Change delivery: The stakes have gone up

Posted On 31st July 2020

Will Gilbert, MD of Socium, talks to Damian Fessey, MD of Oxford8 and experienced programme professional, about the implications of COVID-19 for the future of change delivery in large organisations.

If we set aside for a moment the current predictions of a second coronavirus wave, our emergence from lockdown means that business is about to restart in earnest.  Predictions abound, but to quote Forbes, the rush for businesses to re-establish their value in the market will result in a ‘fast-flow of ideas and ingenuity to figure things out and make things happen.’

Now, here’s the blooper in that prediction:  Things don’t just ‘happen’ in business.  Effective change impacts every aspect of a business – including the vital organs like customers, employees and reputation, and therefore to ‘make it happen’ requires a bit of choreography – or in conventional parlance, change delivery.

Change is about to become more important as an organisational capability than it has ever been.  Why?  Well, previous economic downturns have been very effective in challenging how well-run, how profitable or how leveraged a business is.  But the current extent of VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity) means that the big test will be how adaptable an organisation is.

So what will actually be different about change delivery post-lockdown?  Here’s a crystal-ball view of what’s likely to happen.

1.       The home team will become much more important in delivering change

Yep, after several decades of telling internal staff to ‘leave change to the professionals’, they will suddenly become pivotal to change.  Several factors will drive this effect: Economic necessity is one, but the lockdown has awoken many a CEO to just how capable their people are under pressure, and that renewed confidence, combined with the typical outlay for external resources and a desire not to shed employees unnecessarily, is likely to result in more change being placed in the hands of the home team.

So, what’s the catch?  Well, several decades of being told to ‘leave it to the professionals’ is not particularly good preparation for a career in change delivery.

Tip: More to be said in a future article, but think about what training, support and leadership the home team will need (and no, the answer isn’t a PRINCE2 course…).

2.       Change governance will get a long overdue wake-up call

It used to be so easy being a member of programme board: You breeze along to the monthly meeting, throw in a challenge or two, state your concerns (and have them minuted), then reserve judgement, frown at the current spend and revised projected end-date, and that’s it!  You’re done until next month.

Okay, that’s a slightly cynical view that overlooks the very good work typically done by many programme board members, particularly risk and finance professionals.   But the problem is that post-lockdown, things are likely to be a mite trickier for programme boards; subsequent coronavirus waves, competitor activity, cost constraints that also emerge in waves…  It all makes life a lot bumpier for the people who are charged with oversight and collective decision-making.

There was a very insightful article on LinkedIn last month from Eamonn Molloy, a professor at the University of Oxford, containing the observation that knowledge and ignorance tend to grow in proportion: In other words, the more we know, the more questions we have.  Programme boards are likely to have to grapple with more knowledge, more ignorance and more decisions than at any time since the post-WWII era.  No pressure, just their self-respect…

Tip: Change governance isn’t usually great under normal circumstances – and post lockdown will be exceptional circumstances. Time for a governance re-think.  Watch this space for a few suggestions.

3.       Change leadership will professionalise

Go back far enough in history and doctors, lawyers, accountants et al weren’t qualified professionals: They were just the people who happened to know more about it than anyone else.  Civilisation has been around for over two millennia, and yet the professional competence to fix people (aka the Royal College of Physicians) didn’t arrive on the scene until 1518 (on instruction from Henry VIII).  And even then, visits to the wise old woman in Putney for a spell and a course of leeches took a while to go out of fashion.

Arguably, that’s about where we are currently with change professionalism.  Most practitioners are trading on their experience backed by a week or so on a PRINCE2 or MSP course.  That might have been okay in an era where a schedule overrun or outcome shortfall was tolerable, but in the post lockdown era, where overspend, overshoot or under-delivery might be organisationally terminal, it might just not be good enough.

It’s actually HM Government who have led the UK charge in change education over the past decade with the Major Projects Leadership Academy at Oxford University and the Project Leadership Programme at Cranfield.  A few corporates who have sufficient critical mass have followed suit, establishing their own internal academies, but my guess is that many more will follow this path.

