COVID and Innovation – The “COVID Crowbar”

The COVID-19 pandemic has affected the whole world and forced us to change, at least temporarily, our business values and behaviours. It has created a desperate need for alternative solutions, both short-term e.g. homeworking and treating large numbers of COVID-19 sufferers, and longer-term in the way we retain the good features of lockdown while returning to work in the “new normal”.

I’ve been struck both by the funding that has been released to look at these challenges and the overwhelming response to these calls – 900% over-subscribed in the case of a recent Innovate UK call.

My own trip “back to the future” has brought together the medical research I did early in my career, subsequent research into applied AI and the very successful development and delivery of the NHS online symptom checkers.

I’ve been working as programme manager for Polyphony, from OpenClinical. This is a programme to develop and deliver COVID-19 knowledge to train, and ultimately advise, healthcare staff dealing with COVID-19 patients. Useful, but what really excites me is the capability of this technology to handle the treatment of patients with other existing conditions like diabetes, who are at higher risk. This is a potential that won’t progress without both lever and fulcrum to achieve change. A crowbar (pry-bar) provides both, and the COVID-19 crisis offers businesses a crowbar for change.

So I have two insights falling out of lockdown:

  • You can’t go back to the past – it has gone forever! You need to plan for a new future where many of the changes lockdown has forced will stay (as no end is yet in sight for COVID-19)
  • Innovation is vibrant, especially in the UK (where we have a great history of innovation then not making money from it).

I very much hope that I’m able to help OpenClinical transform the way that medical knowledge is codified, shared and collaborated over to improve the care of patients with COVID-19, but also in the longer term to help the treatment of any patient with more than one condition (co-morbidity).

Though there are many awful consequences of the pandemic, there will be some good consequences. Home-working for many has improved work-life balance, though home-schooling is pretty tough when trying to work too.

Code-breaking led to the invention of the computer – let’s hope they can eventually crack the problems of treating co-morbidities.

The Baby and the Bathwater

The COVID-19 lockdown has seen a major disruption to “business as usual”, and has massively tested the business continuity plans of those organisations wise enough to have them. I’ve some experience of working with organisations’ “disaster recovery” teams to realise that those plans are unlikely to be ideal for this situation.

Organisations’ responses that I’ve seen have fallen into 3 broad categories:

  • Shut up shop and hope to survive
  • Keep running the business with limited capacity using as many home-based workers as possible
  • Carpe Diem – seize the opportunity to grow the business by expanding expanding web-enabled capabilities.

The end of lockdown is not clear so some businesses will be completely focused on answering “how do we survive until it ends?”

Wiser businesses will also be asking “How do we gain competitive advantage when it ends?”

When it does end, it is likely to be phased so organisations need a set of plan to cope with returning to “the new normal” as profitably as possible. What does that mean?

It means learning from these trying times we’re living though and recognising the good things we’re seeing:

  • Traffic jams and commute time gone
  • More time with family, cooking more healthy food
  • Improved work-life balance
  • Empty offices, Business travel gone and virtual teamworking via the Internet through the roof and proving effective
  • and so on

We don’t want to throw away these good things in a senseless rush back to “the old normal” because there are real advantages to businesses that can operate effectively in this remote and distributed way:

  • Reduced office costs
  • Happier and more productive staff
  • Greater resilience to further disruption
  • More attractive employment for new recruits
  • Lower carbon footprint

We need to start planning now for the “new normal”, optimising a new way of working based on all we have learned the hard way, and not throwing out the baby with the bathwater!

Back to the Future – Digital Transformation empowers homeworking and carbon reduction

Weavers Cottages, © Copyright Dr Neil Clifton

Home-working was once common – where I live there are still many weavers’ cottages that provided living space for their families and working space for them to earn their living. Then the factories came along and people had to go to them to work. That stayed the same for offices, but digital transformation is changing that. Many entrepreneurs now work from home over the internet – time to consider the advantages if many office employees do the same.

