Want successful change? Define failure!

‘No one is using the system’

‘This is not working’

‘Everyone is facing issues’

‘This is not working’

‘We need to go back to the drawing board’

I am sure all of you have heard these statements before – typically after the euphoria of a new technology, solution, process settles down and it all starts to move towards the dreaded BAU !! Around this stage, you suddenly start getting (premature) judgements on your months worth of work. More often than not, someone in an influential position declares that ‘this just has not worked’.  Ever wondered why this almost always happens? Here is the answer – ‘We do not spend anytime defining what Failure looks like’

Projects often spend considerable time defining ‘what good looks like’. Everyone (in the project team) is keen to declare success and is even more keen to know how will success look like. While there is nothing wrong in that, here is an unintended consequence –‘Everything that does not look like success is failure!’

This obsession with ‘what good looks like’ creates an illusion of everything else being bad. We enter into a binary world where projects are either success or failure but nothing in-between. I doubt if the world that we live in is so binary. I think there are different degrees of success ( currently termed as failure) as well as failure and it is important that we acknowledge that.  As far as I am concerned, most of the so called failures are not failures at all. Those are just undefined stages of success. This is not to say that there are no absolute failures but those tend to be much less common.

While defining ‘good’ or ‘success’ we usually miss 2 key aspects

  • Journey – Typically projects define ‘what good looks like’ at the destination and the destination could typically be months and in some cases years away. I must clarity that I am not talking about project planning or execution. I am talking about success after the go-live. I am talking about change, adoption and ultimately business benefits. These are typically defined in terms of the destination which is the ‘BAU’. Most of the projects, do not define what success will look like on the journey to BAU. How will things look like 3 months from Go-Live and then how will things look like 6 months from Go-Live and so on..  This makes destination our only reference point and it usually results in the feeling of defeat, despair and desperation!
  • Context – For me success or failure is usually is a function of context. Something that is viewed as a success in one environment might be a out right failure in another. The second issue with the practice of ‘what good looks like’ is that it is usually without the context or is meant only for a single context. For defining success, I would love to see a scenario analysis. We all know the risks and sure we all have plans to manage risk . What we don’t have is – if this risk materialises how does our definition of ‘good’ changes?  I am sure all of you will agree that if we have defined our success without context, we will always view it as a failure if the context changes. Context definitely impacts outputs so it should impact expectations too!

If you want successful change then here is how I suggest you define ‘what good looks like’

  • Have multiple definitions of ‘good’ for different checkpoints after go-live
  • Have multiple definitions of ‘good’ for different scenarios based on your risk register

Your ‘what good looks like’ definition should help you answer this one question – ‘Am I close to where I would be given the circumstances?’. If you are close, then it is not a failure. It is just taking you one step closer to success!


Random thoughts on Change Management

For long I am trying to summarise what I have learned about change management in past few years.. So here are few things to begin with

  • The thing about technology adoption is to take technology out of it to being with.
  • You get people to change and adopt by making the change work for them. People should not get the feeling that change is more important than them
  • During a conflict you should always be on the side of people and not the change.
  • During a change we cannot assume that people do not want to change. That creates an adversarial system i.e. us vs them.
  • The way to work with change is to provide people with a way to channel their objections. If objections to the change are not reaching you then you got no chance of addressing them.
  • Just as in customer experience, there isn’t a single journey that all change recipients take. Flexibility is key to successful change management
  • Change is never about technology. It is about behaviour, rituals and ultimately about culture.. If you fix culture then technology adoption should take care of itself..

Change is a relay..

image courtsey -  carwad.net

image courtsey – carwad.net

Change is a relay. It is.

If you ask me, change is not a sprint. It cannot be a sprint. Sustainable change can rarely be executed at breakneck speed and it rarely is a linear process.

Change can neither be a marathon. Change is not a linear process and it is not just about endurance. Not to forget that change is not a solitary game!

