Getting Serious about Program Success

Every executive who has lived through even a moderately complex business capability implementation program is familiar with the challenges to successful delivery.  Many, if not most, of them have scars to show for it.  However, despite overwhelming evidence and past defeats, organizations and executives regularly move their programs toward failure.  Though there will almost always be some attempts made to manage risks, these will only be token efforts without action to effectively deal with such fundamental challenges as program management or business analysis skill deficits, lack of executive capacity or attention, and alignment with other organizations that have conflicting priorities.

In most other areas of the business, a pattern of repeated failure caused by identifiable but unmitigated risks would never be allowed to continue.  Leaders who did not take serious steps to improve the performance of their organizations would be considered negligent.

The is no secret formula for success, nor is there a “silver bullet” that if only applied would solve all key program challenges.  However, although resolution of fundamental issues may be very difficult, the initial steps are straight forward.  They don’t require proprietary methodologies or tools, and they amount to identifying key risks, creating mitigation plans and following through on the execution.  Though an external facilitator may help with the process, engaging a consultant is by no means mandatory.  In fact, it may be beneficial for in-house team members to own and execute the process.  Acting on these steps may require the best that a leader can bring to bear, but the ability should be well within the competencies of any high performing program executive.

How to Get Serious

  1. Identify likely points of failure
  2. Engage key stakeholders
  3. Create meaningful plans of action
  4. Execute action plans and monitor results
  5. Regularly reassess risks and update plans

The first step is to conduct an honest evaluation of the potential points of failure and identification of the people who need to be engaged to address them.  The most significant risks will likely have been factors in previous initiatives, and they may well be well known by the team.  Other challenges will involve standard aspects of program and project management such as resource availability, scope management, and creating realistic timelines.  Often the weakest points will be around critical dependencies that organizations outside of the program need to meet.  These organizations may have conflicting interests, there may be unclear accountability to the program, and engaging them may require challenging conversations about where the compelling business value lies and the best way to achieve it.

Once the key risks are identified, the second step is to engage the people who can provide input to solutions and drive implementation.  The main stakeholders may include

  • program sponsors
  • program business and technology leadership
  • project team members, including program managers, business analysts, architects, and leads of development, testing, deployment and human performance functions
  • leaders of  organizations outside the project, including vendors and external partners who will be responsible for meeting primary dependencies
  • business and technical teams who will operate the capability
  • opinion leaders among user communities

The approach to interacting with each of these groups may vary, and the actions required from each may be different, so creating a plan for stakeholder engagement is critical.  Creating this plan does not need to be a project in itself, and it should not require voluminous documentation.  It should, however, be sufficiently detailed to identify how to facilitate interaction that is meaningful enough to create and execute action plans that have a real chance at addressing the program risks.

Third, engage the appropriate stakeholders identified in the previous step to create realistic plans to address the issues identified.  These plans should be honest about the obstacles faced by the program and what it will take to overcome them.  For example, a common dependency is data from systems owned by different departments.  If those departments have definitions for information that conflict with program requirements, and if they have a history of inflexibility in how they provide that information, the discussions need to evaluate the likelihood of successful negotiations and what it will really take to get sponsorship that is influential enough to drive alignment.

One outcome of this exercise may be the recognition that the program cannot realistically mitigate some challenges to an acceptable level of risk.  If the program as it is currently defined is not feasible, it is better to accept that at the outset than to pursue unreachable goals.  One of the key lessons of the study of program failure is that if a program cannot succeed, early termination is much better than prolonging the cost.  Program leaders can then focus on either creating a better foundation for success or identifying more achievable ways to deliver business value.

The fourth step is to execute these plans.  The devil here is in the details.  Getting diverse stakeholders to align on priorities and agree on a course of action is difficult enough, but challenges of following through on that course may be in a class of their own.  There are three factors can be crucial for successfully carrying out action plans:

  1. A realistic business case should be created to clearly define compelling value for the program, ideally in financial terms.  If the business case is believable and accepted, it provides the basis for engagement, alignment, and accountability.
  2. Senior sponsors should be actively involved in the success of the program.  Sponsors who are truly engaged do more than show up at steering committee meetings.  They are active champions of the program, contributing to resolution of issues and investing their leadership capital in securing the cooperation of key parties.
  3. Project management excellence is key to ensuring that action plans are followed through to completion.  As they monitor progress, it is imperative that obstacles are communicated and escalated without dilution.  If program leaders can’t get serious here, there is little chance that they will be able to address other critical needs.

Finally, these steps should receive sustained focus throughout the program.  The identification of risks is not a one-time exercise during the initiation phase.  Program leaders should regularly reassess risks, update plans and ensure that appropriate actions are taken.

Again, these steps are straightforward, and there is no magic in the approach.  Likewise, nothing will eliminate risks.  The key for executives who are serious about success is to develop excellence in the fundamentals of program leadership, including honestly and meaningfully addressing the obstacles before them.