I’ve written a number of pieces on IT project success, or lack of it. In one of them, I enquired why we don’t seem to learn from what goes wrong (Why Don’t We Learn From Mistakes?, April 2013). I noted that information about problems is all too often buried. And even if some details of what went wrong are available, there is a considerable reluctance to learn and do it better next time.
In this piece, I’d like to widen the scope beyond pure IT projects, although most business plans today include an IT component, often essential for success. Most organisations are able to develop plans to direct their future operations. The problem is a failure of execution. For obvious reasons, there’s a vast amount of interest in the subject; here’s just one example, on the Wharton Business School Knowledge@Wharton website (Got a New Strategy? Don’t Forget the Execution Part).
In turbulent economic times, failure to execute undermines the chances of success. Businesses cannot respond to necessary change and therefore rapidly become less competitive than those that can. The public sector cannot serve its citizens properly, a particularly acute problem in these times of reduced government spending.
But why do businesses struggle to execute their plans? The major reason is that obstacles to success are not reported and removed, and therefore impede progress and implementation. Part of the responsibility lies in a human reluctance to give management bad news.
But that is a symptom of a wider problem: the plan is not owned by the whole organisation. Rather, it is imposed from the top. People at levels below the top therefore lack the necessary commitment. The problem can be compounded if management reviews are always looking for someone to blame, not solving problems – there’s a bullying culture, in other words.
How can we solve these problems? A change in organisational culture is required. It is widely accepted that management cannot dictate the culture. It emerges through the engagement and commitment of the people at every level in the organisation. The starting point is a simple idea: the biggest organisational crime is the failure to report obstacles to success, in other words burying bad news.
The change to a culture of open reporting is best achieved by changing the working environment in a way that fosters openness and transparency. What is required is a cascaded set of strategies and directions resulting in a set of operations plans developed by the people who will drive execution. Management sign-off and approval involves a commitment to supporting the successful execution. This approval is made transparently so that everyone buys into the plan, throughout the organisation.
Frequent operational and execution reviews, within a framework of transparent accountability, ensure that everybody deals immediately with reality. Obstacles to success are escalated so that action can be taken to remove them. It is no longer possible to ignore problems, block essential action or spin accountability. Deviance from the plan becomes highly visible in good time to take corrective action.
There are two points I’d like to emphasise. First, a bad plan stands little chance of being executed successfully. Having the whole organisation buy into it means that a bad plan is picked up at the start, not at some later time. Getting the plan right is part of the execution, not something that comes before it.
Secondly, and critically, the approach requires the whole organisation to accept it, which means all of the people and groups involved. The ‘whole organisation’ could indeed be the entire organisation, or a subset of it, up to the top-level decision maker in that part. Examples include geographic or functional divisions, as long as they can operate autonomously without interference by remote management.
The focus on real execution means always looking forward and moves an organisation on from an obsession with metric management, which effectively is always looking backwards.
The approach described is not a remote pipe dream. A practical approach has been developed and demonstrated with real success in major organisations. How it works is a subject for another time.