HR Project

In an ideal world, every HR project would be delivered on time and within budget.

Unfortunately, this is rarely the case, with many failed projects leaving a trail of wasted time and money, not to mention low morale in their wake.

Yet, with the right team in place, as well as some careful planning and a bit of common sense, they can succeed.

Here are a few reasons why some HR projects go wrong and what you can do to avoid it.

1) Lack of buy-in

If the senior management team don’t actively support and believe in your HR project, you will struggle to secure the essential funding and resources required, making its failure highly likely.

A lack of available key resources is also a major reason for HR teams seeking buy-in from senior management. Having your hands tied due to budgetary pressures is often an obstacle in the way of launching more pro-active initiatives.

You therefore have to do your homework, develop an achievable business case and prove to senior executives that the project is in the best interests of the company.

Consider why you want to implement the project and how the organisation will benefit and present this to the leadership team in a way that will help them recognise the need for change.

Show them that you know the business inside out, communicate your overall vision for the project and ensure it is aligned with the company’s goals, culture and needs.

2) Ineffective management of stakeholders

Most HR projects have one thing in common – to improve workforce productivity and profitability across the business.

However, this also means they will inevitably involve change for the wider organisation, so it is vital you engage with stakeholders early.

If you don’t, you risk employees not buying into the project, a lack of resources allocated to it, or other projects being given a higher priority.

The key is building support for your project, so start by identifying your stakeholders – are they employees, investors, senior management or all of the above?

Clearly communicate how the project will impact them and improve their ability to meet their own key objectives and ensure you manage their expectations, meet their individual needs and build trust.

3) Poor executive leadership

Strange as it may seem, I’ve met few colleagues in business that know how best to present a business case and with HR and marketing projects in particular.

It takes real skill and a deep understanding of key business metrics to successfully nail project funding, amongst a raft of other in-house competition.

Those who are great at it, have a real ‘eye on the prize’.

They know who the real influencers are.

They know how to press their ‘hot buttons’.

And they know how to elicit their support and seek their help.

How? They ask them for help creating the business case; only focus on those projects that can make a real difference to these key colleagues and focus on hard cost savings and/or improving sales/profitability/cash flow, etc.

For example, I saw an HR system get the go-ahead once, largely based on the fact that it could create financial reports that finance were spending an age producing manually. The FD liked this – funnily enough…

Worse, don’t try and tie together long-term developmental spend to a bottom line improvement some years later that no-one can really judge if it was this one HR project leading this ‘improved productivity charge’ or that brilliant customer service, sales or marketing initiative in the interim?

Basically, get ‘down and dirty’ with the project. If you find yourself deliberating too much on a project or struggling to see (really see) the hard-nosed cash flow/profit business benefits…best put the idea away for another day.

Instead, focus on solving the key operational ‘here and now’ issues and do them brilliantly well – than potentially ‘hang yourself’ on a strategic project trying to create a personal legacy for yourself.

Sometimes it’s better to nail those five little tactical items that make a real difference to line management and staff, than focus on the one big project which feels like a tough one to pull off.

Pragmatic? For sure.

Realistic? Totally.

A project will fail if it doesn’t have an actively engaged executive sponsor championing it and communicating its benefits to stakeholders constantly. It takes real ‘sales skill’ to do this and the best leaders work on communicating key messages at every turn. I’ve seen key projects fail if the appointed leader lacks the experience, time or skills to take ownership of it and really sell it in across the business.

PMI’s Pulse of the Profession 2013 report revealed that 81% of organisations considered leadership to be the most important skill needed to successfully manage complex projects, while this year’s report found that inadequate sponsor support was one of the most common reasons for project failure.

Project leaders need excellent decision-making, risk management, communication and influencing skills, as well as the ability to engage senior management and motivate and support the project team.

4) HR (and most other management disciplines) lacking in project management skills

HR increasingly has to wear many different hats, including project management. However, the skills needed to manage complex projects are very different to the skills needed to manage HR.

Many HR professionals haven’t had the experience of managing complex projects, so people are often chosen to lead HR initiatives because they are HR experts rather than project management experts.

This doesn’t just happen in HR by the way. I’ve seen it countless times across all business functions to be honest.

To successfully manage a complex HR project, you need to develop a core set of project management skills, including leadership, governance, ownership, and change management, so that you are armed with the knowledge and tools to ensure the project is set up to succeed.

As with all teams; select your team carefully. Other functions never offer up their best people.

(It’s harsh but true.)

If project management isn’t your strength; bring in an experienced project manager so you can ‘direct’ and provide the vision. If other areas of the business are giving you ‘duffers’, say ‘no’ and get your own team in…even if you have to find savings elsewhere to make it happen.

It’s a tough world in most businesses. Whilst your colleagues will smile nicely at you around the management table and be supportive on the face of it the truth is, they’ll have their own agenda; priorities and key team players of their own they want to protect.

If your project fails or is failing slowly…most won’t care.

If I’m going to fail; best do it with my own people right behind me and give myself the very best shot. For me, the key recruit was always a project manager. The rest used to be pretty easy to resource.

Next Steps

Delivering a successful HR project can be complex and challenging, but as HR is becoming more about business change than ever before, it’s crucial you acquire the skills needed to ensure your project stands every chance of success. If this isn’t ‘you’ – find that right project manager and hire them in. It will save thousands in the long run and ensure the best chance of project success.

Read our free white paper – "HR Director: The First 90 Days" here which reveals the key challenges that every HR Director faces at first and provides you with all the tools you need to negotiate them with ease.


We are the HR and employment law experts from esphr.

It’s our mission to advise and develop the employment law capability of HR professionals wherever we can, helping HR teams make a real commercial difference to their organisations. That way, you spend less time solving operational issues and more time actioning projects that drive far-reaching change in your company.

Call 0333 006 2929 or email today to discover exactly how we can help you.


Author: Peter Byrne

Founder, ESP Group

Pete set up ESP Group in March 2003, after running an HR resource management business for three years. 

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