Beyond Delivery: A Guest Post by Eric Norman
Thinking back on both the successes and disappointments I’ve experienced in my career as a leader of organizational initiatives, the recollections that surface most often are not the successes… or even the difficult efforts I’ve led. The thoughts and underlying concerns that haunt me most frequently gather themselves around the discovery, after-the-fact, that some of the initiatives I believed were successfully delivered had actually been only a temporary fixes, or when viewed at a later date were revealed to be failures masquerading as success – to be discovered for what they really were only after the passage of time.
Let me briefly explain. The challenged initiatives (projects, programs, portfolios of work) I’m referring to were efforts that defied easy resolution – every step a difficult and exhaustive slog upstream. These “successes” were initiatives that had effectively ticked all the traditional performance boxes… meeting project or program objectives, achieving initial acceptance criteria and benefits targets, delivered within budget, on schedule. On later review, however, the changes we understood to be successfully delivered and implemented were nowhere to be found. New products, practices or systems sat idle – never to be used; new processes and guidance regularly circumvented or entirely ignored; new organizational structures reworked or fully replaced, no longer recognizable. In these cases, what had initially been seen as resounding success was, in reality, complete and utter failure.
Fortunately, this did not happen often, but when it did, I found it particularly disturbing and difficult to accept. I found myself asking “what had we, as the leadership team missed, what had we not done to ensure success – what had I overlooked as the initiative leader that enabled and led to this outcome?”
Answers to these questions have not come quickly. It’s taken more years than I care to admit to gain adequate perspective on the common thread that ties these failures together. Taking time to look more deeply into the initiatives I’ve led, I’ve focused specifically on the challenged initiatives and those initial successes I found later to be failures. I looked for common themes and conditions embodied in these efforts and what I found surprised me. Here are three themes common to all of them that stand out:
- Solutioning, not Solving Business Problems: Common among nearly all of these challenged and failed initiatives was the notion that we were delivering “solutions”. In many cases, they turned out to be fixes to symptoms that truly didn’t address underlying business issues and conditions. Examined more closely, these were often “pet” initiatives sponsored by influential leaders intent on changing something within the organizations they led, without much real concern for, or understanding of long-term organizational or business impact. Many times these came as mandates or pronouncements, such as: “we are going Agile… every project in the organization will now follow Agile principles”, or “Regardless of what the demand study says, we are going to deliver that product by September”. To help ensure we, as initiative leaders aren’t led down this dangerous path, perhaps we should inquire about the strategic significance of such initiatives, asking organizational decision-makers: specifically, what business problem are we trying to solve? Then follow that question with another: and how will this _______ (fill-in-the-blank initiative) help achieve that outcome? In the end, it is our responsibility to ensure that the degree of clarity in the answers we receive actually guide our actions.
- Delivering, not Generating Business Outcomes: Another striking similarity among this group of initiatives was the continual drumbeat of process and delivery – and we followed that drumbeat dutifully, attending to the management plans (process), and getting the job done (delivery) with mechanical precision. Whether the initiative was heralded as a model for success or one that struggled to cross the finish line, we celebrated at the conclusion and congratulated ourselves for a job well done. What becomes obvious now recalling these initiatives as a collection, was that in nearly every case the work wasn’t complete. We had prematurely declared success when we hadn’t actually achieved it. We had entirely ignored the need to measure progress against intended business outcomes. To put it simply, what we missed with our exclusive focus on process and delivery was the awareness that if we were delivering a new or changed product or service, delivery wasn’t the end of the process, it was the beginning. Measures and activities that would have served to focus the team, stakeholders, and sponsors during the initiative were entirely absent. How will we ensure adoption of the new ______ (fill-in-the-blank product or service) during and after the close of the effort? What must we do now, during the initiative, to ensure the benefits we achieve can be sustained after the effort ends, and what must we put in place to make certain these benefits continue to accrue into the future? Who, specifically, will own sustainment of the changes we’ve implemented after the current champion, sponsor and team move on? I call these questions and others like them outcome-oriented thinking, and this approach now shapes and influences the methods, processes, tools, and systems I put in place for initiative leadership, benefits achievement and sustainment.
- Maintaining Systems, not Sustaining Benefits: Finally, short-sighted or limited post-delivery planning characterized many of these failed efforts. Because we had focused so intently on delivery, our post-delivery plans emerged mostly as traditional, backward-facing maintenance activities. Warranty periods, call centers, support plans, problem/issue tracking, all targeted at correcting fallout from the delivery itself – and only for a relatively short period of time. On reflection, what I noticed common among these initiatives was the absence of a forward-looking sense of sustainment and continuous outcome improvement. During the initiatives, we hadn’t anticipated and planned for systemic issues that may have occurred. We viewed support as a passive, reactive activity, without planning-in the necessary components for acting on support information and feedback, employing this key information for ongoing outcome improvement. We spent little effort on defining post-delivery adoption, utilization or effectiveness measures, or the people and processes required for monitoring and acting on them. This reinforced our view of delivery as an endpoint, leaving the difficult follow-on work to others. Related to this – and most importantly in all these initiatives, we neglected to specifically identify the individuals responsible for carrying forward the new structures, products, services or benefits sustainment activities. This was a significant omission, leaving critically important considerations completely unaddressed. In effect, we had actually built short-lived success into these efforts, without a foundation for ongoing business value generation behind it. Armed with this insight, I now regularly begin thinking of the post-implementation “who” and “how” during the planning stages of the initiatives I take on. To summarize, in my view these three “Beyond Delivery” themes are inseparably linked, and to employ them as effective initiative leaders, we must:
- Ensure alignment exists between the organization’s strategic objectives and the efforts we lead
- Focus attention on post-delivery activities. Identify what must be put in place during initiatives to ensure durable and sustainable success after
- Anticipate and plan for process ownership and sustainment activities, specifically identifying the individuals who will carry on the good work delivered by initiatives long after the original efforts have ended
Outcome-oriented thinking; it’s what results from considerations of things that occur in business…Beyond Delivery
For more articles, presentations, books, and lectures by Eric Norman, check out his website: https://nncweb.net/publications/
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