A sprint is a single person’s test for agility; A marathon is a single person’s test for endurance; A relay is however a team’s test for co-ordination, speed, endurance and above all consistency!

Change for me is a relay. Change is a non-liner process consisting a multiple virtuous cycles. With each cycle, you move closer to the goal. With each cycle, Leaders change, approach might be fine-tuned; you know that you are moving one step closer to the ultimate goal.

What I want to do using the relay analogy is to highlight 2 key (and often overlooked) aspects of change

  • Non-linear execution and the existing of virtuous cycles
  • Constantly evolving and interchanging leadership roles

One of the biggest mistakes in change management projects that they are managed using traditional project/ program management approach which assumes that there are series of sequential events that need to happen in order to reach a final goal at the end of the journey. In my experience change rarely takes place in this fashion. Successful change is usually executed in a treasure hunt/ puzzle manner where you only have visibility of next few steps and you have to continuously improvise, re-imagine and push on while doing everything.

The other hangover of traditional project execution is the belief that same/ similar project structure, leadership is good for entire change life cycle. It isn’t! Take any change management approach and you will find that each stage requires unique skill-sets and different style of leadership to harness those skill-sets. It is unfair to expect same set of people or leaders to have all those skill sets. Successful change execution requires fluid concept of team structure and emergent, interchanging leadership.

Most of the change management projects that I have come across are typically technology enabled or technology led. Teams managing these projects need to unlearn years of traditional project management techniques and embrace the flexibility needed to deliver successful change

Benefits not solutions !!

There seems to be a popular belief – ‘Aim of every project is to deliver solutions’. This is the reason project managers are generally over the moon if the ‘Go-live’ is smooth. There are usually big parties post go-live to celebrate the great work done by the project team. The go-live dates are what the project managers live and die by. The reason being that on go-live date ‘the solution’ gets delivered and world is then a happy place. Here is what usually happens after the euphoria of the go-live is over

  • Users slowly stop using the solution
  • A relook at the solution vindicates the project team as there are no issues with the solution
  • Still no one can figure out why the solution is not being adopted by users
  • No one is sure who is responsible for users not adopting the solution
  • Slowly the ROI equation starts looking wrong.
  • While everyone waits for the ROI, business moves on and the solution starts getting outdated
  • A new project is commissioned to implement a new solution

If you have ever been involved in any sort of transformation exercise, I am sure you have been through this cycle. Have you ever wondered why this keeps happening? Let me give you a clue – Our belief about what a project should deliver is misplaced.

Yes, a project is designed to deliver a solution but that is not why a project exists. A project always starts with a business case which invariably talks about benefits and ROI. That should be a big pointer towards why every project exists. The sole purpose of every project is to deliver benefits. You deliver solutions to eventually deliver benefits. A solution that is not going to be used is as good as useless. It is not good enough to deliver just solutions. The go-live parties are just premature celeration of success which might never be achieved. It is as good a sprinter celebrating at the starting line. We need to reach the finishing line or atleast close (if you are Usain Bolt) to start celebrating. That finish line is when we actually start delivering benefits.

Change Management is that bridge which takes a project from solutions to benefits and a bridge that most project manager forget to build. The popular belief that I laid out at the start of this post is the reason why. If you believe you are working towards delivering solutions, you are never going to bother much about delivering benefits. You will always see that as someone else’s problem. The funny thing is that ‘someone else’ just does not exist and it results in the post-delivery scenario that we just discussed

As I said earlier, it is not sufficient to deliver solutions, your solutions have to deliver benefits. Change Management will help your users actually utilise your solutions and get the benefits which you were looking to deliver. The choice is yours. You can choose to deliver solutions or move up the value chain and deliver benefits. I know what I would do !

NBA 3 point revolution and Change Management …

Before you can make sense of this article, you need to read the inspiration for this article – https://www.wsj.com/articles/the-first-shots-of-the-nbas-3-point-revolution-1523542076


The WSJ explores the reasons behind the recent emergence of move to a 3 point attempts and the reasons why the phenomenon did not happen earlier. That is where my change management angle comes into it.

