Four Steps to Preventing Project Failure - Meet LISA | Stewart Leadership

Four Steps to Preventing Project Failure – Meet LISA

A couple of years ago, a client implemented a new Human Resource and Payroll system.  The process took well over a year to plan and implement.  A team of very competent HR and Payroll leaders and staff met frequently with the project manager and project leader to carefully plan and implement each phase of the project.  When the “go-live” date came, the switchover from one system to the new system went without any issues.  Sure, there were some little glitches that needed minor adjustments, but overall the implementation was successful.  

Two weeks later, the first payroll ran.  Bad things happened.  People didn’t get paid!  The leader and project manager didn’t know it had happened until the next morning.  No one seemed to know what to do or when to do it.  Yes, sometimes bad things happen to good people, but bad things often happen to people who fail to anticipate the bad things.  A good equation to always remember:   “Fail to Plan = Plan to Fail”.

Some say that the true value of a leader is determined not when all is going well, but when all is NOT going well.  It was bad enough that the payroll didn’t run correctly, but it was even worse to discover that the team had never imagined nor planned any contingencies.  After a lot of scrambling and time spent pointing fingers, the problem was eventually communicated to impacted parties and appropriately addressed.  

Unfortunately, much time elapsed from when the problem first occurred, to when it was noticed, to when it was communicated, to when it was fixed.  It made the project leader and team look pretty bad in the eyes of the executive leadership team.

Plan to Ensure Success

Leaders at all levels are sometimes responsible for implementing some type of major change or managing a big, impactful project.  When given the opportunity to demonstrate their leadership, it is critical that they plan and execute in the best way possible.  Success can lead to a bright future.  Failure can limit one’s potential for organizational growth.  Knowing this, one would imagine that the leader would do all they could to ensure success.  

Yet, there is example after example of leaders failing, due to focusing so much on the implementation that they forget to examine all that could go wrong after the implementation.  They forget to develop the “what ifs” – those things that could possibly go wrong during and after the change or project.  They forget to do potential problem analysis.

Some leaders may use the negative brainstorming approach – RPI (Risk, Probability, Impact) – as a tool to help leaders anticipate problems with a project or planned change.  When used correctly, it can be somewhat helpful.

However, some leaders look for a more comprehensive potential problem analysis model that allows them to carefully address problematic issues and create “what ifs”, in the event of problems.  For such clients, I recommend using LISA, a model I created for leaders to use in such a circumstance.


Four Steps to Analyzing Risks

My mentor once told me that leaders have three options as they consider what type of leader they aspire to be:  they either “Own the Power, Share the Power, or Give the Power Away”.   He convinced me it was critical I learn to Share the Power.  In doing so, it allowed me to engage my team and leverage their knowledge, skills and abilities (KSAs) to solve problems and improve outcomes.  

As a leadership coach, I encourage those I work with to be more inclusive in their leadership style and to proactively plan for potential problems, to truly engage their teams.  To assist, I introduce them to LISA – a model that expands on the RPI approach by including opportunities for developing solutions and action planning.  The approach provides leaders and teams the opportunity to proactively plan for any problem prior to implementation – a test drive before buying (implementing).

L:  Likelihood of the Risk (High – Medium – Low)

I:  Impact of the Risk (High – Medium – Low)

S:  Solutions or Suggestions for mitigating the Risk if it should occur

A:  Actions (specific with timing and planned communications) if a problem occurs

When do you use LISA?

LISA can be used during the implementation of any size change or project.  The magnitude of the change or project will dictate the level of detail and time needed to develop your LISA chart.  In the case of the payroll example, it should have been used.  Had it been, more attention would have been given to the first payroll, including the planned actions and communications to take place in the event of any problems.  Yes, it still would have been bad news, but it would have been “controlled” news.

How do you use LISA?

It’s really a very uncomplicated model and process.  I have found it works best if done at a session/team meeting dedicated to identifying potential problems and with the use of a facilitator.  This allows for the leader to fully participate.  The implementation process goes like this:

  1. Ask participants to come to the session with a list of “all they fear” could go wrong – sometimes referred to as “what keeps you up at night”.
  2. Using a traditional brainstorming approach (no evaluation of individual comments), go around the room and have members voice their list.  Normally, each provides one and the process is repeated until everyone’s list has been shared.  The facilitator captures each comment on a flip chart, projected computer screen or whiteboard.  The key is that participants be able to see the list.
  3. Ask for any clarifications of the list so that all participants fully understand each comment.
  4. Rate each item on the list for the Likelihood of the risk occurring and the Impact if it should occur (High, Medium, Low).  Some teams spend time defining High, Medium, and Low.
  5. Depending on the length of the list, either develop Solutions/Suggestions and Actions to be taken for each risk or at least for those with High Likelihood and High Impact.  Individual teams typically determine how many to address.

LISA:  An Example

Using the payroll example, during a team meeting someone would have listed “Payroll Not Run As Planned” as one of the potential risks.  Your organization’s planning model can be utilized as it relates to the layout of the document.  My guess, based on a career as a Chief Human Resources Officer, is that payroll risk would have been rated as follows:

Potential Problem:  Payroll Not Running As Planned

  • Likelihood of occurring:  HIGH
  • Impact should it occur:   HIGH
  • Solutions to minimize and/or manage the risk:
    • Conduct extra testing of payroll system to help minimize risk
    • Require all payroll related team members and consultant to be present at the time payroll runs for the first time after “go-live”
    • Pay those impacted via paper checks if there are problems
    • Develop communication plans for executives, leaders, and staff

Actions to be taken if payroll runs incorrectly (note:  will use communication planning as an example for Actions to be taken)

  • Develop (in advance) email messages (one for if it works and one for if it doesn’t) for executives to be sent at 7:00 a.m. providing them with a status of the payroll run (remind them to look for this email)
  • Develop (in advance) email messages (one for if it works and one for if it doesn’t) for leaders to be sent at 7:15 AM.  Include Q&As for them to share with their staff
  • If problem:  Develop (in advance) an email message for staff indicating the problem, impact to them and what will be done to solve the problem.  Ask for their patience and assure them they will be paid.
  • If no problem:  Develop (in advance) an email message for staff announcing the success.

The more in-depth the planning of the actions in advance, the easier it will be to execute the plan in the moment.  Most plans include what is to be done, when it is to be done and who is responsible for the action step.  Again, LISA might not have stopped the problem from occurring, but it would have allowed for a more controlled environment after the problem was discovered.


Using LISA allows proactive leaders to anticipate and plan for potential problems.  It not only achieves the overall purpose of Negative Brainstorming, but expands it to help leaders takes it to the appropriate level for today’s leaders who cannot and should not allow themselves to be bogged down with the outdated belief that they are responsible for solving all of the problems all of the time.  Share the Power and use LISA to help anticipate and plan for the problems associated with change and project implementation.

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