Why most transformations fail without anyone noticing

Written by Darren Womack, Head of Consulting Delivery at Airwalk Reply.

When you need to mobilise a transformation programme you will ignore the fundamentals and, like many others, will fail before you have even begun.

Re-organising your Programme Portfolio or re-prioritising quickly can lead to a focus on a primary objective of “just getting going”.  However, you have failed before you have even begun but you won’t realise this until all the micro and marginal losses coalesce into multiple small issues and become a crisis unless you understand the multi-layer and inter dependent fundamentals critical to avoid the predictable and all too often observed programme failure.

There are broadly 6 additive components that have be understood to establish a firm footing for a successful transformation programme.  When you consider that most programmes that fail, fail in their first week and continue to fail a little piece at a time until a crisis emerges, it is worth investing time during the mobilisation and formative stages of a programme to ensuring all the building blocks required to succeed are in place.


1. You don’t understand the Strategic Direction

“Unless you are clear what is required of the programme, what the solution or change contains and that the organisation’s leadership is evidentially fully committed everything else you organise and build is unlikely to succeed”

Establishing, understanding and even reconfirming the strategic intent and being able to clearly articulate why the programme exists seems obvious but is often overlooked. Judgements and decisions are often be based too much on intuition, politics or generally accepted convention; and all without objective challenge.  Establish the firm foundation of your transformation programme if you want the objective clarity that we often see missing in failing programmes.

At its most fundamental the strategic intent for a transformation programme should be able to be described as

  • A clear business case for change is documented
  • The high-level transformation plan or journey aligned with the organisation’s longer-term plans so the position in the organisation change portfolio is clear
  • Strategic principles for design, delivery and direction are clear and unambiguous
  • An understanding of the capability needs easily described

Over-arching all of this, you must have the leadership of the organisation fully supportive the transformation programme journey, the business case for change and the strategic principles.  Without this, we have seen client programmes that struggle to progress due to competing “political” agendas, decisions based upon unproven assumption and form a drag on progress from simply not having the right organisational capability in place.


2. If you can’t articulate the outcome or solution at the start you should question why you are doing this

“Is your design baselined and the products, tools and components confirmed?  Are you clear on the deployment model and is there a need for significant investment in any part of the solution?”

Being able to de-construct the strategic direction into tangible components is an important foundation for success.   Many of our clients struggle with being able to make that step from high-level strategic vision or intent, into a recognisable technology architecture or high-level design for example.  In a business transformation programme, this may also come in the form of being able to articulate the organisations new market offering or capabilities.

The rationale for doing this being that you then have a scaffold upon which to define and attach business imperatives, organisational components, high-level market offerings and finally distinguish priorities and benefits for the programme.

Often, many transformation programmes can stall at this point of mobilisation, or worse later in the journey, because the investment case for new components, solutions or capabilities have not been secured.  The clearly documented business case for change from the previous component is vital in underpinning the investment case.   Not knowing the true cost and need for investment with clarity may delay progress, leading to a value challenge for the whole programme.  This is especially true we have found, if additionally, a stable sponsor supported case for change is not established.


3. Do you actually have the capability to deliver?

“Are the key roles defined, delivery partners secured, leadership structure in place, technical delivery competence secured, and the right culture embedded?”

With the previous components firmly established and their constituent parts in place the transformation programme can consider identifying and embedding the capability required to realise the strategic intent and the preferred solution to realise the business case.

A strong leadership structure is imperative to success and often we see this inextricably linked to the establishment of a capable programme delivery team with key roles filled quickly.  The lone champion or Programme Manager with weak senior leadership support for the programme can often flounder at this stage, often struggling to secure capable Programme team members in key positions.  We have seen these as the sorts of programmes to drift and fail to mobilise in a timescale consistent with the business case and therefore benefits begin to erode before the programme as even properly commenced.

Understanding your capability gaps is key when considering whether to partner with 3rd party organisations.  Assessing the organisations technical delivery competence and securing resource at the right time in transformation journey is a critical component of early detailed planning.  From these activities identifying and securing delivery partners can be done with a degree of certainty that also provides a level of resilience to the programmes high-level timeline in terms of sustainability and feasibility of delivery.

The mixture of a strong leadership team, key roles secured and filled, technical competence secured, and gaps filled through the engagement of 3rd parties is not the complete answer.  Some of our clients have achieved these things during mobilisation but still struggle to deliver their plans and often we have seen this to be down to a suitable climate and culture not being in place across the programme.   It is here that the strong leadership team capabilities are required and often we have observed that Programme Management leadership teams with a strong people or human resources mindset are better placed for linking the team dynamic, organisational culture with the required rhythm and pace of the programme.  We often find it significant that it is the softer, people-oriented side of programme design that can often override the governance structures and processes – both positively and negatively.


4. Make sure you just “do things properly”

“How will implementation work, do you have detailed plans, is a strong programme governance regime in place, are programme finances understood?”

