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How to mitigate risk during a CMS implementation

Choosing a new content management system can be a complicated and thankless task, but it’s a highly visible process that has far-reaching consequences across the business.

Your decision will be scrutinized on all sides—you will need to balance competing priorities, address current and future objectives, and justify the investment with a watertight business case and clear path to value.

But here’s the thing: Choosing a CMS might actually be the easier part of the puzzle. Prior to joining Sitecore as a Technical Evangelist, I worked as a consultant on many projects implementing Sitecore in various types of scenarios. The implementation is where things can really start to heat up!

Implementation is as important as the CMS itself

A content management system is only a set of tools and functions, a platform if you will, until the implementation process turns them into a fully operational system.

That’s why Sitecore often recommends organizations find an implementation partner to help guide the process. Having been on that implementation partner side, I know that even if you have a large team of in-house developers, an external partner can bring the digital strategy experience, technical chops, and the perspective that only an outside third party can offer. Plus, the right partner can supplement your dev team during implementation—just when they need it most.

With the right partner, even a suboptimal CMS could be shaped to capably serve a basic content operation. Unfortunately, a poor implementation of even the strongest CMS could bring your entire marketing function to its knees.

The stakes are high. More than that, implementation projects can also be long, costly, and susceptible to error, even with the best partner. No implementation project is exactly like another, so there is always an element of the unknown as you undertake this new project. Also, just like the selection process, these projects are highly visible to the rest of the business. That means risks need to be identified early and addressed as soon as possible.

Championing proactive risk mitigation

One of the first things that will happen as part of an implementation project is to form a preliminary plan of how the project will unfold. This helps with estimating overall cost, availability, and identify the dependencies. However, the worst thing you can do at that point is to charge ahead blindly. Building and sustaining momentum is important, and some of the best partners will be able to get started on the basic foundations with some rough details, but charging forward toward a tight deadline should not happen at the expense of due diligence. Risk mitigation should be proactive, ongoing, and anticipatory. Don’t wait for things to go wrong! You need to actively seek out issues as you progress.

I admit, this can be challenging, particularly when things are going well. One of the first rules of an implementation project is to have an “early win” so that everybody can build up confidence that things are on the right track. This can hide some of the potential risks if not actively watching for them. Risk mitigation also often struggles to compete for attention among more “exciting” or “practical” aspects of the implementation, like launch strategy, content migration, or creative pilot projects.

You may find that identifying risks is usually most difficult at the beginning of the project, as early stakeholders get invested in (or sometimes, distracted by) what the finished product might be capable of, rather than thinking about what the safest path forward would look like.

One early step to take towards reducing risks in a CMS implementation is to amplify risk mitigation importance from the beginning and keep it near the top of the agenda throughout. Be the risk management champion for your team!

Practically speaking, that means building early and continuous advocacy among senior stakeholders. Leverage the experience and foresight of company leaders wherever possible—provide them regular chances to ask questions, raise issues, and rectify problems before they can cause damage. The more communication you can have, the more likely you will identify risks early. You will also be able to align all stakeholders to ensure a common understanding and identify gaps in expectations.

Practical risk mitigation steps

Championing the importance of proactive risk mitigation is a good start. But the real key to anticipating issues before they become problems is to unearth them through practical exercises, activities, and experiments.

There are a lot of possibilities for practical risk identification, but here are six that might work for you:

  1. Get hands-on early: You can pilot discrete aspects of the user experience for the editorial team, rolling out content authoring functions or testing approval workflows.
  2. Seeing is believing: You could migrate a selection of content assets to the new system to get a feel for how they are stored, accessed, and interlinked. This is particularly useful early on—there’s no substitute for having real content in the CMS as it’s being implemented, both for the authors and for the implementation team.
  3. Trial the governance: You could set up a range of dummy accounts with different permissions to get comfortable with user administration and content security rules. Governance discussions on who can edit what can be helped by being able to try it out early.
  4. Ask probing questions: You could conduct regular interviews with cross-functional stakeholders—for example, someone from customer experience management and someone from IT—to anticipate integration challenges with other systems.
  5. See the whole flow: You could run a “thin-slice” experiment from end-to-end for a particular scenario, like publishing a blog from first draft through to multichannel distribution. This allows you to see all parts of the system in play.
  6. Leverage experience: If you’re using an implementation partner, you could bring their technical team members together with your in-house team to understand how out-of-the-box connectors and APIs meet your needs, or what some best practices are for avoiding common implementation issues.

These are just a few examples. In general, it is always better to be proactive than to risk nasty surprises and reversals later on in the project. This can be an ongoing process throughout the implementation to ensure you are constantly realigning and making sure you are on target.

Other considerations

Risk mitigation during the implementation project can often revolve around specific functionality—do features work as intended, or not? It’s important to also think about the eventual performance of your CMS once it’s up and running.

For instance, if you’re using an implementation partner to help manage your CMS after launch, you will want to make sure to clarify the specifics of any agreed-upon Service Level Agreements. Drill down into the metrics like uptime and recovery time objectives and understand what those actually mean and how it might impact your business. It is also important to balance risk here against cost and recognize that some aspects of your systems may not need 99.999% uptime, allowing you to free up valuable time and money for reducing risks in another part of the system.

Equally, you should stress test your CMS for failure. Whether you’re running your CMS on internal resources, or partnering with a cloud service provider, run a range of performance-related scenarios to ensure you can scale up to meet sudden periods of high demand. Your CMS vendor will have done performance testing on the base platform, but nobody knows how your particular implementation is going to perform until you test it.  Beyond stressing the system, it is also good to simulate disruptive events—like a total failure of the underlying resources—to measure the effectiveness of your recovery plan.

If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing right

Ignoring risks during the implementation phase doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll run into immediate problems. Unfortunately, it is often worse than that. The problems might arise years into the CMS implementation that could’ve been easily caught early on, but at that point are much harder to undo as the system weathers practical use.

De-risking your CMS implementation isn’t just about crossing the finish line—it’s about ensuring the ongoing health and value of your digital marketing foundation.

Interested in more CMS implementation advice? Check out “The definitive guide to choosing a content management system” today. And let me know what you think about it – you can reach me on Twitter at @AgileStCyr.

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