Skim it in the “Death Zone” at your peril

In this article, Mentor CEO David Hilliard talks about the perils of skimming it in the execution of business-critical programs.

I had a call from a senior executive I had known for many years. He was leaving his current role to head up a transformation program in another business.

He had been a key member of the management team responsible for a major transformation program that had become a bit of a joke in the industry.

Massive delays, overspending and fractious strategic supplier relationships are much more common than you might imagine.  

Here’s what he said:

“David, I got in touch after reading your last blog. 

Your analogy – where you compared running hugely complex business-critical programs to operating in the “Death Zone” above 8000m- struck home.  From the start, we struggled with our “Death Zone” program, which we desperately needed to get right to transform the business. Yet, four years later, we are nowhere close, and the program is still thrashing.

We were hopelessly late on key deliveries throughout – and the budgets had effectively gone out of the window in the first year. Our key suppliers were a massive disappointment, and even with several program resets, they regularly failed to deliver critical dependencies.  Our people frequently found themselves torn between doing their day jobs and wanting to be part of a “prestigious” business-critical program. They became demoralised, and, ultimately, the program had such a bad reputation that nobody wanted to work on it. 

The worst part was that I could never get under the skin of what was happening. It felt like I was dealing with the symptoms of problems rather than the root causes! So, it was frustratingly hard to sort things out and provide the help and support needed to deliver a successful outcome. 

Business transformation is a vital part of my new role; this time, I want to get things right from the outset. 

Can you give me some pointers on what I should do to deliver success?”

Here’s a summary of the advice I gave him:

In the “Death Zone”, you need a guide to survive and succeed

Recognising you’re in the “Death Zone” is a good start! It’s a hostile, unpredictable world where anything can happen. You need to be prepared. And you’ll need help.

In the business equivalent of the “Death Zone”, the scale and complexity of business-critical transformation programs require special treatment, in contrast to “business as usual” activities. 

Not many of your team will have previously played a leadership role in a program of this type, and they are likely to be operating outside their circle of competence.

There’s no push-button solution. And you won’t be able to do this yourselves.

As Charlie Munger famously wrote: “The company that needs specialist advice – and hasn’t bought it – is already paying for it.”

Successful execution of business-critical programs requires expert help from people with relevant experience and expertise to guide you along the way.

The six critical elements that drive business-critical program success

In the last 30 years, Mentor has successfully executed over 130 business-critical programs. Many of these have been “rescues” – getting programs back on track.

In every case, we found that failure had been “baked-in” from the start, and we’ve had to reconstruct the program from the top down. 

Many critical elements that drive successful program execution were missing or had been skimmed over. 

The fact is, you can’t skim it.

Let’s look at six critical elements drawn from our experiences to show you what I mean.

1. True alignment – or just wishful thinking

To succeed with a business-critical program, you need alignment throughout the organisation’s goals, objectives, and strategy.

In our experience, alignment can be an illusion. In fact, many companies are almost insulted if the subject comes up. “Of course, we’re aligned.”

Assumptions that people are behind you may not be real. They may even be based on short informal meetings. People may say they’re fully behind you, but their actions and behaviour suggest otherwise. So, you will need a solid way to test how well-aligned your people are. And we have the capability to do this.

2. When is a plan not a plan?

I’ve been asked to review many “plans”. Yet, in almost every case, my response is the same:

“I can’t review your plan because you don’t have one!”

That’s because many of the plans I’m sent are not plans at all. Sometimes they are little more than lists on a spreadsheet disconnected from reality.

Estimated timescales are typically plucked from the air, with little consultation or buy-in from those responsible for execution and delivery. 

They’re built on the hope that nothing will go wrong and everything will proceed perfectly. Many have no contingency to cater for the unforeseeable events that can jeopardise any program. 

The cornerstone of every business-critical program is a Baseline. This governs every aspect of the program; without one, no “forecast completion date” is credible. 

Without an agreed Baseline, there can be no control. It provides the one version of the truth against which everything is managed. 

