During my career, I’ve realised that some of us like to plan in meticulous detail and some of us go with the flow and plan as we move along. There is nothing wrong with either approach, both have their benefits. And if you’re lucky enough to resist falling into either bracket, you can get a good mix of both and have what I call ‘structured flexibility’.
In a work setting, it’s important to have structure yet be sufficiently flexible to deliver change and improvement successfully. We often see organisations create their own challenges because they haven’t allowed time or space to think things through or take an organisation-wide approach to planning. Is this because the ‘day job’ takes over, one wonders?
In a personal setting, planning is also just as important. For example, a weekend away would usually involve choosing a location, checking what the weather will be like, booking a hotel, agreeing the route, booking a restaurant and so on, all things we know we need to do in our heads, and we subconsciously plan for while managing and multi-tasking the other things going on in our lives.
So why is it so difficult in a work setting to plan change and improvement projects?
My experience and insights suggest that for smaller projects, an Agile delivery method works well, but when it comes to more complex, larger projects, an Agile approach makes it much harder to deliver successful outcomes. Is this because larger projects require a different way of thinking? It’s certain that larger projects most definitely require structured governance, processes and people with skills and experience to deliver. Few (if any) projects run smoothly but getting the right delivery approach is crucial in helping to overcome challenges when they come along (and they will).
The debate between allowing a free rein and having structure is thought-provoking in itself. My view is that a good mix of the two is what enables people to thrive and allows change and improvement to continually evolve in any organisation. When delivering change and improvement projects, there are some key considerations:
1. Doing the right thing
Lots of organisations throw themselves headlong into change without stepping back and asking themselves: what’s the problem we are trying to solve, what do we need to do to solve it, and what’s the outcome we want?
Projects are often born from just an inspiring idea and it’s important to be creative, but sometimes little thought is given to ‘doing the right thing’. Having ‘structured flexibility’ considers the change delivery approach, meaning that the best and most appropriate way forward can be defined and agreed. It allows the scope and complexity of a project to be designed and it also considers other delivery approaches before getting into the details of the delivery itself.
2. The cultural approach
Organisational culture is a key component of successful change; it enables an organisation to evolve, but there’s no ‘one size fits all’ when delivering change. It’s not just about planning and the technical side of things, it’s also about a way of thinking, predicting and acting.
Sometimes ‘structure’ can be seen as a barrier to moving things forward and stifling creativity, but ‘structured flexibility’ allows people to develop and learn new skills while testing themselves. It provides assurance that things are being done in the right way by people who can balance agility against the need to deliver the best outcomes, people who can learn from lessons without fear of failure.
Structured flexibility ensures that the benefits are identified, measured and realised. It allows costs to be controlled and it ensures that risks and problems are being dealt with effectively, while exploiting opportunities when they come along. Above all, the right cultural approach ensures the ownership of a project’s deliverables by people who actually care about what’s being delivered.
3. Appreciation of risk
As the saying goes, “If you don’t invest in risk management, it doesn’t matter what business you’re in, it’s a risky business.” Often in change projects without structure, risk is overlooked.
My opinion is that risk is often misunderstood within projects; sometimes the approach is to plough ahead without really considering risk, particularly with Agile projects. Conversely, some structured projects do consider risk, but there is a tendency to think lots of risks are a good thing and that this goes some way towards justifying the value of a project. Is this a cultural issue?
Structured flexibility allows risk to treated in a manageable way. It enables the focus to be on what’s important and it lets project teams and organisations plan for things that might go wrong and identify what needs to be done to keep things on track. Preparing for risk is a key element in any project delivery method, but not everyone appreciates risk and some see it as a barrier when in fact appreciating and embracing risk is a great opportunity to learn.
In all projects it’s important to be prepared, so ask yourself:
Are the risks in your change projects clear?
Can you be sure they are being effectively managed?
Is there business ownership and accountability within your change projects?
Do you have a project governance approach that provides confidence?
Are your risk management responsibilities clear?
Does your organisation proactively manage project risks, including scrutiny of policies, technical activity, testing, contingency and assurance?
Lastly, do you have a culture that appreciates risk and sees its value?
Good practice is essential to delivering successful outcomes and addressing the areas above (and more) when undertaking complex change projects. Positive scrutiny is essential to help move forward and having a structured and flexible delivery methodology will provide assurance that things are going in the right direction.
Stephen Repton is the CEO of One Consulting.