales organizations often neglect to complete a formal process for closing a project, collecting and understanding lessons learned, and ensuring the benefits of the project are sustained. Apply the following best practices to close a project effectively:

  • Conduct a post-project review. Include all project team members, executive sponsors and the governance committee. Provide feedback to the project team and describe the project’s measurable results, adherence to financial constraints and schedule, lessons learned, any remaining tasks and ongoing efforts to sustain the project’s benefits. A project evaluation checklist should be completed to document opportunities for improving the project management process and assess the accuracy of assumptions that were made when planning the project.

  • Monitor and measure. While the project itself has a finite life, it usually takes more time for the organization to fully adopt and embed the new process, procedure or tool and realize the long-term business benefits. Depending on the level of change required, a formal plan for sustaining the project’s adoption and benefits may be required as a part of the broader project plan. Include ongoing monitoring and reporting of key metrics established during the project planning phase. These measurements also should be integrated into the organization’s standard management reporting process. In some cases, service-level agreements between supporting organizations are needed.

The Sirius Decision

Managing change is not easy. Organizational resistance, ineffective sponsorship, limited resources and corporate inertia are all barriers to successful adoption of new processes, technologies and behaviors. Unfortunately, the risk of failing to achieve the desired benefits are high – and the larger and more expensive the project, the greater the risk of failure. As the project lead, sales operations must balance the time, money, resources and potential disruption of the sales organization against the potential yield or return on any new initiative. The first step is to use a project prioritization matrix to evaluate new requests before assigning resources and agreeing to move forward. Increase chosen projects’ chances of success by implementing proper planning, management and communication to address barriers to change throughout the project. Finally, track and measure the results and outcomes of the project to ensure adoption and sustain the return on investment.