The White Water Rafting Guide to Large-Scale Projects

By: Vanessa Schafer

Have you ever been white water rafting? It is, above all, a team sport. And I don’t say that lightly. If one person decides to paddle in a different direction, none of the rafters are getting anywhere quickly. Likewise, if they’re headed toward churning waters, they have to listen to their guide to make it through the challenge, and they must do so together.

But not only is it a team effort; it also requires a fearless and competent guide (or guides) who understand both the rapids and the dynamics of the rafters to effectively navigate the waters.

While it’s not entirely the same as white water rafting, there can be similar challenges on a project involving the consolidation of multiple business franchises, as I can attest.

Too Many Paddles in the Boat

Recently, I wrapped up a project that involved integrating multiple business franchise operations, and one key aspect was consolidating customer records into one single source of truth to use for unified sales order management. This customer record harmonization project was complex for many reasons.

There were multiple customer numbers configured across various systems; some were being used while others were not.  Because the effort branched out into so many functions across the individual organizations and shared services groups, basic coordination quickly became a monumental effort. These customer numbers touched pretty much everything in the company, from the master data to finance, contracting, sales, and customer service, so it was important to consolidate effectively without breaking any of the connected processes and losing any of the data these departments were utilizing.

There was also significant customer impact.  Some customers wanted separate numbers across franchises, while others did not. The legacy data was messy and finding duplicates became a detective game, especially because there were 30,000+ customer numbers to review/analyze. Not something you can do one at a time.

If we missed even one tiny detail, there would have been large impacts such as failed orders, incorrect pricing, the wrong tax setup, etc. The name of the game was risk management. Though there had been previous attempts, this company had never pulled off this type of consolidation effort before.

The Solution: We’re All in the Same Boat

Despite the many challenges, this time, around we were able to lead the organization through this long-overdue harmonization effort. I attribute this success to a few key strategies for you to consider should you have to embark on a similar journey.

1. Clearly Define Roles and Responsibilities

While this required early and disciplined change management of the organization’s culture, we had to ensure there was no gray area when it came to who was responsible for which tasks. 

Even further, we stressed the interdependencies across the tasks and how each team was responsible for ensuring those were understood and regularly reconfirming them to ensure accuracy as new information became available.  

Each team member knew the other functions were relying on them to do their part. We also preached the gospel of respecting dependencies across the teams and ensuring everyone understood the importance of getting each step completed on time and with precision to avoid customer impact and protecting the overall schedule.

2. Build the Team Mentality

The name of the game is  “we are all in this together.”  We communicated incessantly about the need to work together effectively to achieve our common goal. No one function was more important than another on this project. If one team member failed to execute, the entire project failed.

And because the project was unprecedented in terms of widespread impact, we stressed the fact that the project was a collective team enterprise rather than a combination of multiple stand-alone tasks. Making sure each analyst understood how their contributions fit into the larger web of activities was critical to driving bottom-up engagement and consideration about impact across teams. 

Finally, as this was a protracted effort spanning many months, we made a conscious effort to regularly support team morale throughout the many headaches and setbacks by continuously reinforcing the vision, purpose, and value of the project to ensure the teams did not get overwhelmed by the complexity.  It was painful at times, but we managed to pull it off with little impact to the customers or to the internal stakeholders.

3. Let the Team Resolve Conflict

That team mentality carried through into working through disagreements. It wasn’t leadership that made the final decision; it was the team. 

If we had disagreements as we worked through the list of customers, we discussed the options on our standing calls and never moved forward until everyone agreed and knew what had to be done.  We looked at which approach would create the least impact across the board – not just one function or another. While initially this consensus approach impaired velocity, by investing i a distributed decision-making and fostering respect and trust, we were able to cultivate a culture of considerate decision bias. 

The counterintuitive result was that the initial slowdown was more than made up by the rapid pace of parallelized decision-making later in the project. By removing the bottleneck of a central push-down command structure, coupled with stressing the importance of considering cross-functional impacts, we developed a team dynamic where everyone took accountability for collective outcomes, which ultimately accelerated the work effort. 

4. Set Up Detailed Structure and Planning

The foundation for this way of working still has to reside withed a clearly defined schedule of which customers we were working on each week and a systematic sequence of “rationalization tasks” that needed to be completed before the final consolidation could be executed as part of end-to-end cutover.  That way, the team always had clarity on key anchor dates and dependencies that drove the contours of what needed to be done and when. As the saying goes, clear is kind, and unclear is unkind, so a culture of accountability has to be founded on a common source of truth.  

Celebrating the Win Together

Despite the many obstacles, this “we’re in it together” attitude is what propelled us to our final deliverables and ultimate success. My advice to anyone involved in a complex endeavor like this is: be the raft guide your team needs. Foster support and collaboration, give your instructions in a clear and concise manner, and effectively lead your team past the rapids to calmer waters.