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Secrets of successful programmes

by Robert Buttrick

I recently went to the International Centre for Programme Management (at Cranfield) for a forum on learning and knowledge management and as part of that we were given a white paper called “Beating the odds – the secrets of successful programmes”.

The white paper describes the findings from a recent two-year study of 21 major programmes of many types, with varying levels of success in a wide range of organisations in Europe. Those findings explain many of the causes of the differing levels of programme performance and how business leaders can improve the success rate for their own organizations.

Seldom do I read an article or paper with the words “Yes, yes, yes” ringing in my head. It is packed with useful insights and wisdom, gleaned for the programme teams who took part in the study. The wisdom in this paper won’t be found in methods and processes, they are more about how experienced and skilled people apply them and the issues they face.

I recommend this to any person who considers themselves to be (or aspires to be) a business leader. As expected, there is lots about vision, strategic alignment, business readiness, foggy objectives, stakeholder engagement, business cases, planning and behaviours. If, as a business leaders, you believe you have a great strategy, then good for you. On its own, however, that is not enough. You need to be able to convert your vision and your strategy into action on the ground. Do you have the right mind set, tools, methods to do this?

Executive summary:

  • Strategic alignment.

  • From the programmes studied, those identified as integral to the future business strategy were all at least partially successful. It could be concluded that the ‘positive’ nature of the programme's intentions meant that there was little stakeholder resistance to the initiative and hence the organisation was able to deploy its most capable resources. Senior management and executive involvement was sustained throughout the programme.

    Conversely those programmes that had primarily ‘reductionist’ intentions, e.g. restructuring to reduce costs or eliminate inefficiencies, were less successful. Executive involvement in the programmes was weak and stakeholders’ commitment quickly waned.

  • Need and readiness.

  • Interestingly and perhaps counter intuitively, in most of the successful programmes the need was ‘high’ – clearly recognised as a business priority – but initially the readiness was ‘low’. In these the argument for investment and change was endorsed at executive level and time and effort spent at the start to achieve the buy-in of the rest of the organisation and develop the ability to undertake the changes.

    In the majority of those that were partially successful the readiness appeared to be ‘high’ as well as the need. Why they were not entirely successful is best explained as over-ambition or even over-enthusiasm; rather too many optimistic assumptions were made at the start with little assessment of the potential risks involved.

  • Value drivers, benefits and business cases.

  • The more successful programmes were also based on a clear strategic driver plus a strong financial business case. Those with weaker strategic drivers but good financial cases gained less commitment and were usually less successful. Very often financial benefits were overestimated, while the risks and the problems in making the changes were underestimated, perhaps because realistic estimates might have made it difficult to secure funds and resources. During the programme, as the scope becomes clearer, this inevitably leads to changes to the costs involved and the benefits that can actually be delivered, but only a minority of organisations revisit the business cases as programmes evolve.

  • Foggy objectives.

  • Programmes cannot be fully planned in advance and have to adapt to both changing business conditions and programme achievements. This is not necessarily a comfortable position for senior management and requires a knowledgeable, accountable and empowered governance group to oversee and, where necessary, adapt the programme. Rather than decrease during the programme, uncertainty can often even increase, especially due to changes in the external environment.

  • Planning.

  • Some organisations thought they may have ‘over-planned’ things at the start, due largely to the demands of some stakeholders for detailed plans, which were then not really used. However, the planning activities were seen as essential to bring stakeholders together and for reconciling their different priorities and interests. The process of planning was more important than the plans produced and helped address many of the initial uncertainties.

  • Vision and stakeholders.

  • Having a clear vision of the intended future business and organisational models and then allowing compromises and trade-offs in the detail of how they are implemented, is more likely to achieve stakeholder commitment than imposition. The successful transformation programmes usually addressed the organisational, people and capability aspects first, before dealing with the process and technology aspects. The less successful tried to do the reverse.

  • Learning and un-learning.

  • Most ‘strategic’ programmes require the development or acquisition of new capabilities and knowledge in order to be carried out successfully. Management generally underestimate how much has to be learned by the organisation and individuals to define, manage and implement a major programme. Introducing new ways of working may also require considerable ‘un-learning’ by large numbers of professional people – not easy to achieve without actually removing the old processes.

    If the programme relies heavily on the capabilities of suppliers (especially IT suppliers), they may exert undue influence over what is done – the scope and achievable benefits – rather than on how the programme can be successfully delivered.

  • Realising the benefits.

  • Most business change programmes involve at least two distinct and different phases – first to create a new capability and second to exploit it. In most of the cases the new capability, for example a global HR database or Finance & Accounting Service Centre, was created, but not always used effectively, hence the benefits achieved were often less than those originally envisaged. While creating a new capability can be done ‘off-line’, separately from business as usual, using and exploiting it often competes with other operational priorities or can have negative effects on other aspects of operational performance, as was observed in some of the cases.

  • Organisation and governance.

  • Programme governance structures and staffing profiles are likely to change significantly over the life cycle. There seem to be three basic approaches to organising programmes: (1) a separate task force, (2) as part of business-as-usual (BaU), or (3) a combination (matrix). Not surprisingly the last of these proves most problematic. Some programmes have dedicated change managers, others have senior managers assigned to the programme, but they can find it difficult to reconcile achieving change at the same time as sustaining performance. Running change programmes in parallel with BaU causes tensions within the organisation and a clear statement of priority for which takes precedence is essential.

  • Portfolio management.

  • Few organisations, as yet, have the capabilities in place to manage multiple concurrent programmes with varying levels of uncertainty, competing for the same resources over extended periods. No organisation in the study had an effective mechanism in place for managing a combined large portfolio of ‘strategic’ programmes and more traditional projects – although some are trying to address this issue. Managing multiple programmes (Programme Portfolio Management) requires an additional governance structure or regular strategic and operational review and reconciliation at executive level especially if there are programme inter-dependencies or contention for critical and scarce resources.

 

© Robert Buttrick

http://www.projectworkout.com

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Secrets of successful programmes

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