How to succeed in the “Death Zone” with a business-critical program

Executing a transformational business-critical program using “business as usual” methods will jeopardise success. Read how to make sure your business-critical programs follow the right path.

Succeeding in the Death Zone

In my last blog, I looked at what we can learn from the world of mountaineering when executing business-critical programs.

Over the past 25 years, there has been an explosion in amateur climbers flocking to climb Everest

Amazingly, anyone can climb Everest without qualifying criteria – and many lack the expertise to succeed in some of the harshest conditions on the planet.

They often put themselves and others in danger, going above the aptly named “Death Zone” at 8000m without expert guides or the right experience.

Qualified, experienced expedition leaders who successfully climb above 8000m know the risks and plan meticulously for every known eventuality. 

They have the specialist expertise, inspirational leadership, and dedicated resources in their Sherpas to lead multi-disciplined core teams aligned with a single purpose – to get to the top and back safely.

It’s an unpredictable, complex world, and standard rules of climbing do not apply.

It’s the same when executing business-critical programs.

These differ from “business as usual” projects. Their scale, complexity and transformational nature demands a different approach.

Identifying a business-critical program vs business as usual

Business-critical programs tend to have distinctly different characteristics from business-as-usual activity.

We’ve put together a comparison chart that helps to define these:

Business-critical characteristicsBusiness-as-usual characteristics
Defines the future success of the business Short-term financial impact and performance
Represents a significant leap forward for the organisation, opening new opportunitiesIncremental improvements to existing products, infrastructure, and operations
A “first” – never been done before. Needs external help and adviceA familiar, regular requirement that draws on in-house experience 
Very aggressive timescales and deadlines. Speed is of the essenceMore flexible timescales.  
Highly complex – with processes and dependencies outside the scope of existing operational set-upFamiliar operational processes using the existing functional set-up
Large scale – affecting every area of the businessFunctionally focussed with clearly defined scope
A volatile operating environment with high levels of risk and uncertaintyPossible to forecast and predict the impact of the defined activity with reasonable accuracy
High visibility – with stakeholders and the publicVisibility mainly within the business 
Relatively few programs running concurrently in the businessLarge volume running at any given time

The management structure for successful execution
Requires multi-disciplined special “task force” drawing on internal and external expertise Managed internally, via existing functional organisation

Why traditional function management won’t work for business-critical programs

Defining whether your program is business-critical or business-as-usual is vital because they require fundamentally different management approaches.

Many business leaders believe they can successfully execute business-critical programs using their existing functional organisation. And they do try.

In my experience, this is the biggest reason for the 70% failure rate in business-critical program execution.

The traditional “functional” organisation was established over one hundred years ago by Henry Ford and General Motors to create order and predictability in car manufacturing by splitting work into functional specialisms.

Generally, the functional structure still works well today for business-as-usual. Their own department’s performance drives functional managers. Departmental needs always dominate when determining priorities, workloads, and resource allocation. 

Yet, with business-critical programs, the operating environment is far from predictable. In the “Death Zone”, you’re dealing with uncertain, unscheduled events. The future success of the whole company may depend on the successful execution of these programs. 

The requirement for execution speed across functions demands a core multi-disciplined task force with all the people and resources aligned to deliver a successful outcome. 

Shorter lines of communication are essential, with clear lines of responsibility and accountability. In a functional organisation, these are usually distorted, and decision-making is cumbersome.

In the business-critical “Death Zone”, you need expert help to succeed 

When climbing Everest, you trust your expedition leader to have relevant experience. Experience of climbing Snowdon in North Wales would not count in the more challenging conditions at 8000m and above.

Similarly, business-critical programs need to be led by people familiar with operating in a volatile and constantly changing environment.

Too often, leading a business-critical program is given to the “Most Affected Director” – someone whose department is impacted most. They may be great at their day job. But they don’t usually have enough control or experience to deliver success across the organisation.Business-critical programs need to be led by a dedicated Program Director accountable for all the levers that make the program work – with the designated authority to manage the time and resources for its overall success.

These include:

  • A dedicated team reporting directly to the Program Director, who sets workload priorities 
  • Ownership of program reporting to stakeholders and from workstreams
  • Management of outsourced suppliers and other elements vital to the program
  • Budget allocation and control of the people

Looking at this in a practical context…

In a functional structure, the functional managers and departmental heads have the power. The program manager is essentially a coordinator with relatively little influence over events.

Functional managers who make decisions on, for example, employee workload priorities will always default to the departmental agenda. When push comes to shove, the tasks employees must undertake for business-critical programs inevitably take second place. 

This adversely affects the speed of interaction required between workstreams on business-critical programs. And the Program Manager is virtually powerless to intervene.

Ultimately, resolving issues vital to the organisation’s future will be severely compromised.

I recently met with the CTO of a global telco which has been running business-critical programs for over thirty years. 

He acknowledged that in his experience, “large, complicated cross-functional programs only work if a dedicated task force executes them.  They usually come in on the button. The nature of programs of this type cannot be served by a functional departmental-led approach.”

By contrast, “cross-company programs run through functional units rarely succeed. We just can’t do them. The management and communication overheads are huge. More often than not, these programs are late and overspent and never turn out quite the way we intended.”

Guiding your business in the Death Zone

Once you’ve identified a program as business-critical, unless you’re fortunate enough to have a superstar waiting in the wings, you’ll need external guidance to pilot you through the business equivalent of the Death Zone.

Mentor’s background and track record have been built on operating in the business-critical zone. It’s where we’ve successfully helped more than 130 organisations execute business-critical programs over the last three decades.

If you’d like to discuss any aspect of your program execution challenges, email me directly, and we’ll set something up to help you get your business on a winning path.

About the author

David Hilliard is Chief Executive Officer of Mentor Europe – Business-Critical program execution experts.