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

Running a business transformation – 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. Surely, it’s simple?

But what about composing music?

Now that’s when people can really get disheartened – when they finally appreciate they can’t actually write a few bars.

Treble Clef? Base Clef? What in heaven’s name do they mean? And as for semi breves, minims, crotchets and quavers? Exactly.  The musical notation system means very little if you don’t know what to do with it – how to craft it.

Suddenly, reality strikes. People grasp how tough it is. It takes much more theory, skill and knowledge than they imagined. Converting horrible noises into enchanting melodies is a craft without stunts.


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

But knowing what to do is not enough. I “know” there are two major climbing routes to the summit of Mount Everest but that doesn’t mean I could tackle either of them.

Actually, I wouldn’t attempt either. I don’t have the background, skills or experience to have any chance of confronting a challenge like that.

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

But it wasn’t a perfect strategy if it wasn’t implemented, was it?

The business landscape is littered with expensive strategies that failed in the execution phase.

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 yet more chaos on another program – either 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 instead 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 “can do” culture – where blind compliance is treasured.

Not to mention the predictable harassment and intimidation that follows.

It doesn’t make sense to blame program failure on one or two individuals. It doesn’t matter how talented they are. One or two ‘rock stars’ up against a weak program governance system is a really bad bet.

A feeble and over-simplistic company execution model is usually to blame for major program delays.

Impossible challenges, naïve target dates and nonsensical organisation structures – and not enough experience, skills or resources – will brush aside even the best program managers.

Putting program executives in unwinnable positions has destroyed many careers.

A famous comedian used to sing a song that still makes me chuckle. It’s about a man who went to the railway each day to sit on the tracks.

Even though he knew what time the trains were coming, he didn’t use his unique knowledge and insights to get out of the way.

Tragically, he got killed.

Any senior manager who has previously been accountable for driving a tricky program (not just involved) knows when the trains are coming too – but most think that “this time”, it will be different. The train won’t run them over – but it may run over someone else.


Executing transformation programs is also 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 sensible 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 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.

The answer is obvious – but it’s exceptional 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 seem to naively believe their organisations are completely free of 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.


Any breakthrough in science is likely to come from outside “the system”. Insiders are thoroughly familiar with the developed knowledge inside the boundaries of a given science. New knowledge must usually come from the outside.

Relying on too many insiders on complex programs always leads to what can only be described as “execution incest” – due to skill and experience shortfalls.

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

A question that stops many top managers in their tracks is this: how many people from your business would you truthfully hire, if you were building a new business venture for yourself?

That’s right!