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We all know it’s important to have a strategy in place when implementing our information management programs, especially in organizations that are large, complex, or heavily regulated, but how many of these strategies are actually successful? Why do some strategies fall apart during execution, while others survive?

How Successful Are Information Management Strategies?

Let’s talk about the success rate of strategic work. There are a couple of different things at work here. First, there’s the ability of project stakeholders to garner organizational support and to begin executing against project-level activity (i.e., getting from point A to point B). In my experience, about 50% of projects do this successfully, which means that the other 50% of information management strategy projects are dead on arrival.

This isn’t necessarily because the strategy project wasn’t good to begin with (though some projects do lack appropriate rigor, necessary business case justification, or framing that will motivate executives). Oftentimes, projects get sidelined because of budget, the organization’s appetite for change, enterprise priorities, or a change in organizational leadership.

In my experience, one of the most significant factors determining whether a strategy will become an operational program is the client team that owns the strategy. When I'm brought in to create a strategy at organizations but the team that “owns” information management treats it like a side-of-the-desk operation, the chance of that project succeeding drops to single digits. However, when the leader of information management becomes a champion for the effort, evangelizing the project and the results it achieved, they are often successful—even with limited budget, executive support, etc.

Why Do Some Programs Fall Apart During Execution?

So that leads us to the next major question: If 50% of strategies are dead on arrival, how many of the remaining 50% of programs that move forward actually succeed? I’d have to cut that number in half again, which puts it at 25% (or an overall failure rate of 75%).

Why such a high failure rate? You’d think that if the program’s stakeholders get it right by understanding their current environment (e.g., being attuned to the needs of the business and planning the major organizational elements of their program, systems, and organization of content, etc.), that they would be primed for success. Well, they are, but ultimately, enterprise programs aren’t successful because the board approves the project. They are successful because they are executed well. In too many cases, leaders, who have exceptional strategic skills, lack the day-in/day-out, persistent approach needed to deliver on a three-year vision.

Ultimately, enterprise programs are successful because they are executed well.

I’ll share a story that’s based in reality: Once upon a time, a mid-market organization made a large information management software purchase, built a strategy, and approved a five-year vision, but sadly, after the first three years, the company had realized no benefits other than a few thousand documents being moved into their expensive new enterprise content management (ECM) solution by a single business group. The problems were myriad: Information technology (IT) and the business did not have a good working relationship. There had been fits and starts around information management previously, and end users had a bad taste in their mouth. The parts of the organization that were excited about moving forward with the solution lacked the political and financial capital to deploy, and the internal approval process slowed work down to a trickle.

That’s a pretty hard scenario. Even the best and most energetic program leadership would have had trouble righting the ship, but stories like this are instructive for those of us who are starting or working to continue an information management program. What happens if the wheels really come off? Do we know workstreams we can continue if funding gets cut? What will we do if IT resources get reallocated? What if parts of the business refuse to work with us? What if our own leadership changes?

We can’t have a contingency plan for everything, but many organizations do themselves a disservice by not coming up with a plan B. One of the best ways to build a good plan B is to talk with peers at other organizations—people who’ve been down that same road and encountered the same struggles. What worked well for them? What didn’t? Just where were the pitfalls, and how did they address them?

Where can you have these types of conversations? There are actually a lot of opportunities out there. One that is coming up in May of this year is the 2017 DOCUMENT Strategy Forum. I’ll be leading a panel discussion on tales from the trenches, with real-life information management program managers discussing their successes and failures and how they found a plan B when plan A was no longer an option. It’s all in the spirit of learning from people who’ve been there—and in the information management space, there are a lot of lessons learned.

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Lane Severson is a Practice Leader in Information Management at Doculabs. He works to help clients align their technology investments to support business objectives and drive value for the enterprise. Lane has 13 years of experience in the information management industry and offers thought leadership on the blog of the Doculabs website as well as for online industry venues. Follow Doculabs on Twitter @Doculabs.