Specifying for programme failure


I've been spending the last few months working on a major business transformation programme, and it's an exciting place to be. As part of the steep learning curve involved in adapting a generic approach to something specific for the programme I find myself occasionally having an "ah ha!" moment - a flash of inspiration or insight. I would like to share with you one example.

The programme team is completely in agreement about where we are (sometimes called the "as is" state) and we have a very good idea of where we want to be in a couple of year's time (the "to be" state). What is not clear is exactly how to get from one place to another; we know the direction we need to go & the distance to be covered, but not all of the challenges we are going to face. Well, I've been having real problems explaining to some of my colleagues that this is normal and OK; they keep looking for some hidden, detailed implementation plan (probably 200 pages of closely typed project plan with 100s of milestones and deliverables all neatly laid out with responsible owners).

Yesterday inspiration came to me - imagine a map of North America in the early 1800's; lots of detail about the cities on the East Coast and some details of what lies on the West Coast. Along comes the California Gold Rush of 1849 and suddenly a lot of people want to cross overland from East to West in a hurry; they knew where they were, they knew where they wanted to be but there was precious little information on what lay between. Nonetheless, they set off, encountering mountains, lakes, unfriendly people of all sorts - they had to deal with it all as it arose but they didn't lose sight of where they were going and why. It was hard, it was dangerous and it could be cruel, but for many it beat staying where they were.

So why the history lesson? Imagine if Government had tried to write the specification for that mass migration; there would have been committee after committee, risk assessments, detailed specifications for everything from the wagons to the beans, months sent in selection processes, progress reports every 5 miles with more committees to decide how to cross the newly-discovered rivers, deal with the indigenous peoples, etc. I've no doubt that the journey would have been less harsh and fewer people would have suffered but by the time they reached California, all the gold would have been long gone - taken by the more agile. Governments (both elected officials and civil servants) do not like uncertainty.

So it struck me that today, much of the UK Government's "Transformational Government" agenda is in danger of falling into the same trap - it knows where we are today, it has a good idea of where it would like to be, but it's going to face real problems forming up the wagon train because of its tried-and-trusted procurement processes. When they eventually get there, will there be anyone around to greet them?


About Author

Peter Dorrington

Director, Marketing Strategy (EMEA)

I am the Director of Marketing Strategy for the EMEA region at SAS Institute and have more than 25 years experience in IT and computing systems. My current role is focused on supporting SAS’ regional marketing operations in developing marketing strategies and programs aligned around the needs of SAS’ markets and customers.

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