Recovering troubled programmes

By Tony Bott, Head of Delivery Practice


At Axiologik, we have been fortunate enough to successfully lead some of the UK’s largest and most complex programmes, from the NHS Vaccine and Cancer Screening Programmes to IT modernisation programmes across prestigious retailers like Selfridges & Co.

Much of our work is helping customers understand where their transformation programmes are struggling and working closely with them to establish, and then execute, appropriate recovery plans. Typically, the challenges we find customers facing boil down into 8 key areas. We wanted to share these to help you ask the right questions to fully understand how you are doing, and what you may need to consider to achieve better outcomes.

We recognise that transformation programmes are complex beasts, and there is rarely a single cause at the heart of the underperformance. There’s also the matter of doing something about issues that arise before they become unmanageable. Many organisations are busy just keeping afloat under the downward pressure of their collective challenges, which makes it hard to find time to review progress impartially.

Here are our 8 key areas that should give you a decent start to consider the performance of your transformation:

Q1: Are we really being honest with ourselves?

Do we recognise we have challenges? Are we able to have an open conversation with our colleagues and other stakeholders about where we’re struggling? Do we all agree where the problem (or problems) reside?

Many organisations struggle with this first step, key individuals can take entrenched, defensive positions where everything is either fine or someone else’s fault. The key objective here is to shift the discussion from the current position and whose fault it is, to what the right solution looks like in the future. The goal is to create and foster a ‘no-blame’ culture, as people are more likely to speak openly if the focus is on positive action and change, rather than finger pointing.

Q2: Does the business case still stack up?

Many organisations have an almost irrational fear of writing off investments, and therefore it’s always critical to explore whether something is worth continuing, either in its current form or in a different, reoriented guise.

A key mistake when asking this question is getting stuck in the past – this has no relevance to the go-forward position and will just waste time. The core question is to understand whether the business outcomes and resulting value is acceptable given the cost of delivery from this point forward. Simultaneously the realism of the new forecast needs to be questioned. What has changed to make the forward position more certain than the historical one?

We often also see a lack of understanding of how individual components (features, epics, business services etc) drive business benefits and where the granularity lies. Within a business case, it’s often the last 20% of the business value that incurs a substantial part of the cost. If you consider this last 20% as having a negative return on investment, this gives the business case an entirely different perspective. Focus on what actually adds value and gives an acceptable ROI. It’s very rare that entire products or programmes need to be stood down, but you should look to get rid of the specific elements that don’t yield any benefits.

Q3: Are we making things difficult for ourselves?

There are numerous analyst reports proving big projects are disproportionately harder to deliver than small projects, yet many programmes are still built around huge monolithic systems and major business ‘go-lives’ with lots of moving parts. There may be reasons why projects are big, but often it’s down to the misconception that doing everything in one go is more efficient.

In reality, our experience of dealing with struggling major programmes has proven that breaking down deliverables into more manageable chunks is always more effective and is, after all, a key principle of the Agile manifesto. This could be either to break down the ‘big problem’ into multiple smaller deliveries/solutions, or to break the problem itself down into smaller bite-size challenges to solve – this latter approach helps to deliver outcomes that drive real business value fast.

There may be several reasons why projects, programmes or releases are bigger than they ideally would be, and whilst there is generally leeway to simplify the present, a key question we need to ask is “who is responsible for removing the constraints to enable small projects/releases to become the norm in the future?”

Q4: Do we really understand how we work?

Ideally, as part of a strategic management agenda organisations will understand their value stream and run lean-agile improvement cycles to continuously reduce their lead and cycle time. This should always be the direction of travel, but many organisations aren’t close to achieving this, and struggle with understanding how things really get done in their business.

With this visualisation comes understanding and ownership. There is an enormous amount of value in documenting the top-level workflows and ensuring leadership understand the “as is” process with all their faults, inefficiencies, and irrationalities. The simple act of reviewing these things helps to stop anecdotal finger pointing and focuses attention on something objective and tangible for your business – how you deliver value. With a focused mindset on that you can begin to discuss bottlenecks, constraints, and impediments in a non-confrontational and constructive environment, and ultimately look at ways to improve the flow of change.

Optimisation could take the form of removing friction and unnecessary hand-offs between interlinked teams, reducing process waste (i.e. processes adding little to no value or slowing down teams), or encouraging higher degrees of collaboration between development and operations teams to streamline the software development and deployment process through DevOps principles.

Q5: Is the delivery model working?

Delivery models are complicated and it’s very rare that you find one completely aligned with the organisation’s value stream that it is an enabler rather than a hindrance. Those whose delivery model is a considered a ‘strategic asset’ have invested in it, continue to experiment with it, and tweak it accordingly to fit the bespoke nature of their organisation. After all, you can’t just become Amazon by attempting to copy their processes.

