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July 2018
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How to Succeed at Transformation

Answer:  Get the key people in the business to own and lead the change.

I thank you.

Systems Projects – Is Chaos Inevitable?

Tough going? Don’t blame yourself. Everybody has conspired to create this mess. It happens for all systems investments. Below I look at some of the major issues and propose 4 rules. It all starts with the way systems are sold.

No Active Engagement with References

Somehow both parties always find it “too inconvenient” or “too time consuming” to engage with proper references. Businesses always seem in such a rush to invest. And of course the system provider encourages this. What a shame we can’t spend 8 weeks talking to other people before we spend 2 years failing at a systems implementation…

Successful systems return on investment is essentially an exercise in risk management. Why would you buy a system that is not in use successfully elsewhere? Are you some sort of technology innovator?

If not – how do you assess the operating and implementation risk of something that is not in action in a similar environment, and where you have not looked in the eyes of the people who implemented it, use it, operate it and own it?

This does not mean you will always be behind the market. Working in Europe I always look to the US for leadership. US businesses are always happy to share experiences.

Rule 1: No references = no deal

Contracting before Requirements are Fully Defined.

Suppliers often offer large discounts to encourage contract signature prior to a full systems evaluation (processes, business information, integration and technologies). They do this to get their bonuses while we are still in concept land. Concept land is a lovely place full of happy people and amazing PowerPoint assertions.

Unfortunately a few months after contract signature, concept land disappears forever and is replaced by reality where stressed people bring complex and discouraging messages about poor system suitability and the real costs of acquisition.

Rule 2: No business process evaluation = no contract

Ignoring Transition Costs and Internal Responsibilities 

System purchasers are never made fully aware of the significant investment in internal expertise, effort and leadership that will be required. System providers want to hide this additional cost as it may discourage “signing on the dotted line”.

Areas of ‘client responsibility’ also turn out to be very convenient as excuses for project screw-ups as well as a commercial opportunities to make more money by providing more bodies to fill gaps. So it suits systems providers to avoid this topic for as long as possible.

Rule 3: No design and transition planning = no contract

Solution Owned by the Wrong People

The technology is the easy bit. Getting alignment on the right solution for the right cost – this is the hard bit.

Systems providers, IT and most project managers usually have no wish to get involved in ‘the politics’ of business decision-making. Typically the business also does not want to participate. Instead saying to IT: “don’t bother us, we have no time – just go away and come back with a new system”.  So IT ends up owning the solution with relatively junior business analysts carrying out the ‘process work’. But the work is harder than anyone imagines.

  • Hard conversations: “the system is not rubbish – there is just no business case to have the terminals also be able to make the tea”.
  • Heated cross-functional debates: “finance should own this process not us”.
  • Debates about flexibility of system processes: “they are always making mistakes so lets put business rules in so they never screw up” – resulting in a process so complex and expensive to build and too inflexible so the first exception encountered locks the system solid.
  • Making calls on data synchronization: “yes but the client might place an order in Starbucks then want to walk next door to collect their goods – at 3am” …

This is the real work and where the rubber really hits the road. Get this stuff done then investment decision-making and the system build is easy.

Rule 4: No effective business ownership = no ROI (return on investment)

Ignore the Rules at your Peril

It is tough to change the way an industry is used to working.  Especially as all parties conspire to perpetuate the above scenarios and ignore the rules. It is just easier and keeps everyone happy during those wonderful first few months of a major project.  Well that’s OK then…

Sticking to the rules can significantly de-risk the programme and the ROI; and maintain commercial leverage over the systems provider.   To do it you have to get everyone to change the game.   But it is a battle well worth winning.

British Verbal Excesses Abroad

Over many years managing projects worldwide my experience has been that Brits talk to much in meetings held in english with international colleagues. Here are some of my thoughts on what has contributed to a history of British verbal excesses across the globe .

1. Inexperience

In the English language: non-British = Foreign = strange and different. Inexperienced Brits speak too fast, use jargon, make private jokes with other Brits in meetings … This is plain rude! It is only nerves – but the impression left is damaging – that Brits think they are superior, and that non-British colleagues have less to contribute.

2. Wrong Team

When the “who” and “why” is wrong or unclear then interactions degenerate towards personal agendas or self-justification. Unproductive talking encourages others to join or attempt to redirect. For meetings in English – the native speakers dominate.

3. Unstructured Interactions

In unstructured meetings big talkers dominate – if English is the language of the meeting – the native speakers have the advantage. They often do not leave any space for the non-native speakers who need more time to formulate thoughts.

4. British Culture (1)

Adversarial debate is ingrained in British culture – i.e. “if you don’t agree with me it must be because I have not got my point across well enough (or you are stupid) and I need to restate my case”. This leads to Brits talking too much.

5. British Culture (2)

We are also action oriented. But in an international environment you just cannot leap to defining actions as the first step as fundamental assumptions somewhere in the chain ….. ( situation –> issue –> root cause –> solution options –> best solution –> components of solution –> specific actions –> deadlines –> ownership) may not be shared with all of your colleagues. In a multinational environment personal assumptions about ‘how things work’ are more likely to be incorrect!

Culturally Europeans especially want to focus more on building consensus around the whole story chain – whereas the ‘Brits’ and the ‘Yanks’ go straight for the actions. This leads to misalignment and a lot of debate – often heated.


