At one point I was asked to deliver a project in a high-risk, highly-regulated service. It was an area that I hadn’t worked-in before and I was pretty anxious to do no harm. Reading through the internal documentation; previous consulting reviews (including one from the big three), reports and project documentation, the organisation had repeatedly tried to solve these problems. Every time that they had tried, and every time they had failed and the problems kept reappearing (I counted nine attempts). It is what I call a whac a mole scenario. No matter how many times leaders whack one problem on the head, the same problem(s) pops-up again elsewhere. The programme they had introduced had been designed to improve the situation permanently and quickly. For Project Managers in these high-risk, high-harm situations, I always recommend some form of scoping or study.
In services systems where doing, designing and implementing the wrong thing can cause harm (in this case serious harm), the only antidote is to get knowledge. Working with a head of service, I set about guiding a team to create a plan to meet somebody else’s analysis of the problem. In parallel I also gained permission to study the service as a system. This doubled my workload, but meant that I could begin to understand the ‘what and why’ of performance, enable informed conversations and design better interventions. Effectively, this meant spending long hours and some weekends ‘in the work’ with workers from around the country and company, following jobs through the system end-to-end. Over a couple of months a picture began to emerge of the system and how the work actually worked. I also began to crunch data differently as their current measures were all targets and some fragmented lagging measures.
What was learned
This study resulted in a very different picture of performance. None of their measures-in-use reflected the reality of what was happening and the targets were driving the system out of control. The results helped to explain why previous attempts at solving the problem situation had not worked. And unfortunately, it also revealed that some critical parts of the project that I was guiding to deliver were not going to work. In fact what was being asked for would reinforce some of the current problems and generate new problems. And perhaps worse still, they were solving the wrong problem by hard-wiring new IT into the system, thereby entrenching the issues further and make them harder to undo (at quite some cost). To truly improve the situation and dissolve the problems, it required transformation of another related service area.
A tricky conversation
I knew that I had to have a tricky conversation with the executive leader, who was brand new in their post. And that even though this was not welcome news, it was the right thing to do. Eventually I managed to secure 30 minutes to take them through a very different story of the service, displayed as a systems picture and with the actual data related to purpose (displayed on a big whiteboard). When the leader had their aha moment, and understood the underlying causes they held their head in their hands. The project was almost fully delivered and therefore ‘doomed to succeed’ (very common). Surprisingly, some companies and organisations don’t want to know.
The Project Manager point of view
Project Manager’s are often asked to do something in areas that they are not familiar with. Traditionally there has been a JFDI view of change roles. You are expected to come along and bring your bag of project tools, plan to meet the specification, and get it done (and get it done quick or to set time). That world is starting to disappear. In part due to the sheer number of project failures, or even worse – projects that get delivered but don’t ‘do it’ for customers. This fills-up senior leaders dashboards with green, giving them a sense of security and control. These days many project managers come with a broader set of skills and method to study and understand before helping to design interventions. We also (like medical professionals) want to do no harm, and believe that senior leaders, whilst pushing for things quick, also want to be aware of issues and we as Project Managers have to help them to make informed choices. Whilst this can be unpopular, it is also the authentic and right thing to do.
From the business point of view
From a business’ point of view, the money wasted on failed projects, or poor quality or negligible outcomes can be counted in the tens or hundreds of millions of pounds and cumulatively millions of lost working hours. All customer’s money. And the customer experiences these failures. So whilst quick is understandable, time spent understanding is better and it is never too late to change course when you are heading in the wrong direction. Having been a board member and having worked with CEOs and serious senior leaders for a while now, I believe they would rather know, than not.
Provide time for study and learn and look at services systemically to get to a better understanding and to do better things. Be open and try to look at the work systemically. I prefer to use the Vanguard Method and Systems Thinking as these are both rigorous, methodical and effective. I’ll let Russel Ackoff do the talking here:
The more efficient you are at doing the wrong thing, the wronger you become. It is much better to do the right thing wronger than the wrong thing righter. If you do the right thing wrong and correct it, you get better.Russell Ackoff
*I never reveal organisational details, or secrets when writing about past interventions or projects. And aim to obscure any identifier as much as possible.