However, there is no silver bullet in terms of delivery model – if it’s too slow, it needs to speed up, if it promotes big monolithic systems, it needs to help to break them down, if it’s uncontrolled, it needs more control. As with most things, delivery models are a journey that starts with agreement on what isn’t working and establishing a collective strategy for where the business needs to get to.

A big challenge for the digital first world is attempting to run before you can walk. We’re advocates of incremental development techniques that promote team working and use automation to establish a faster release cadence with close proximity to the business and faster feedback cycles. You can call it what you want, but it’s the principles that count, not the name you give to it. Unfortunately, we see people running after complex frameworks as that silver bullet to the inefficiencies they are experiencing in their delivery models. However, it is critical to experiment with it, learn lessons, fine-tune the process and gradually scale the model in a controlled manner – effectively applying the agile mindset to implementing your delivery model and business change!

We are agnostic to which delivery model or framework you choose to adopt at Axiologik, but the key point is to cherry-pick the elements that will add the most benefit and adapt where necessary. Chasing frameworks without addressing underlying issues won’t add value and neither will big bang switchovers. Everyone goes through the change ‘pain cycle’ when trying new things – the challenge is whether you’re set up to learn, and how you limit your exposure to that pain before you establish a workable level of competence.

Q6: Are we thinking far enough ahead?

A regular problem we see on transformation programmes is just focusing on delivering functional elements of software. Service operations and environments are often an afterthought. There is no real strategy for transitioning new services, and business change is something that just happens once legacy systems are removed.

Teams and value streams need to think end-to-end from day one and ensure there is participation from across the delivery lifecycle. DevOps has become popular for describing the mindset of bringing operational thinking upfront in development, to build fast, safe release cycles for software designed and built for production.

Putting aside the terminology, it’s the principle that is important. The collaboration means thinking now about how software will be used by both customers and internal operators, so that it’s right the first time. Ultimately, everyone who touches the system or service is a ‘user’, therefore it is worthwhile considering user centred designs across the internal and external customer journeys. If you don’t it will bite you later and experience is everything!

Q7: Are we doing the right things?

Lots of organisations ‘do stuff’ but they’re not sure why they’re doing it. As a result, they often start lots of programmes of work, but take very few of them through to their logical conclusion. With no consistent underlying themes in which to prioritise activity, the approach is often scattergun and seemingly unfocused. We all know that organisational resources are scarce and therefore they should be deployed in a coherent way that drives towards an agreed set of strategic outcomes.

In our experience, many outcomes aren’t clearly articulated and can result in a strategic vacuum in which people are doing the best they can, but not necessarily working together to achieve a common goal. Leverage comes from focusing on those things that will really make a difference and applying full force to those levers. Simon Sinek states (in his aptly titled book ‘Start with Why’) “average companies give their people something to work on. In contrast, the most innovative organizations give their people something to work toward.”

Therefore, a valuable exercise is to ask what strategic outcomes the technology function is trying to drive and then question if the work being done aligns to those outcomes. This forces the leadership team to think about whether they are really doing the right things or if there is a better focus for their energy.

Q8: Do we have the right commercial relationships?

It’s a well-known platitude that customers want a relationship with their vendors where they work in united harmony. An awesome act of balance if it can be achieved, but the reality can be much harder.

First, start by being honest with yourself - what does your organisation need from the client/vendor relationship? In my experience, the term ‘partnership’ is banded around too often, but in reality, the relationship can be one-sided. However, we need to acknowledge that vendors need to make money and clients need to let them. Similarly, vendors need to perform, and the client needs to help them.

"Commercial and operational relationships should be fair, transparent, and objective. Neither side should profiteer at the expense of the other, and commercial and governance structures need to focus on driving a ‘win-win’ situation, not on ways to avoid payment or drive a culture of ‘change control revenue’"

It’s worth looking at how these elements work in practice to identify and improve any behaviours on both sides that are destructive, rather than constructive.

Once a relationship is broken, it’s hard to recover as behaviours are often organisationally rooted and it requires open and honest conversations to make it happen. It is possible to achieve this, but sometimes you need to introduce a new vendor into the mix to sharpen up behaviours and bring a renewed energy to the table. If relationships are irreparable, you may need to consider cutting your losses. Equally it can be incredibly difficult for the client to recognise that the problem could be them.

So, there it is – we hope you find these useful pointers. What else would you add?

If you want to discuss how any of the above issues are affecting your organisation, we would love to hear from you. Whether it is to help you identify the cause of a problem or to recover a programme already in trouble, get in touch.

In reality, our experience of dealing with struggling major programmes has proven that breaking down deliverables into more manageable chunks is always more effective and is, after all, a key principle of the Agile manifesto. 

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