So far, we understand the strategic direction, we have determined the solution at a high level to realise the strategy and we are comfortable with the capability to deliver.  However, is the ability to do this well present in the programme?

Describing what needs to be done can be more readily achieved than seeing things through and delivering well – in many of our client’s programmes this often manifests as striving to deliver the business case benefits in a sustainable manner as opposed to limping to a finish with significant benefit eroded.

Well run programmes are often observed as doing the fundamentals well by ensuring a strong Programme Governance is established.  Very often we observe the success is correlated to the experience and maturity of the Programme Management Office (PMO) overseeing the governance regime.   At the heart of this are well constructed and detailed plans that are dependency chain driven with critical paths clearly identifiable supported by detailed and meticulously managed RAID logs (Risk, Issue, Assumption, Dependency).  This may sound obvious, but the simplicity and fundamental basic tasks of managing plans and associated project management artefacts are often dismissed as “admin” or “red tape” and yet we see a clear correlation between success and failure with the significance given to project management fundamentals – “so we need to just do it properly” as a client Executive Sponsor once summarised the findings of one of our Health check Reviews of a failing £400m programme.


5. You know where you are going, but more importantly, do you know how to get there?

“Is the work broken down and manageable, are key deliver resources in place, are detailed plans baselined and are dependencies clearly understood?” 

The strategy, business case, high-level plan etc are often easy to describe in a “plan on a page” or simple outcome-oriented presentation espousing the benefits of the transformation journey and the target outcome.  Fundamental to the success of transformation programmes is the ability, during the mobilisation phase, to describe the journey.  Often this is done as packages of work that can be linked to the delivery of technical and application architectures in technology-enabled programmes.  These work packages, when linked to detailed plans as milestone outcomes enable a level of precision that can give the comfort of activity coverage, in addition, to identify gaps and ambiguities early on.

The early establishment of clear dependency chains that are accepted and understood by the key programme roles (and delivery partners) is a key step in achieving baselined detailed plans.   This stability brings a level of control that allows certainty of delivery through careful tracking and management and the employment of a rigorous change management regime.  The strong governance mechanism discussed previously are essential to making this a reality.

In addition to baselined detailed plans describing the defined work packages, understanding the resources, SMEs, shared teams, requirement and ensuring they are in place and secured in alignment to the detailed plans is crucial.   We have observed in large organisations where SME pools are shared for instance, that re-prioritisation or reallocation of key resource can take place outside your individual Programme’s governance – particularly if the resource is shared across organisation domains or management areas.  Having detail plans and associated resource plans will give a line of sight of critical periods when they need to be secured and can easily be communicated as a priority.   Equally, the same plans and detail afford the capability of the Programme delivery team to have an early line of sight of the potential risk to the programme of unavailable SME and mitigations put in place accordingly.


6. All the plans in the world are worthless without people and the right tools

“Do you have named resources, complete designs, sub-projects defined, 3rd parties names and the environments, tools and methods in place?”

As with shared resource being secured at the right time, it is also vital to have named resources, real humans identified and secured against specific parts of the programme.  Without this, everything that has gone before is without value and cannot be delivered.  This is clearly self-evident but is often overlooked and we see in many failing or struggling programmes the description of a role or team within plans rather than secured individuals – often many months into the programme delivery.  Securing resource and having 3rd party contracts in place is critical to success – equally insisting on named resource from 3rd parties for the same reason is vital.

Very quickly after mobilising, the next level business and technical designs must be complete if the programme is to succeed.  We often see that clients who have achieved this are the ones with programmes that are stable in terms of scope, cost control and benefits realisation as the detailed design ensures elimination of ambiguity, enables assumption validation and provides delivery teams with direction and enables them to proceed with confidence.

Finally, having the right technical environments and tooling in place will ensure that tasks can proceed to plan as often estimates of effort and duration are made with the assumption that the right people with the right tools and methods will be in place to perform the planned tasks – taking one or more of these away will only lead to delay.


In Conclusion

It would seem a lot of what has been discussed here is self-evident but so often we see these fundamentals overlooked or dismissed as being of low priority in programmes that are failing or do not deliver the business case promise.   By examining the foundations of what is evidentially contributing to successful programmes during the embryonic or mobilisations phases of a programme will create your own circumstances for success.

Crucially, ignoring components of 1 of the earlier considerations will potentially undermine what you do later – for example, ignoring the overarching solution design alignment with strategic direction may impact your ability to identify all solution components and baseline high-level designs.

Put simply, in our experience successful transformation programmes at mobilisation stage typical can:

  • confirm the strategic direction, business case and get leadership support;
  • define solutions that align to the strategic direction and secure the investment
  • have the capability to deliver the programme with key roles and partners in place
  • have the competency through strong governance of detailed plans and dependencies
  • understand the journey as well as they understand the destination
  • have real humans identified and secured to deliver the programme and go to detail of design quickly after the programme is underway