If all political careers end in failure then the same is true of change management programmes. In many cases, the only meaningful measure of success is the degree of failure, budget over-run and delay. It is genuinely difficult to identify a single change programme in recent years that has been an unqualified success.
Why is this? Why have we got so used to the idea that major programmes never achieve all their goals?
Part of the problem is the way in which change projects are managed. Typically, the board will delegate responsibility for delivery of the programme and then simply content themselves with regular progress reports, which, typically, they don’t understand anyway. In other words, once the programme starts they cease to be directly involved and gradually become ever more detached. In particular, the CEO becomes disengaged, which has a knock-on effect across the board.
Secondly, the programme, which perhaps started with a single over-arching and clear business objective, soon dissolves into a series of projects, which in turn give rise to more projects. The focus then tends to be on project management, with goals and milestones within this project framework.
This is exacerbated by what I have come to think of as the cult of project management. There are countless project management toolsets to choose from, ranging from the very simple to the immensely complex and expensive. Then there’s a raft of project management methodologies. Finally, an entire professional hierarchy has grown into the project management function.
In most cases, these have conspired to drive an almost permanent wedge between the overall, original objective of any change programme and the project management process, which has grown out of all proportion. Indeed, the programme itself tends to be overlooked as project management becomes the focal point for measurement of progress.
In a typical programme, milestones are based around individual projects but are all too frequently unrelated to the business outcome or, as is more typical, there are missing milestones that should be delivered against if the business outcome is to be achieved. A simple example is when a new system is implemented but there has been no change to the business process resulting in a system that performs poorly and that does not fully support the business outcome.
In a sense, this makes failure, or at least a degree of failure, inevitable. As soon as the original business objective becomes obscured by a focus on project management alone, then the programme loses its overall direction and purpose.
This is why there is a desperate need to rethink the way change programmes are managed by maintaining a relationship with the original business objective or outcome and never losing sight of it. This means structuring the programme around milestones that relate to the business outcomes rather than just outputs defined in a set of projects.
It’s also important to create a hierarchy of milestones so that managers can see the impact that one missed milestone may have on other milestones, as well as other elements within the overall programme.
One of the problems of project management is that it encourages a silo mentality. Project Managers (PMs) tend to see the world as if it begins and ends within their own project. Matters are made even worse if you give them reporting tools that allow them to obscure the real status of their projects and conceal delays and milestone failures.
There is usually nothing sinister about their motives, by the way; they are simply protecting themselves by deciding to keep a problem in the background while they deal with it, rather than declare it openly. They do, of course, run the risk of not solving the problem, with others developing in the meantime and creating a much bigger crisis as a result.
So, the starting point for any outcome-driven programme is a methodology and project management solution that’s totally transparent and leaves no opportunity for opacity.
The second key element is to base the programme around the original business objective. If the objective was to increase sales by understanding customers’ needs better, then that should remain as the desired outcome. A key component of that objective might be the creation of a new Customer Relationship Management system and a retraining and recruitment programme to staff it properly. These then become programmes or portfolios of projects in their own right. It is important that these projects all relate and can be traced back to the desired business outcome.
By keeping the original business objective at the heart of the programme, it becomes easier to solve another major cause of failure: namely, a lack of top-level leadership and commitment. It’s a simple fact that CEOs will be much more engaged with a programme if they can chart its progress towards the achievement of the original business objective. They will become acutely aware of the risk of failure and what impact that might have on shareholder value, especially if they have gone public on what the company is seeking to achieve through the programme and success has already been written into the share price or in the minds of investors.
This creates healthy pressure between the CEO and the programme director that feeds through to the project managers and their teams. Good communications, proper outcome-orientated milestones and transparency within the reporting system from top to bottom are the basis of effective programme management.
The bottom line is that change management needs a good injection of rigour and common sense if it is to regain a proper sense of collective mission and expectation of success driven from the top of organisations. We have grown far too used to the false idea that degrees of failure stemming from deep inside project portfolios are acceptable and normal.
David Walton is CEO of Bestoutcome.
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