Baselines prevent you from cutting corners, which can be fatal in the “Death Zone”. But they allow flexibility and creativity to solve problems and deliver better outcomes.

3. Clear organisational accountability or a recipe for chaos?

As with expedition leaders in the “Death Zone”, business-critical program leaders need complete control and the ability to organise and inspire their teams to succeed.

In our experience, Program Directors cannot lead effectively if they do not control the levers necessary for successful delivery. This is mainly because companies routinely fudge accountabilities between the functional organisation and the program organisation.  In truth, a program manager in a functional organisation is a coordinator with relatively little power.

With so many businesses organised along functional “business as usual” lines, conflict often arises between functional directors and the program director over people and resource allocation—no prizes for guessing who wins this one.

Those involved in the program delivery can find themselves torn between performing their functional “day jobs” – as demanded by their line manager and delivering for the business-critical program director.

Some program organisations look as if they have been put together by a chimpanzee throwing darts at a wall. And they perform that way. For a program to succeed, it should be led by a Program Director with a customised team with clear lines of reporting and incentives linked to program success.

For more information on program delivery, check our our program delivery- taking the effective approach blog.

4. Are you managing your suppliers? Or are they managing you?

Supplier plans and deliverables may well be documented in contracts and agreements. But our experience is that Supplier Plans are not well integrated into Baselines – which always results in vague accountabilities, chaotic interdependency management and “difficult to measure” progress. 

There may be good personal relationships between the various people involved, but you’ve got one shot at making your program work, and the working relationships must be formalised within the program governance structure.

Supplier plans should be completely visible and workstreams managed with their associated plans fully integrated with your own. No blind spots.

5. Accountable dependencies – or next month’s excuse list?

Dependencies are the Achilles’ heel of every business-critical program – one of the main causes of program chaos. No program runs in isolation, and dependencies are inevitable. Every complex program plan relies on inputs and contributions from other programs and external suppliers. 

Yet there’s often a casual attitude to late or non-delivery of dependencies. This is caused by a lack of discipline and rigour in how dependencies are viewed and managed.  If gaps and omissions occur, these can have a catastrophic impact on the rest of the program. And often do.

Proactive management of dependencies forces accountability to where it belongs. It clarifies who owns them and how they are reported. A proper management system should support this with formal documentation, agreed upon by all parties, that captures every dependency.

6. An inclusive culture – or are people afraid to say what they think?

You’ll be managing many people from different disciplines and backgrounds. Marketing people think and act differently from technical engineers. Customer service teams don’t behave in the same way as Finance teams.

Those working in supplier organisations will be influenced by their company culture and values.

Yet we often discover that program leaders treat everyone as one uniform group. 

The motivation, feelings and attitudes of the people involved are critical to program success. People need to feel they can contribute without fear or ridicule.

We guide our clients to find common ground to which everyone involved in the program can relate. The messages may be the same, but the tone and language may vary depending on the audience.

This must be considered when building a culture focused on preventing and resolving problems that everyone can feel part of – promoting clarity, positive relationships, and cohesion.

The beast can be tamed.

So, recognise that you’re dealing with something unique that demands special measures. 

These transformation programs are beasts to run. We’re not saying it will be easy. 

But they can be tamed. 

Applying these fundamentals will help you to deliver success without unnecessary drama. We’ve got over 130 examples to prove this.

You’ll take your people with you, hit your commercial targets, achieve your business goals and avoid the personal toll and stress associated with failure.

But you will need help. Operating in the “Death Zone” without an experienced guide will cost you financially and personally.

Managing what goes on in the “Death Zone” is what we do. It’s where Mentor’s strength lies. So please don’t leave it until problems arise. As a veteran of many business-critical program “rescues”, you can trust me when I say it’s far more expensive and difficult to rescue a program that’s gone off the rails than it is to plan it properly from the outset.

Talk to any of our “rescue” clients. They’ll tell you they wish they’d brought in external help much earlier. 

If you’d like to talk to any of our clients or directly with me, email me, and I’ll set something up.

If you’re interested in learning more about transformation programs, check out our getting it right on digital transformation blog now.

About the author

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