 “It took decades for the NBA to realize it should be taking more of the shots that are literally worth one more point. But once NBA teams began to embrace 3-pointers, the game changed forever. They slowly migrated away from the basket and behind the 3-point line as the percentage of field-goal attempts that were 3-pointers increased almost every season. And then they stopped taking more 3-pointers.”

In almost all change situations, it usually takes time for the stakeholders to feel the need for change. Even after the need is felt, things have a tendency to go back to status quo.

“The idea that 3 points is 1.5 more times than 2 sounds simple, but it took a lot of time,” said Golden State president of basketball operations Bob Myers. “Change is not always rapid. It’s sometimes slow.”

Most of the times, on the face of it the rational for change is simple and straightforward. Most of the times, it is not that simple and straightforward to the change recipients.

“Back then,” said Rockets forward Ryan Anderson, who also played for those Magic teams, “it felt like we were taking more threes than we are now because it was abnormal.”

When you are going through the change, it feels strange and unnatural. It feels like more efforts because the change is alien to your environment

“There are analytical reasons to do it, but then I’m not sure many thought it was possible or prudent,” Myers said. NBA teams also had to fight biases that persisted in a league that frequently dismissed 3-pointers with a four-letter word: soft”

There have to logical reasons for going through the change but change recipients have to believe that the change is feasible. You don’t just need early adopters, you need successful early adopters. In absence of that, you will neither be able to get rid of the bias and nor get the behaviour change. 

Executive sponsorship vs grass-root leadership …

Which one you think matters most in context of change initiatives? This is where I am – Executive sponsorship is hygiene! it is essential but not sufficient.. Without grass-root leadership, you can not execute successful change..

I am aware that I am questioning many established beliefs in change/ project management models but I am convinced that grass-root leadership matters more than executive sponsorship. Here are my reasons

  • A typical executive sponsor, oversees multiple initiatives while managing the BAU activities
  • As an executive sponsor, change recipients expect you to say the right things and do the right things. This means that many a times what you are saying/ doing is viewed with a certain amount of scepticism. In short, your words/actions are discounted before they really reach the audience
  • You can only do the talk and may be little bit of the walk. You are away and most of the times distant from the real recipients of change. If you are typical of an executive sponsor, you are not aware of all the minor details that can actually dictate the success or failure of an initiative
  • With all the right intentions in your mind, you can’t still be a total advocate for the change recipients on the ground. You have other pressures which might distract you from advocacy of change recipients.
  • Many a times as an executive sponsor, you are more interested in seeing the change work and you push people towards success of the change. It should be the other way round. Change should work for people and not the other way round.
  • Finally you have vested interested; unless you are one of those authentic leaders you will always be part of ‘them’ and never part of ‘us’

Lets look at the grass-root leadership

  • Unless it is explicitly driven by project, grass-root leadership has better chance of coming across as authentic as there are usually no vested interests
  • Grass-root leaders are usually change recipients so they do feel the pain and are in the best position to show empathy
  • For very self-fish reasons, grass-root leaders tend to be the best at fighting the battles for the change recipients
  • Grass-root leaders usually have a focus on the specific things that are being changed and are aware of the small things that can make big impact
  • Grass-root leaders can lead by example without having the burden of scepticism

I am not saying that we do away with executive sponsorship, I still think it matters. It is symbolic and tells the recipients that these are the things that matter. I am saying that it is not enough. That will not take you to the end goal. The end goal I assume is the change in behaviours and culture leading to business benefits. To achieve that, you need authentic grass-root leadership that can drive the recipients from within. In my mind, the role of executive sponsors is to cultivate this leadership while continuing the symbolic things. I think the role of an executive sponsor need to be re-examined in the context of what matters and what will make the most impact on the final goal !! – change in behaviours and culture resulting in business benefits