The day we lost most of our key stakeholder support
History isn’t kind to megaprojects with failure rates north of 75%. In spite of this statistic large, complex, expensive multi-year projects keep getting signed-off. To put this into context every major city in the world has its disaster which has become an enduring, and unhealthy part of their urban mythology.
To put this into context every major city in the world has its disaster which has become an enduring, and unhealthy part of their urban mythology.
There are obviously a wide range of management issues that plague complex projects of any size, with the most fundamental being costs quickly accelerating past proposed benefits because of the frailty or inaccuracy of the originating business case. The problem is that once you’ve started its very hard to stop an initiative that has its own accelerating momentum, ballooning complexity, and determined stakeholders with their entrenched political and personal agendas. It’s concerning how many projects, of any size, get organizational approval without any sign of the plan-to-deliver.
Having been part of one of these urban mythology vehicles I now wonder how many of the problems we encountered were directly related to how our initiative was branded. By branding I mean the various layers of the story being presented to different stakeholders, both internal and external. The problem is that the stories were so inconsistent it was hard to see the necessary level of cohesion was in place, and it was very easy for the project team to get picked off and isolated. We became a target.
Our initiative was focused on policing with key stakeholders being front-line operational staff and through them all the members of communities we served. Although it was based on improving information technology it was very tactile. It had all sorts of layers of crime, public disorder, and community engagement. When we brought our technology partners on board we took them out on patrol and into police cells so they developed a passion for the business we were in, and why information was so critical, especially in emergency situations. And they did develop a huge passion very quickly.
When we brought our technology partners on board we took them out on patrol and into police cells so they developed a passion for the business we were in, and why information was so critical, especially in emergency situations.
The other thing we did was to bring 500-600 front line personnel into our initial planning and scoping workshops. These folks, who daily faced some really challenging stuff, weren’t enraptured with glittering technology. Their needs were much more basic and their input was way past invaluable. It anchored our project team in reality. They were also enthusiastic because for the first time in history a team aligned to Head Office seemed genuinely interested in consulting with them.
And then it all changed. Initially the initiative sat under the Commissioner of Police and as such it was widely recognized as an operational vehicle for front-line staff. With the stroke of a pen the reporting lines for the project were changed from the Commissioner to the Director of Information Technology. The reaction of front-line staff was immediate. They felt the project had now shifted from an operational innovation to an IT project, and that they were now shut out, as they had been in every previous IT project. They disengaged. And in so many ways they were right.
They felt the project had now shifted from an operational innovation to an IT project, and that they were now shut out, as they had been in every previous IT project. They disengaged. And in so many ways they were right.
The fact that the flagship project for the business was so easily sidelined, and, in many ways, irrevocably damaged, illustrated an even bigger issue. Police management, and the dedicated project team, needed to understand the level of innovation that was possible – the big picture – but also needed to be comfortable with seeing the picture in small, digestible ‘front-line’ stories that collectively built up intrigue and engagement over time. The story of policing and crime is the perfect business for this with so much interest in how it all works. The huge irony was that every time the project team tried to present a intriguing storyline Police management would say ‘show us the evidence’ and maybe we’ll then believe. Management fell back on their operational training of needing hard evidence rather than trusting the more uncertain process of innovation.
Management fell back on their operational training of needing hard evidence rather than trusting the more uncertain process of innovation.
So I’m talking about historic issues and this isn’t meant to be a beat-up or a re-litigation of past wrongs. And it was, even in its most brutal of times, a fabulous learning exercise.
What relevance do these issues have now?
Everyone is talking about unprecedented times. There are many discussions about Working from Home (WFH) and that models of work have changed forever. We think that’s right. Now is the time when we must make the right management decisions, including selecting the correct enabling technologies. So why is it that many of the business-technology decisions have been passed from the business to IT. And why, when business practitioners say ‘these tools just don’t work for us’ are they told ‘too bad; these are the technologies we’ve selected; get on with it.’ And the biggest ’emperor’s clothes’ aspect of this whole deal are the large ‘platform’ suppliers who claim to solve all your problems of management and information integration, if you trust them, buy their whole kit, and start with module No 1. Here’s the scoop, you’ll never make module No.10. No-one ever has.
To be fair there are some great CIO’s and IT folks out there now fighting the battles that happen because of inadequate technology investment over previous periods. They are deeply immersed in the business. These dedicated, talented people, who think and act strategically, are worth their weight in gold and should definitely be at the top-table.
The strategic big picture is absolutely critical to inspire and guide people. This must be owned by the business. Continuous drama-filled story-telling is then what breathes life into your business and positions everyone for success.
So think big, and tell small. Most importantly, listen to your business practitioners. They know what works.