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Why do many transformation programs fail to deliver on their objectives?

This pandemic has seen some impressive, rapid transformation from many organisations in Australia. The accelerated shift of retailers to online sales, click and collect and home delivery, the rise of telehealth, pop up COVID-19 testing and the creation of the AFL, NRL and NBA bubbles!

The objectives for these transformations were well thought out and executed, so why then do some transformation programs fail?

Over the last twenty years I have been passionate about leading change across a number of different industries, removing the barriers to execution by taking a pragmatic and collaborative approach to program delivery. I want to share five common pitfalls that I have seen over this time that I believe can constrain an organisation’s ability to achieve their transformation objectives. These are not exhaustive, but based on my own personal journey. I’d also like to propose some ways to avoid these pitfalls.

Five common pitfalls of transformation program delivery

1.Program Strategy and Business as Usual (BAU) are disconnected - Many transformation programs are tagged with the ‘shiny new toy ’concept and can be presented as the answer to the organisation’s woes. Unfortunately, through all this ‘hype’ generated by the new program BAU becomes forgotten. Often, little consideration is given to BAU to determine its capacity or capability to adopt new program activity. This disconnection between program strategy and BAU can create organisational misalignment promoting an ‘us and them’ mentality, creating road blocks effecting program delivery.

2. Governance and routines are too rigid. Transformation project governance and routines form a life of their own and seem to be the only thing people are working on and care about. 

3. Prioritisation framework is over-engineered and prevents speed of delivery. Prioritisation processes become so overwhelming that nothing seems to get delivered. 

4. Program content overload. The transformation programs become the flavour of the month, and for some reason everyone wants to bring on-board their initiatives and use the program as a catchall for their success. Program scope keeps growing and increased complexity stifles delivery.

5. Failure to embed. There is a tendency for programs to release change activity and then move on to the next set of deliverables, without ensuring the activity is properly embedded. The BAU team is then left to deal with integrating the new activity, without the sufficient resources and the right tools. 

Tips for a pragmatic approach to Business Transformation 

So, what is an alternative approach to Business Transformation and Program Delivery? How do you address these common pitfalls?

1. Fit for purpose governance

I have always found it important to use a program delivery methodology where governance routines are agile, pragmatic and highly collaborative. 

Effective governance and routines serve a purpose, but they must be flexible. For example, daily, 15-30-minute stand-up routines, that are highly visible, should suffice, maintaining the right amount of focus on the tasks without being over-engineered.

These visual routines should be adapted to the timing and content of the Executive Steering meetings.

2. Connecting Program Strategy and BAU

Prior to starting the change program, BAU needs to be set up with the right tools to take on the program’s new activity. I always advise the need for BAU resource to be part of the transformation program from day one. This will ensure connection between the program’s strategic priorities and BAU, as well as facilitating the embedment of the change.  BAU resources then become advocates of the program given their involvement and input into programs road map design from day one.

Critically, when a transformation program begins its journey, consideration must be given to determine the level of ‘change fatigue’ experienced within the BAU environment. Understanding BAUs propensity to take on more, and when, is crucial during objective setting and designing the roadmap.

3: Highly visual program routines: The Bridge Wall

For most programs, I use a physical/virtual “Wall” that allows the team to review the strategic deliverables of the transformation program as well as key BAU activity across those areas of the business where alignment is critical.

This visual wall also allows effective prioritisation and resourcing between strategy and BAU, and can be used as a fundamental communication tool that ensures collaboration, transparency and alignment of key stakeholders.

Some organisations are brave enough to position this wall in the office so all the staff can see the activity and understand the process at play.

As a result of COVID-19, The Bridge International employs a host of great on-line tools and virtual methods ensuring both program speed and execution effectiveness. This includes an online version of The Bridge Wall.

A good agile program has routines that are seamless; they allow for speed of delivery and are pragmatic enough to allow the program to pivot where necessary.

4: Effective prioritisation

Priorities must be agreed at the start of the program, driven by a road map that stages the release of activity and has line of sight to the organisation’s broader priorities. Avoid changing priorities, unless necessary. Invest your energies into delivering these well through a comprehensive embedment program.

When setting priorities, organisations can benefit from ‘slowing down to speed up’. Taking the time upfront to plan and consult on a pragmatic delivery road map, will lower the risk of failing to meet release deadlines.

5. Prevent Program content overload. Sprints and Quick wins.

If the program runs the risk of overload, its ok to say no! Be clear with your stakeholders from the start about the objectives and scope, as this can avoid unnecessary delays to the program. Adding additional items will almost certainly increase the risk of failing to meet your delivery objectives.

The nature of transformation programs is also changing. We are now seeing organisations moving away from expensive multi-year programs to a more modular, phased approach. This allows them to fail fast, reassess their objectives quickly and ultimately avoid cost blow out. Perhaps the Government should have approach NBN in this way?

Breaking down a complex program into ‘sprints’ to deliver ‘quick wins’ sets leaders up for success. This is especially crucial with programs that have compressed timeframes.

6. Make embedment part of your program.

Following a successful release, it is important to remember that that the program is not finished. It’s only just started. Embedment into BAU is the key to achieving the objectives and desired transformation outcomes.

To wrap

To ensure the successful delivery of a transformation program’s objectives, I would recommend the following:

  • Program strategy and BAU activity must be always connected

  • Adopt a flexible, pragmatic and collaborative approach to governance routines. Use the Wall to help drive sprints and quick wins

  • Priorities should be agreed at the start of the program

  • Prevent program overload. Its ok to say no

  • Make embedment part of your program 

I would love to hear your point of view on this topic from your experience of transformation programs. I think transformation is becoming the new norm.  

As Professor and Author John Allen Paulous remarked “Uncertainty is the only certainty there is….”

Ben Coleman - Partner, The Bridge International


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