Mobilising Change Programmes - I've started, so I'll finish!

“I’ve started so I’ll finish” is the phrase coined by Magnus Magnusson (the late quizmaster of BBC’s Mastermind programme) to continue asking a question when it had been interrupted by the timing buzzer at the end of a round.

The phrase could equally be applied to the way many organisations manage the mobilisation of critical change programmes – blindly ploughing on regardless, despite there being good reasons to pause, redirect, or even stop the work being progressed.

All too often this stubbornness is driven by the fear of being seen to have “failed”, or need to be seen as “making progress”; but the consequences can be dire.  The programmes fail alright, but often much later in delivery, when the errors made in mobilisation are revealed in design, development or testing – and after a lot of precious money has been spent – and wasted.

All too regularly, organisations commence programme delivery against an investment item that is barely more than an ear-marked budget assigned to a vague outcome.

Start a programme on that basis and you will have sealed your fate – you will have failed already.

A bit of thought up-front can help you reap dividends later – so how you on-board change into the delivery teams is important.  Some organisations use an air-traffic control analogy here; referring to how you “talk in” the change, developing it from a good idea to a reliable delivery commitment.  To get this right, there are a few things to consider…

As Benjamin Franklin famously said: “by failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail” – and the same can be said of change, in terms of the preparation needed before you start incurring cost.

You need to consider whether a change initiative is in a ‘fit state’ to even start.

Do this by asking a few key questions, such as:

  • Is there a clear enough understanding of the problem (or opportunity); and therefore why the change is required?
  • Is there a reasonable view of likely scope and requirements – in other words, what will add value and what are the options?
  • Are we confident that the ‘regular’ change governance will answer the key questions in time?  Or do we need to invest some seed-funding first: to do a bit of R&D and to test out a few hypothesis?
  • How can we limit our early investment to draw down just enough funds to get the key questions answered?

The last point is fundamental.

On-boarding change is just as much about stopping (or re-directing) initiatives, as it is about prolonging them.

Organisations need a more entrepreneurial mind-set, thinking rather about “failing fast, failing cheaply” – as opposed to the dreaded “I’ve started so I’ll finish”…

Often when on-boarding change into delivery functions (especially IT) the decision rights can become confused and blurred.  For example the business start making technology decisions, the IT teams introduce business requirements etc.  It can be helpful to clarify and spell-out the accountabilities during end-to-end change delivery, so that all involved are clear about who does what.  An example approach is think about the “triage” required to determine the right way forwards – i.e.:

  • The business are accountable for specifying the “Why” (the trigger for the change) and the “Business What” (the requirements)
  • IT are accountable for the “Technology What” (the technology solution to the requirement)
  • IT are also accountable for the “How” (the best approach and method to deliver the change)

Inevitably, consultation and collaboration are required to come to these decisions, but in the end it needs to be clear who makes the call.

Collaboration itself is an important element of getting to the best possible solution and approach.  However, sometimes decision-making can get stuck at the highest levels of the organisation, with no reference to the people who actually understand the detail, or who end up having to do the work.

In these situations you have to “beware the HIPPO” – or rather the HIghest-Paid-Person’s-Opinion – it isn’t automatically the best. 

Recognising the need for collaboration ensures that the ultimate user and the person implementing the change can be brought closer together, ensuring ideas are drawn from all sources of knowledge and removing costly and ineffective management handoffs that just get in the way, add cost and cause delay.

Most organisations have some form of change delivery framework – a sequence of governance checkpoints (often referred to as toll-gates or gateways) that control how change is initiated, mobilised, delivered and implemented.

At some point you will need to consider the best pathway through this framework for an individual change.  This a great example of where ‘one size does not fit all’; however, far too often that is precisely what does happen.

All change (no matter the circumstances) being forced to adopt an inflexible and potentially over-the-top approach.

If this is the case, try asking yourself a few questions:

  • The framework is ultimately there to control delivery risks; so have those risks been identified and defined?  And are new changes assessed against them?
  • Do lower risk changes need the full-force of governance?  For example, a change type that has been performed many times before can almost certainly be managed within acceptable risk with a streamlined governance pathway.  Equally, higher-risk change (e.g. new technology, new vendor, unusual scale) may benefit from all the governance available

Could we therefore define a selections of different governance pathways based on different types of change and their associated risk profile?

Given the risks to be managed, it is therefore important to set out the risk themes that need to be considered at checkpoints – and how these manifest themselves in the specific questions that need to be answered at each checkpoint – and who is accountable for answering these questions.  Examples include:

  • Will this change still add value, does it still make sense?
  • Are we clear on scope and requirements?
  • Have we an executable delivery approach that suits the change?
  • Are all elements of the plan in place, to the requisite level of detail for this stage in the work?
  • Have all costs been estimated and reviewed?
  • Are the required resources identified and scheduled?
  • Is the resourcing plan affordable?
  • Are suppliers suitably engaged with any lead-times and hand-offs factored into the plans?
  • Are all risks/issues identified with agreed mitigation/recovery actions in place?
  • Have all previous deviations form governance and tolerances been satisfactorily dealt with?

Inevitably, there will be some change initiatives that carry a significant amount of risk – even to the point that enhanced governance alone will not be enough to manage the likely challenges.

In these circumstances, organisations often draw on the services of a Programme Assurance function, where very experienced programme managers and/or solution architects are assigned to the initiative to ‘shepherd’ it through the on-boarding process. Incidentally, these are often the same resources that are deployed to course correct errant programmes and projects when they slip out of governance tolerances – e.g. budget or schedule variances.

A key part of the governance framework is to establish a complete estimate of the delivery and implementation effort and cost, so as to offer a reliable commitment to business stakeholders.  There are a few basic guidelines here:

  • Estimate everything, with agreed tolerances for different components.  These tolerances may be higher for some items, but all reduce as you progress through the framework.  Never exclude an element of the estimate on the basis that you don’t have enough information; an educated guess is better than nothing
  • Don’t forget estimate the cost of BAU operation – i.e. how the changed will be supported and serviced.

You are estimating the Total Cost of Ownership, not just the cost of the delivery programme

  • Ultimately you need to get to a sufficient level of prescription to offer a reliable delivery commitment – i.e. understanding what needs to be created, changed or removed – and the effort required for each item
  • Be very clear about the total budget for the initiative and the component ‘draw down’ that has been approved to spend.

Remind people that budget draw-down is a limit, not a target!

Finally, make sure your agreed governance approach persists through delivery and implementation.

It’s often the case that governance can fall by the wayside once a delivery commitment has been given. 

One way to do this is to implement end of delivery phase checkpoints to take stock and make sure the overall initiative remains viable – it may not be if there have been slippages and overruns.  Equally, ensure the right governance is in place around implementation – e.g. to ensure the business is ready to accept the change and that there is a clear process to deliver the promised benefits once the programme has been closed down.

Ultimately, successfully on-boarding [and delivering] change is about adopting a common-sense approach, tailored to reflect the reality of the situation – and ensuring the right questions get answered at the right time.  However, if your organisation’s approach is “I’ve started so I’ll finish” then you will need to do something about it.

POSTED BY: David Knappett - Consulting Director


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