– be clear on purpose and participation (written mission)
– make structured space in agendas for each individual to contribute effectively
– prepare for each interaction 1-on-1 with each individual (listen and coach)
– chair and manage interactions tightly almost like a Question Time presenter
– build consensus using the chain to get from situation to actions
– check and recheck assumptions and statements in meetings (repeat & write down)
– have non-business interactions to build personal relationships

Working out of the UK has really helped my work back in the UK.

How lazy we all are here in our interactions. We make huge assumptions about how others think and how things get done. I have found that using the same techniques back in the UK has made a huge impact.

Programme Office (PMO) – the Poisoned Chalice

Consider any programme. There are two scenarios:

(1) The right programme leaders are in place – in their opinion they don’t need a lot of busy body PMO bods scrutinising their plans and picking them up on the quality and quantity of their administration ….

(2) The wrong programme leaders are in place – the PMO tries very hard to force these wrong people to do the right job – against the odds. Management hold the PMO responsible for not achieving this transformation ….

Who would be in the Programme Office?

Why do Management Tools ignore the needs of Management ?

I have been recently looking at what online tools are available to support the planning and governance of strategy implementation. The one good thing they all recognise is that using spreadsheets or Microsoft project “can be cumbersome and overcomplicated and mask the overall picture – which is where you really need to focus”. So far so good. But two things strike me about the current crop of ‘more strategic’ online tools:

(1) All still depend on excellent information input from the people tasked with creating and deploying the plans in order that the plans are consistent and coherent; i.e. even readable ….. never mind aligned! Even if the information is great – the outputs are not visual or compelling. Nobody has ever been motivated by a scorecard.

(2) Despite their criticisms of MS Project and spreadsheets, the assumption remains that management requires constant visibility of progress and access to the detail. I have never experienced this, and consider it potentially counterproductive. Why should senior management need to focus on all the detail if they have tasked the right leaders in the business with the right strategic objectives?

My experience from rescue of even the largest, most diverse and complex programmes…. keep management at the level where they have the most impact -the top level – objective setting, prioritisation and alignment, allocation of the right leadership and corporate resources – and removal of barriers to delivery. Leave the detail to ‘the right leadership resources’. My search for suitable supporting online tools continues ….

Do you Manage Behind or In Front?

Most project reporting tools only report achievements against commitments. That means until a target is missed – management know nothing (lets face it % task completion tells us nothing useful). Managing Behind!

I require that commitment owners use visual plans to report every week on the status of future commitments – green (I will make the date and the objective), amber (I have some issues I may need help with – but we should make it if we resolve them), or red (I won’t make either the date or the objective so we need to re-plan and assess the impact on other projects or the business).

Simple, meaningful and visual. Managing In Front!

Why IT should not Lead Change Programmes

Although very strong technical expertise and leadership may well be required to select and implement the right IT solutions, ultimately it is the level of commitment from the business that determines the success of any large IT change project.

Business priority, clear vision, specification of requirements, choice of the right solution, leadership of organisation and process change – these are the components that create optimum return on investment (ROI) and the fastest, smoothest implementation. Like it or not the business sees itself as the owner for these components. IT can contribute, enable, facilitate – but it can never lead even if it is perfectly capable.

The business has to own and lead major IT change projects.

This seems to disenfranchise the CIO but actually puts the accountability in the right place. This can produce another issue – the business may not have the skills required to put together and lead a large project.

A real issue – but not solved by giving IT the leadership of a business change project.

Saving Months and Millions

You would never buy a company or a house without very detailed validation of what you are buying and whether it fits your needs. So why are many IT solutions and services contracts signed before detailed requirements and validation work is completed?

Solutions providers will tell you that this is because this is ‘how things are done’ in the industry. Maybe this is why solutions contracts are almost always late and costs greatly exceed original budgets.

A detailed due diligence prior to contract signature requires the business to commit to specific requirements – exposing potential change issues – and allows external validation of solutions against those requirements. This enables an ‘outcomes-based contract’ to be written with the solution provider. They won’t like this – but tough. Retaining commercial leverage is impossible without contracted commitment (cost and timeline) to well specified outcomes.

Due diligence takes longer but saves “months and millions”.

Please note – it is also possible to do due diligence after contract signature and use this to re-negotiate or even cancel contracts – not an ideal process – messy – but ‘Project Rescue’ has required this action on a number of occasions.

First the Worst …

Never buy a system or application you have not seen in action in a real business like your own. Being first means you are paying development costs; and also that the costs and risks of implementation are unknown.

Well chosen references not only answer ‘fit for purpose?’ questions but provide insights into implementation risks, ongoing support challenges and return on investment. Good reference contacts are not always forthcoming from solution providers and onerous to organise….

But would you buy a house you had never visited?

Have you got ‘what it takes’?

Widespread business change is enormously costly and risky. Commitment of any function to change is entirely driven by self interest. The return on investment and effort has to be obvious and far and away above the cost. For cross functional change the benefits sought need to be at or very near the top of the CEO’s priority list.

Important, Urgent and Top Priority?

If any of the above are missing or not clear. There will be serious problems – sooner or later. Focus on the biggest benefit items also confines the scope of the project to a core set of requirements – which saves considerable cost and time.

But this is irrelevant if commitment is not secured. Even with projects close to completion, time spent clarifying how return on investment will be achieved helps re-energise and focus the whole business around ‘what it will take to deliver’.