Tip: If you know (or know someone who knows) a senior civil servant, ask them about what they learned in school, and the difference it made to how they approach change.  Further thoughts on this to follow…

4.       Supplier relationships will polarize

I almost said ‘tinderise’ as a precursor to a swipe left/right analogy, but the point is this: Suppliers are a vital but oft-overlooked component of change.  It’s often very difficult to spend vast programme budgets without a willing supplier accomplice.  Suppliers will face the same VUCA challenge of adaptability over coming months as everyone else: Some will adapt, some will entrench, and some try to do a combination of both, probably with disastrous consequences.  This turmoil will create opportunities for organisations to re-engineer their supplier base.  Economic contraction will probably lead to a buyer’s market which will put more contractual power in the hands of a change initiative than we’ve enjoyed for decades, but the question then is how to use it.  Simply driving a hard bargain is a bit one-dimensional and ultimately counter-productive.  The real opportunity is to engage via contracts that drive the right behaviours to support not just the organisation’s change initiatives, but its uncertain future.

Tip: Contract and commercial in the change space is a job for the professionals – I’ll be back shortly with one as co-author.  Just look out for future guidance on ‘reasons to swipe left and right.’

5.       Process re-engineering will be upgraded to Business Class

Let’s face it:  Very few of us actually like process, but we can’t have several thousand employees driving the day-to-day of the organisation without a bit of choreography: It would be like the Red Arrows taking off on the basis of ‘figuring it out in the air.’

The paradox is that although choreography is so vital, most organisations score themselves low on the process maturity scale.  The good news is that leaves lots of headroom for process improvement with all of the benefits it brings, from customer satisfaction to productivity gains.  And, best of all, it’s a cheap and relatively risk-free form of change.

But there’s another very good reason why business process re-engineering is about to upgraded to business class:  Many sectors will have to cope with the practical logistics of social distancing and associated measures for some time to come: shops, hotels, cinemas and planes are just a sample of the things that will all have to operate with a few less customer bums on seats for a while.  The only way to make that approach viable is to re-engineer the cost base as much as possible to compensate for reduced revenues, and one of the most effective ways to achieve cost reduction is through process automation.  The beauty of it is that it works for short-term survivability and long-term profitability: It’s a detour-free investment in the future.

Tip: Take a look at your business process maturity and your re-engineering capability.  You’ll be needing it very soon.

6.       We’re about to become less visionary – and a good thing too

The absolute top prize in Buzzword Bingo for Change Professionals is ‘vision.’  It’s ingrained into us from day one: it’s the target, the ‘thing’ we are delivering.  Without it, we just can’t function.

Unfortunately, that often translates to a programme of work that extends backwards in time from that long-term destination all the way to present day reality, and all points in between.  The result?  The organisation has to ‘go all in with the poker chips’; commit the budget, focus and effort – and then hold its collective breath for 2-3 years (the typical duration of a corporate programme, or even longer for Central Government) to see if the gamble pays off.

Aside from the obvious hazard to corporate breathing, such an approach has a tendency to engineer in lots of delivery risks needlessly.  With a little more thought, alternative approaches are entirely possible that achieve incremental progress: You spend a few chips, you win.  You spend a few more chips…

So, the prediction?  Less of the ‘going all-in’ with the poker-chips. Less focus on the business case, more focus on how to achieve incremental returns.  This is probably the single most important advancement in change delivery that has been pending for the past four decades.  The extent to which risks are subconsciously engineered into programmes on a daily basis is gob-smacking, and it creates headaches that could so easily be avoided altogether, simply by taking a different approach in order to achieve a different, better outcome.  

Tip:  Actually, there are no tips here, but to, the title of this article, the stakes may have gone up, but the way to play – and win – has fundamentally changed in a matter of months.  As lockdown ends, a very different hand has been dealt, and right now the cards are face down on the table.  Yes, it’s time to pick them up, but it also time to rethink how you play the game.

Damian Fessey is a non-executive member of the Major Programmes Board at HM Government’s Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, which oversees a variety of complex programmes ranging from the Commonwealth Games 2022 and the rollout of 5G to the 4th National Lottery Licence Competition.  In 2012 he was a member of the 1st Cohort of the MSc in Major Programme Management to graduate from the Saïd Business School, University of Oxford.  He is currently co-founder of Oxford8, a consultancy specialising in change delivery, together with Nick Borwell.

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