Complex change - ugly duckling or swan?


Ewen Fleming

Ewen Fleming

Partner - Financial Services Advisory


Let’s be under no illusion major change is complex and difficult to achieve.

McKinsey research has demonstrated that over 70% of change projects fail and Jamie Dimon, CEO of JPMorgan Chase, opined, “I’d rather have a first-rate execution and second-rate strategy any time than a brilliant idea and mediocre management.” 

Even great strategies don’t implement themselves and the majority of complex change programmes, even those that succeed, only do so after interventions to address problems relating to cost, scope and time.

The pitfalls are many and varied but the good news is that they can be categorised and mitigated against.

Purpose & vision

The initiation of a change initiative is critical and there are two key questions that both need answered:

  1. Is there a clear vision that is aligned to strategy and the organisational purpose?
  2. Has that been clearly communicated and, if so, is it both understood and are people at all levels are committed to the fundamentals?

If you are unable to answer these questions positively, then potentially even at this initiation stage, your change programme is fatally flawed. This flaw is often seen in IT initiated projects where the technology is seen as a ‘silver bullet‘ and the purpose of the change, rather than the project calibrated to business strategy.

Culture & behaviours

Just as culture is seen as critical to successful integration this is also the case for change initiatives. Culture is closely linked to purpose and vision and it is vital to look for the positive traits and behaviours that will support successful change and seek out and deal with the behaviours that don’t contribute to delivery. These damaging behaviours are often seen:

  • A relentless drive to hold functional areas responsible creating a blame game that breaks down collective responsibility.
  • ‘Group think’ and a resultant lack of challenge & perspective.
  • Programme leadership is wedded to past decisions even when they are going wrong leading to a ‘double or bust’ mentality. 
  • Leadership disfunction drives extreme behaviour e.g. keeping head down or distorting reporting of progress or RAG status. Linked to this there is a need for leaders to be brave and hit ‘pause’ if things are drifting off course or moving away from the strategy.
  • Overly positive culture means risks are played down and RAG status played up.
  • Budget is set before the scope or plan is finalised.
  • No contingency is built in for price increases, slippage and additional resource requirements. This is particularly an issue for longer programmes.
  • Over-reliance on suppliers, consultants and contractors so, when they leave, organisation & programme history and knowledge leaves with them.
  • Ignoring the end users ‘hearts & minds’ – change is about culture and failing to prepare for culture change means ‘prepare to fail’.

Capability gaps

Most businesses are dependent on knowledge and expertise and change initiatives are no exception. There are, however, some particular skill sets that are very specific to programme and project management.

The right level of governance is essential to monitor scope/budget/ timeline without in itself becoming a cottage industry that is time consuming, adds little additional value for the time expended and distracts from delivery. 

Likewise, planning is a key skill and an aligned plan for all workstreams and suppliers is critical. However, always bear in mind a solid and aligned plan is no guarantee that things will actually go to plan. As Lee Child’s fictional character, Jack Reacher, likes to say, “plans go to hell as soon as the first shot is fired”.

Change control, even in agile, is a key skill & competency to understand the true impact of any changes and not just on the budget and delivery dates. By their nature large scale change programmes need to be aligned and any change can upset the calibration and cause multiple, often unintended, consequences.

Finally, and a personal favourite of the author are RAID logs that capture Risks, Assumptions, Issues and Dependencies. Effective risk and issue monitoring focuses on the changing risk spectrum, not on one area in isolation, and always looks at how the current and emerging risks are understood and mitigated across the programme. That is the theory, but RAID logs rarely work like that in practice!

‘Fit for purpose’ design

All too often design principles and success criteria are not fully thought through and this can easily result in an overtly functional focus that means deliverables don’t join up in an end to end way for the customer. Inadequate design can destroy the customer journey and customer experience despite on the face of it having enhanced capabilities throughout that journey. 

Additionally, at the design stage it is worth giving considerable thought to interim milestones and deliverables. Big change programmes thrive on momentum and over focusing on the launch date and the final deliverable can quash progress and the integrity of building and testing the constituent components that will support the ultimate delivery. Very few successful long-term programmes arrive at their destination without needing some adjustment and refinement during their lifetime. Interim deliverables are a great way of determining if a programme is on track and will deliver the value expected for all the stakeholders.

The enemy of identifying the barriers to effective change and mitigating against them isn’t a lack of money or resources but instead is objectivity! There is a well-known saying that “familiarity breeds contempt”. Whilst that may be extreme it is clear that being embroiled in or close to an organisation and the change initiative can impose the equivalent of ‘blinkers’ or even a ‘blindfold’. 

Whilst wholly entrusting your change programme to people that will not remain in your business post ‘go live’ is not to be advised, there is value in objective eyes at key points. Unbiased experts are of particular value to undertake a short and sharp diagnostic at the start of a change initiative or when things are going wrong. Additionally, periodic reviews ensure the integrity and quality of a programme or project and make the world of difference to achieving successful outcomes. 

To chat more about the pitfalls of complex change, please get in touch with me here.