Program execution: the difference between ‘knowing’ and actually ‘doing’

Theory only get’s you so far – you need to practice what you preach

“It won’t happen to me. That sort of thing only happens to other people.” How many times have you heard someone say these famous last words?

Take smoking for example. People do it, even though they know the risks. Of course, there are all sorts of other psychological elements at play here.

So what about activities where people don’t know the risks? What happens then?

When it comes to program execution, naïveté and lack of awareness is much more common than you might think. Yet that doesn’t stop organisations pressing ahead in any case.

This is the reason why so many programs fail.

When executing a program, is it enough to rely on formal methodologies, industry reports or company publications? After all, this is an era with unprecedented access to all sorts of information. So in theory, teams should be able to get all the ‘tick-lists’ they need from Google.

And here we hit the heart of the problem. “In theory” is all very well. But it’s the “in practice” that counts.

What’s more, knowing the elements that make up “in practice” is something that only comes with knowledge, experience, but – more importantly – know-how only comes from rolling-sleeves-up and getting stuck in.

That’s where you gain the insight that adds value, steers programs in the right direction, and recognises where the bottlenecks are and how to crack them wide open. No nonsense, no fluffy jargon, no tinkering around the edges. Just straight talking – and action.

When it comes to program management, you only learn from success.

Thomas Edison’s quote, “I’ve not failed, I’ve just found 10,000 ways which won’t work”, highlights lessons that can be learnt from failure. But sometimes you need to know what to do – rather than just what not to do.

Ask most program managers what’s important for successful program delivery, execution or rescue. Their first answer is likely to include budget and skilled resources.

However, there are plenty of other moving parts – all of which need to move in harmony. Time, organisational attitudes to change and transformation, culture, stakeholder attitudes, to name a few.


No such thing as a standard program

It’s always better to think twice before doing something that isn’t ‘Business-As-Usual’.

Because program management skills are not in the DNA of everyone, you can’t just pick it up and run with it.

Of course, it’s true that you only learn through practice. However, we’re not talking about driving lessons or learning to play the trumpet. We’re talking highly complex multi-million pound programs, with careers and brand reputations on the line.

It has to be ‘practice’ that is highly relevant.

With this much at stake, you can’t afford to take the risk with a team that doesn’t know its stuff. Because you might only discover this when it’s too late.

That’s why it’s perfectly fine to ask for pragmatic help at the start of a business-critical program, to identify and sidestep serious problems before they occur. This requires input from specialists who have already gained extensive experience of how to apply their knowledge and expertise to ‘relevant’ real-life execution problems. Not talkers who just stand back, hand over a report with dry recommendations, and move onto the next program.

Every situation is unique and it’s dangerous to be prescriptive in figuring out solutions. But one thing is clear.

Understanding what the big judgement-calls are – and getting them right – gives every business-critical program the best possible start in life.

The truth is there is no magic pill in execution. But there is really good news.

There are very smart ways to stay away from blind-alleys just about every company effortlessly goes down.