Running a transformation program – when to get a second opinion?

Most people think they “know” about music

They can hum a tune and even dance a bit.  After all, music is only twelve notes.

But what about composing music? Surely, it’s simple?

That’s when people can really get depressed – when they finally grasp that they can’t write anything. Not even a few bars.

Treble Clef? Base Clef? What on earth do they mean? And as for semi-brieves, minims, crotchets and quavers?


The music notation system means nothing if you don’t know what to do with it.

Suddenly, reality strikes. People grasp how tough it is. Converting horrible noises into enchanting melodies is a craft without stunts.

It takes much more theory, skill, experience and knowledge than anyone could ever have imagined.


Many companies think they “know” how to run a business transformation program

 But “knowing” what to do is not enough.

There are two major climbing routes to the summit of Mount Everest but, without tons of experience, would anyone dare try?

Most people wouldn’t because they don’t have the background or skills to have any chance of success in tackling a challenge like that.

Businesses put enormous investments into crafting the “perfect” strategy and then screw it up with slapdash execution.

But it isn’t a perfect strategy if it can’t be implemented, is it?

The reasons business-critical programs crash have remained constant since the time of the Pharaohs. They are depressingly consistent.

At one end of the scale, explanations range from vague objectives; fantasy plans and hopeless control systems. At the other – truant sponsorship; “karaoke” program management; under-resourced teams and atrocious communication.


The same problems are repeated year after year

Worse, many of the same Muppets do it again and again.

These rogues are “well-known” in most companies. But remain ‘free’ to cause even more chaos on another program – in the same company or elsewhere.

If you’ve been in business for a while, you’re sure to know one or two of these BS merchants already.

But, perhaps it’s wrong to criticise them too much.

Instead, point the finger at the executives who appointed them.

Selection clangers are always connected to how top management sets out its stall to run complex transformation programs

It’s hard for any home-grown executive to express doubts about a program’s chances of success in a culture where blind compliance is cherished – the so-called “can do” culture.

It never makes sense to blame a program failure on one or two individuals. It really doesn’t matter how talented they are. One or two ‘rock stars’ stacked up against a shabby program governance system is a really bad bet.


An over-simplistic execution model is usually to blame for major program delays

Impossible challenges, naïve target dates and nonsensical organisation structures will brush even the best program managers aside.

Placing capable program executives in unwinnable positions like this has destroyed many careers.

Successfully executing transformation programs is a craft without stunts.

There is no formula that guarantees success – no silver bullets, no shortcuts.

In most cases, the Board crawls all over a strategy before approving it. But execution plans – how the strategy will actually be delivered – are casually waved through without anything like the same level of review intensity.

When considering a business transformation program, the Board must ask hard questions about “capability” before work gets underway.

Why? Because good ideas change nothing.

Before approving a strategy, it’s essential to invest time and effort in making sure the business has the right organisation, convincing plans, capable program leadership and enough of the right skills and resources to get the job done.

This is the right time to do it.  There’s little point in waiting for an expensive and time-consuming ‘rescue’ situation to develop.


A second opinion from specialists familiar with the terrain always makes sense

While the answer is obvious – it’s rare to see these simple measures in place.

It doesn’t sit well with tough cultures that thrive on turf battles and believe “they can do anything.”

It’s amazing how many top managers naively believe their organisations are completely free from turf battles and petty politics.

Why is there so much reluctance to bring specialists in to help? Businesses do this routinely in many other functional areas.

But, on business transformation programs, most companies have a clear-cut preference for “insiders.”

It’s understandable – but not smart.

Relying on too many insiders always leads to “execution incest.” Skill and experience shortfalls just about guarantees people will fall back on the same old threadbare axioms, over and over again.

Scientific breakthroughs nearly always come from outside “the system”.  Why? Because insiders are so familiar with the developed knowledge inside the boundaries of a given science.

For this reason, new knowledge usually comes from the outside.

Outside help isn’t a cure-all, but it does provide an independent view. It helps to nip pointless trouble in the bud and get decisive action moving faster.

A fundamental question that stops many top managers in their tracks is this.

Truthfully, how many people from your business would you hire, if you were building a new business venture for yourself?

That’s right! You probably wouldn’t choose many.