Program delivery: is prevention really always better than the cure?
Why companies don’t hire consultants when they need them
Does this phrase sound familiar? ‘Don’t worry, everything’s going to be fine – we ought to be able to handle this one easily’.
How about this one? ‘That won’t happen to me’.
Of course, you have.
This is human nature at work – choosing optimism over pessimism. Seeing the glass half-full rather than half-empty. Looking on the bright side of life.
When you apply this approach to business-critical strategy execution programs, you can expect the much-clichéd detritus to hit the fan.
Let me explain.
Here’s a typical situation. A company manager is asked to deliver a major program, within ‘Business-As-Usual’ constraints. Internal sentiment is that past successes in one area can effortlessly be transferred into program execution.
If alarm bells aren’t ringing yet, they should be.
Reputational damage has just got one step closer.
Warning sign 1: Companies think they don’t have a problem
The manager might be perfectly competent in their present role. In fact, the reason they’ve been chosen to run the program is because of the ability they’ve shown so far. They’ve also been given a few part-time team members. If they’re lucky they’ll get a budget for some extra resources.
With no previous experience to call upon, this is a high-risk approach. To put it bluntly, you don’t pick up deep strategy execution knowledge from reading a few books or blogs. You have to have led these types of programs before – from start to finish.
Warning sign 2: No clear decision-maker
When an internal employee is seconded, they must have experience of managing major programs. Along with the vision and execution framework to adapt a strategy when unexpected factors threaten to blow the whole thing off course. Otherwise you’re setting them up for failure.
They need to be given authority to tell others what needs to be done. Perhaps more importantly, they have to be seen to have the authority by others, including those in more senior roles. Easier said than done for someone who’s got to carry on working with their colleagues once a program is completed.
Warning sign 3: Political pressure
Business-critical programs always attract major scrutiny – at least initially. Everyone wants to get in on the act. In the face of this pressure – internal and external – teams often feel compelled to go it alone to prove their capability and worth.
Hiring external consultants may be seen as a weakness, instead of an ability to recognise when a proven blueprint is needed and specialist resources are required. Few people want to recognise that major transformation programs come around roughly every five years or so and experience of successfully running them is not an everyday occurrence.
Warning sign 4: Budget
When analysing the cost of a business-critical program, there needs to be more thought given to how costs could escalate in a flash if things go wrong.
There may be a perception that specialist strategy execution consultants are expensive. However, that’s nothing compared to the true cost of failure when executing a transformation program. Failure costs are usually well-hidden or dressed up as a ‘once-in-a-lifetime-event’ that could never happen again.
Red Adair once said “If you think hiring a professional to do the job is expensive, wait until you hire an amateur.”
Warning sign 5: Fear of losing control
It’s natural to be cautious of ‘hired help’ coming on board.
However, seasoned execution professionals, hired on a project basis, understand how to integrate with existing teams and how to complement and strengthen internal teams.
History repeating itself.
The evidence is stark, yet it doesn’t seem to make a difference – two-thirds of transformation programs fail. We’re talking about multi-million-pound failures here, with reputations and companies’ futures on the line.
What’s more, it’s the same pattern repeated over and over. It’s been that way since the time of the Pharaohs – probably longer.
The fact that a company is in a position to undertake a massive business-critical program is fantastic. But problems always arise when the company decides to ‘time-slice’ existing staff’s efforts and spread them too thinly across a complex program – and everything else they do. It also shifts focus away from what made the business successful in the first place.
External execution consultants are ideally placed to offer independent help and support; they have no axe to grind. Their future is not in your business. They don’t want your job.
However, many companies turn their back on this option until a program starts to struggle and salvage is the only choice.
With that in mind, here’s another familiar phrase that every program should incorporate: ‘Prevention is better than cure.’
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