Turning The Tides – 8 Key Areas Of Exploration For Leadership Grappling With Struggling Programmes

At Axiologik, a fair chunk of our work is helping clients understand where transformation programmes are struggling and then working closely with them to establish and execute recovery plans. Typically, the challenges we find clients facing boil down into 8 key areas and we thought it may be of use to list those out, with the intention that others can use the list to ask themselves some serious questions about how they’re really doing.

We’ve listed 8 areas and we recognise that there is undoubtedly a much broader set of questions to ask. They are a decent start, however. It should also be recognised that transformation programmes are complex beasts and it’s often the interplay across a number of problem areas that lie at the heart of the underperformance. There’s also the matter of doing something about it – many organisations are busy just keeping afloat under the downward pressure of their collective challenges, let alone finding time to lift their head up and take an impartial view of where they’re at. Everyone knows they should be taking a step back, but often they just can’t manage it for some reason. These are areas we can help and, if you’re interested, get in touch. Regardless, we hope you find the questions useful.

Question 1: Are we really being honest with ourselves?

Do we recognise we have challenges? Are we able to have an honest conversation with each other about where we’re struggling? Do we all agree where the problem or problems reside?

Many organisations struggle with this first step, with key individuals taking entrenched, defensive positions where everything is either fine or always someone else’s fault. The key 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. People will generally open up more if they think there’s less blame in the air.

Question 2: Does the business case even stack up anymore?

Many organisations have an almost irrational fear of writing off investments and therefore it’s always pertinent 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. The primary question is to understand whether the business benefit that will accrue is acceptable given the cost of delivery from this point forward. At the same time, the realism behind the go-forward projections also needs to be challenged. What has changed to make the forward position more certain than the historic, challenged one?

We often also see a lack of understanding how things (features, epics, business services etc) drive business outcomes 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, then the business case has an entirely different perspective if you carve out the complex items that don’t really return much value. It’s very rare that entire projects and programmes need to be stood down – you just need to work out where things stop having an acceptable payback rate and get rid of those that don’t.

Question 3: Are we making things too hard for ourselves?

There are umpteen analyst reports proving that big projects are disproportionately harder 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 somehow efficient. However, years of struggling major programmes have taught us it’s often better to do fewer, smaller things and get them right than try and do everything at once and get it wrong.

There may be lots of reasons why projects and releases are bigger than they ideally would be. We see this a lot. Whilst there is always some latitude to simplify the present, a key question to ask is who is responsible for removing the constraints to enable small projects to become the norm in the future.

Question 4: Do we really understand how we work?

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

With visualisation comes understanding and ownership – we find there is enormous value in writing down the top-level workflows and making sure leadership understand them with all their faults, inefficiencies and irrationalities. The simple act of putting things down on paper stops anecdotal finger pointing and focuses attention on something objective and tangible – how the business delivers value. Once the mindset is there, you can start to talk about bottlenecks, constraints and impediments in a non-confrontational and constructive environment.

"It goes without saying that the right answer is for organisations to regularly ask themselves these questions as part of a continuous, lean improvement agenda, but often taking the first step is the hardest."

Question 5: Is the delivery model working?

Delivery models are complicated things and it’s very rare that you find one so ‘in-tune’ with the organisation’s value stream that it becomes an enabler rather than a hindrance. Those whose delivery model is a strategic asset have invested in it and continue to experiment with it over time. You can’t just become Amazon by attempting to copy their processes.

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 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.

One big challenge of modern times 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 frameworks as a silver bullet to the inefficiencies they experienced in their previous delivery models. They don’t experiment with it, learn the lessons, fine-tune the process and gradually scale it in a controlled manner.

Chasing frameworks without addressing underlying issues won’t work (we see this with many of the scaled agile frameworks) and neither will big bang switchovers. Everyone goes through the pain cycle when trying new things – the key challenge is whether you’re set up to learn and how you limit your exposure to the pain before you establish a workable level of competence.

Question 6: Are we thinking far enough ahead?

A regular problem on transformation programmes is just focusing on delivering software. Environments are often an afterthought, there’s no real strategy for transitioning new services and business change is something that will happen once we take away their old systems. Project teams and value streams need to think end-to-end from day one and ensure there is participation from across the lifecycle throughout the project. The term DevOps has become popular for describing the mindset of bringing operational thinking into development to build fast, safe release cycles for software designed and built for production. Putting aside terminology, it’s the principle that is important – think now about how it will be used, so that it’s right the first time. If you don’t it will bite you later.

Often the real problems don’t get talked about. In one organisation we know, the development teams and support teams socialise in separate bars because they just don’t get on. I often wonder how much better their life would be if they actually went to the same bar.

Question 7: 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 things, but they take very few of them through to their logical conclusion. With no consistent underlying themes in which to prioritise work, the approach is often scattergun and unfocused. Organisational resources are scarce and therefore they have to be deployed in a coherent way that drives towards an agreed set of strategic outcomes.

Often those outcomes aren’t clearly stated and therefore there is a strategic vacuum in which people are doing the best they can. However, leverage comes from focusing on those things that will really make a difference and applying full force to those levers. A valuable exercise in many organisations is to ask what strategic outcomes the IT function is trying to drive and then questioning how the work is being done aligns to those outcomes. This forces the leadership team to think about whether they are really doing the right things and whether there are actually better things to focus on.

Question 8: Do we have the right commercial relationships?

It’s an oft-heard platitude that customers want a relationship with their vendor where they work in symbiotic harmony. An awesome act of balance if it can be achieved, but the reality is hardly ever this. Vendors need to make money and clients need to let them. Similarly, vendors need to perform and the client needs to help them. 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 for all’, not on ways to avoid payment or drive change control revenue. It’s worth really looking at how these elements are working and seeing whether the behaviours on both sides are constructive or destructive.

It’s hard to turn around broken relationships organically as behaviours are often organisationally entrenched and it needs open and honest conversation to make it happen. Great if you can achieve this. Sometimes you need to introduce a new vendor into the mix to sharpen up behaviours and bring people to the table. Sometimes, losses need to be cut because relationships are irreparable. Sometimes the hardest thing is for the client to actually come to the recognition that the problem is them.

So there it is – we hope you find these useful and stimulating. If we’ve missed anything, let us know. If you’d like to discuss how any of the above issues are affecting your organisation, then get in touch. We’d love to hear from you.

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