As the term suggests, “phased implementation” is the project planning strategy where anything new, such as a software solution, is rolled out in stages rather than all at once.
The decision to purchase new software or a new system for your organization is significant. However, the purchase, in many ways, is the easiest part of the process. Now the new investment must be integrated and used efficiently.
The process of integrating the new software can be complicated (for this article we’ll use software, although the concepts discussed in this article apply beyond the integration of software). How compatible is it with your current systems? How long will it take to be installed? How much training does your team need? These and many other questions have to be considered.
Generally, two philosophies surround such implementations: the phased implementation approach and the “big bang approach”. i This article is focused on phased implementation, although we will discuss the big bang approach to provide context.
Two Approaches to Implementation
While the two approaches differ in many ways, neither is always the right method.
As the name suggests, the “big bang” method changes everything at once. The idea is that everyone in your organization will “go live” at the same time. Just because everything goes live at the same time doesn’t mean there isn’t considerable preparation involved beforehand.
There are advantages to this approach. It is faster than the phased implementation approach and, if everything goes well, it costs less.
This approach does carry considerable risk, however. For one, certain or all operations may have to be put on hiatus during the implementation depending on what is being overhauled. Further, it is challenging enough to conduct a full-systems test beforehand that there is no way to predict all of the issues that may arise once it’s live. As all employees are trained at the same time, the company’s productivity is dependent on the training going well. There is little to no chance of finding bottlenecks during the training or identifying specific issues.
With the “big bang” approach, employees’ new habits may take some time to take effect. The team may struggle to recall all of the training’s details and/or fall back into older habits. This can mean a lack of productivity and even customer service issues as the team adapts.
The phased implementation approach differs significantly from the “big bang” approach. As the name suggests, rather than simultaneously installing and rolling out new software across a whole organization, older systems/methodologies are replaced gradually. Phased implementation requires significant project planning to identify what functionalities of the software should go live first and for which departments.
This process allows you to keep the most critical departments functioning while others transition to the new system. An organization might choose to break down the implementation by business unit, geography, critical function, or other criteria.ii
Advantages of Phased Implementation
The advantages of this approach include the ability to identify roadblocks and bottlenecks during initial phases and before critical departments are impacted. With some departments or teams “live”, issues can be discovered and solved with minimal impact, making the training process smoother for other departments.iii
Phased implementation is a less-risky approach than the “big bang”, allowing for problems to be discovered, roll-back to occur if significant issues are found, and the project team to optimize the next rounds of the rollout. While this approach may offer more peace of mind, less stress, and better issue avoidance, it does have some trade-offs.
Phased implementation takes longer, which means that costs are higher, and return on investment might occur over a longer timeline (although this can be budgeted for). The process might seem endless to team members. The organization also needs to train staff on what procedures to use during the training period. If the accounting department is on one system and developing another, a bottleneck could quickly arise. Sometimes a temporary interface between new and old systems is necessary to maintain performance and critical data during the transition.
Ultimately, the organization’s size and operations matter most to project planning, as a phased approach may not be appropriate for smaller companies.
As noted above, phasing may not be necessary for every company or even every project. However, as software and technology become more complex, the phased approach reduces risk and often makes the most business sense.iv
While it is understandable that organizations want to complete a project as soon as possible, a phased approach can help avoid the issues that arise when making a transition quickly. The “big bang” method only remains faster and more cost-effective if it’s successful; significant complications likely throw many aspects of an organization into disarray, requiring substantial effort and resources to fix. The phased approach also allows for better planning and use of resources, while relieving stress on both employees and project teams.
Another advantage of the phased method is that each project is broken into smaller components. Each component is reviewed before proceeding to the next one. This means better work and fewer issues as implementation efforts reach more critical departments.
Which is Right for You?
Ultimately, the decision of which method to use (or even a hybrid method) depends on your organization’s situation. If it is a low-risk installation at a smaller company, perhaps the “big bang” approach is more appropriate.
But if the implementation results in significant risk or disruption, then a phased approach may bring better results and peace of mind for those involved in the process. This approach allows employees to handle change in smaller doses with additional time for training, understanding the benefits, and cultivating buy-in.
What is Phased Implementation? FAQ
What is the “phased approach” to implementation?
As the name suggests, a phased approach to implementation gradually rolls out new or replacement software to end users. The phased approach is one of two ways to implement software solutions, with the other described as the “big bang” method.
The “big bang” method attempts to implement and roll out software solutions as much and as quickly as possible in hopes of a rapid transition.
What are the benefits of a phased implementation approach?
The primary benefits of a phased approach to implementation are:
- Better planning, control, and testing in regard to rolling out the solution to end users.
- Minimal effects on continued operations, as the rest of the organization functions as normal while narrower ranges of teams and departments transition to the new solution.
- If issues are discovered, they are only present within the isolated areas where the software has gone live compared to being organization-wide.
- Spreads out implementation costs to allow for easier budgeting and financial planning.
With a phased implementation, your organization has much more control over the solution’s gradual rollout and project planning. You’re able to choose which departments or teams should first gain access to maximize benefits and minimize transition difficulties. Incremental changes, smaller training groups, and better testing lead to more successful implementations and user adoption.
Phased implementation also gives your organization greater control of how to plan for the solution’s overall cost and determine what modules to roll out and when.
When a solution is rolled out all at once, your organization may have to pause significant operations during the implementation and transition. The implementation, testing, and training are more likely to be rushed in order to resume operations. With everything changing and going live at once, any issues have major effects.
What are the trade-offs with a phased approach?
- Implementation takes longer.
- While they’re spread out, the overall cost of a phased implementation tends to be higher than a (successful) “big bang” method since the process requires more vendor availability and consultancy time.
- ROI may be delayed until the implementation is in the later stages.
- Legacy systems have to stay operational for a longer transition period.
- Though incremental, employees must use a system or process that continually changes.
- Projects may seem “never-ending”.
Who should consider a phased implementation approach?
How do you know if phased implementation may be right for you? Phased implementations are best suited for organizations that meet the following criteria:
- Medium to large organizations with diverse departments, lines of business, and service offerings.
- Your organization covers a large geographic area, resulting in semi-independent departments or operations subject to different compliance and regulatory needs.
- Your organization must be “risk-averse” due to significant regulations and compliance needs (e.g., healthcare or financial industries).
- Different user groups will require varied functionality ranging in complexity.
- The organization wants to spread out implementation.
- User adoption and “buy-in” struggled on previous implementations and would greatly benefit from seeing the successful solution in action.