Part 2. How to get governance right.
‘Competing with each other more readily than they cooperate, rivals, straining to see their own brilliant question turned into a moment that makes the TV news or, better still, goes viral’.
Brilliant, the analysis made by Jonathan Freedland (The Guardian, 11-Apr-2018) on why the US Congress failed to land the killer-blow to Mark Zuckerberg. The problem is deeper. For what makes a truly good questioner? ‘It requires the ability to sublimate your own views as you tease out those of your interlocutor’. The problem is that the right questions were not asked.
I arrive at the same conclusion when I look back at the performance of the governance boards on the programmes of change that I have led. I see an inability to ask the right questions rooted in psychology and organisational politics, rather than in a lack of investigative skills, given experience and smartness quotient. Often rivals within the organisation, frequently mis-aligned with the organisation's Board when it comes to the transformation, the steering board members push their own positions, their own ‘going viral’ moment, rather than collaborate to support delivery.
In Part 2 of this article on ‘How to fail quickly (and quickly get it right)’ I will suggest the short, sharp and concrete questions that you, as a steering board member, the programme's own forensic analyst, must ask to keep the programme from failing. In alignment with Chrys' beliefs they are also extraordinarily simple.
Short, sharp, concrete. The questions a steering board must ask.
Direction, support for risk and issues' mitigating actions, removal of emerging roadblocks: the sum of these accountabilities is of immense value to a programme knee-deep in operational issues and in need of a guiding hand. With its forensic questioning, the steering board must put the programme leaders on the spot, open and honestly, and then act as a unit to get to the answers. No furthering own agenda, no attempt at derailing the roadmap but close collaboration to raise the questions that demand a clear, illuminating or uncomfortable answer.
In this article, I will concentrate on the qualitative questions that underpin a governance aimed at assuring that all’s well under the programme sun. Or, the answer to these questions being found lacking, the programme will be seen to be failing. With the questions I suggest, you can quickly re-set it on the path to delivery.
Are these the totality of the questions you need to raise? Well, they are the necessary and sufficient ones. You can ask more questions but you absolutely cannot ask any less.
The programme leaders competent, the interrogators clueless.
In its ‘Unmarked’ leader of 14-Apr-2018 on the US Congress versus Mark Zuckerberg performance, The Economist writes: ‘where Mr. Zuckerberg was competent his interrogators were often clueless'. And more: ‘one of the most stunning revelations of the hearings was how little America’s politicians seemed to know about Facebook and the way the world of digital communications operates’.
I see a further analogy here but ... there cannot be any excuse. As a steering group member, you must know the delivery plans. Ask the programme leader to share them with you so that you can double-kick dependencies and contingency. Ask the programme leader to articulate the plans on-a-page, a 10,000-miles above the earth view so that you can visualise the critical path first without being blinded by too much science. [More in Part 3, on the ‘mechanics of the delivery’, to follow].
Is the critical path safe? If the answer is ‘yes’, good. If there are non-critical delays ask to see the ‘plan-to-catch-up’ but, beware, latter is often just wishful thinking, however earnest. Unpack this plan carefully, ask for the substantiation behind this commitment.
‘Is the programme tracking against plans’? Not ‘which activities has the programme undertaken’ but ‘is the programme tracking against plans’? This is a subtle but crucial distinction as it emphasises an alignment to a strategy that sees plans as the drivers of action. And if the programme is not speeding along its planned roadmap, well, what is it doing?
Some sub-questioning might be: ‘Have all the milestones been hit'? 'Has this been done at the expense of scope or of an increased risk profile'? The latter is typical in cases in which a team has been depleted in order to hit milestone A to the extent that it can no longer be helpfully deployed to hit milestone B. Or a milestone might have been hit (‘solution design complete’) but its business sign off is outstanding (in itself a failure to define milestones in their fully constituent components: claiming completion without business sign off is an exercise in futility and only kicks this particular can further down the road).
‘Is the programme forecast to continue to be on track’? [See also point on ‘estimate-to-complete’ below]. Looking ahead at any potentially emerging roadblocks or change of circumstances within the organisation is a key skill of the steering board.
'Have all named resources been released to the programme'? This must include the resources of the programme's work-streams but also the ‘business acceptance group’ and the ‘super users’ accountable for the business change activities and typically assigned to the programme on a part-time basis.
'Have all holidays / planned absences been taken into account'? 'Is there a plan B to support unexpected ones'? What I have witnessed is an expectation that people are a plentiful resource, heart, mind and body always fully dedicated to the programme. Do not make this assumption. People is where real life interferes with programme life. Do not make this error of judgement.
Approving changes to budget is a key area of accountability for the steering board that remains so throughout the lifetime of the programme. Delays, risks materialising, your questions must be aimed at below-the-surface to unearth the impact on budget too.
‘Is spend tracking against plans?’ Hitting milestones and delivering outcomes but wildly running out of budget is not good, the attitude ‘let’s hit the milestone first and ask for forgiveness later’ is neither prudent nor clever. Be open and honest on budget at all times.
Ultimately the steering board must be reassured that plans are sufficiently robust to take the programme to completion on time and to budget. For this, healthy controls are key.
Some of these controls necessarily cut across budget / effort / resources. This is the case with the ‘estimate-to-complete’ calculation, used to estimate how much more effort is needed to complete the programme. If the answer to the question ‘is the spend tracking against plans’ is ‘yes’, then reassure yourself that the answer is not based on the mathematical calculation ‘total effort <less> effort so far = effort remaining’. The ‘estimate-to-complete’ calculation will provide an understanding of whether, taking into account the effort invested so far as well as the effort yet to be invested, there will be sufficient $ to complete the remaining work.
Risk and issues.
The documentation of risk and issues is one of the most thankless tasks in programme management, I dare say. Even when they have been properly defined, their register tends to languish at the bottom of the programme leader’s drawer to be pulled out for rushed last-minute updates ahead of steering board. Given the criticality of this tool in driving progress, this is an amazing state of affair. Do not tolerate it. Below is what you should expect when risk and issues are treated as drivers of progress.
First of all, the formulation. Move away from statements of angst. Setting out a risk with the straight forward statement ‘there is a risk that…’ forces the originator to assess the risk appropriately and to focus on its impact. The second aspect is the ‘mitigation’. The originator must highlight the response to the risk, in terms of control actions and cost. The third aspect is the assignment of impact and probability. Often a matter of judgement, a consultation with the programme leader, who has visibility of the wider picture, will help the originator remain within the appropriate relative boundaries.
The programme leaders must give the steering board the confidence that, apart from those affecting scope, key timelines and significant increase in budget, risks are actively managed and mitigated within the programme.
[Pretty much the same applies to ‘issues’, the difference being that a ‘risk’ is an adverse occurrence coming up on the horizon, an ‘issue’ is an adversity that has already hit].
I believe the right qualitative questions raised by a collaborative steering board working to support delivery are essential elements in the programme success.
The questions I have suggested are short, sharp, concrete and extraordinarily simple. A steering board raising them will keep the programme away from failure and away from the ‘killer blows’ that I have seen come from un-integrated plans, unplanned dependencies, lack of sensible contingency. No programme can be successful if the 'mechanics of the delivery' were so deficient. This will be the subject of Part 3 of this article on 'how to get the mechanics of the delivery right'.
If you wish to discuss the qualitative questions and the effective governance suited to your organisation, get in touch.