The recent Corona virus epidemic is creating major industrial disruption in China, and fears of it spreading are real. The NHS have offered the same advice as for any other airborne virus, but we all know that colds and flu spread far and wide at work because people don’t feel able to stay at home and not share their illness.

Home-working reduces our exposure to infections, and reduces our chances of passing on our own. Parents know the horror of the constant bugs we picked up when our children went to school!

Commuting to work also consumes our time – in many cases more than an an hour each way, and costs us a fortune in fares or fuel and car parking. What would you do with 2 hours more per day, and extra money in your pocket? Many homeworkers do MORE WORK with that time!

If you’re not commuting, you are reducing your #CarbonFootprint – last year the UK Government declared a #ClimateEmergency and once the Brexit negotiations are complete, dealing with climate change will climb back up the agenda.

Ah, but then we’ll need to heat our homes during the day as well. OK, but if the office is empty, there is no need to heat or light it, so that carbon footprint is reduced (and your home doesn’t cool down while your’re at work so you’ll stay warmer in the evening).

Home-working opens employment to many unable to work due to financial, family care, disability and other constraints, allowing people on benefits to contribute and earn their living.

Service and retail staff need to “be there”, and some people can only work with equipment in a factory (though automation is allowing progressively more remote control). Some people are only motivated to work when surrounded by others, others have so little room they couldn’t work from home, but these are almost certainly the minority.

If 50% of people could work from home 90% of the time, that would be a 45% reduction in commuting!

The technology as all there to allow many office workers to work from home over the internet – the main brake on home-working’s adoption is cultural. We need to move from “payment for attendance” to “payment for results” to deliver home-working as a normal option, and:

  • Reduce carbon footprint and pollution from commuting
  • Reduce infection rates
  • Reduce time wasted while commuting
  • Increase diversity in the workforce
  • Offer greater attraction for Millennials

Social media has proven that people don’t need to see each other to interact – let’s harness that for business and environmental benefits!

New Year Resolution – work with the big picture!

Picture courtesy Michael Henderson from Brisbane (Bardon), Australia [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D

Life may be a bowl of cherries, but projects are much more dynamic!

Reading about the recent APM awards reminded me that managing a successful project isn’t about excelling at any one element, but about keeping all the many elements working together in concert. This reminds me of an act that was once popular on variety shows but seems consigned to history – spinning plates.

As you can see from the video, it’s comparatively easy to get the first few plates spinning, perhaps staffing the core team, roughing out a schedule and first cut of a cost estimate, but as more and more elements are added, the project leader has to keep pulling their attention back from the latest “plate” and make sure that all the other plates keep spinning.

It’s all about the big picture – though there’s a real temptation to get sucked down into details, taking your eye off the big picture leads to plates slowing, wobbling than falling and smashing.

To avoid this, it’s vital to understand the correct “big picture” early – in the Concept stage of its lifecycle – and Systems Thinking is a valuable approach to get that right. Getting the big picture wrong dooms you to endless changes, delays and cost over-runs.

In particular, it’s essential to verify that the proposed solution will satisfy the business outcomes intended as early as possible – there is no point delivering a solution on time and on budget if it’s not fit for purpose!

I once delivered a predictive dialler to the debt recovery team. Sadly (as predicted by one of my team) in the meantime some minor changes to the operating procedures of the team had so improved their performance the dialler delivered little business benefit.

Yes, the devil is in the detail, and these must be bottomed out as soon as possible, but the project leader must keep their eyes on the big picture too. If the Titanic had changes course just 2 minutes earlier, it would have missed the iceberg comfortably.

Inspiration and leadership

This has been a fascinating week as I’ve seen two very different manifestations of leadership in action, and what they had in common was that both inspired me.

The first was Andy Burnham, former government minister and now Mayor of Greater Manchester.

At an audience with the Institute of Directors in Manchester, he spoke with a directness and lack of evasion virtually unique in those who have served time at Westminster. He spoke of his priorities and how what he had already achieved tied to them; he spoke of how he set stretch targets and expected to fall short, but to do better than by setting easy targets, and he spoke of what a great leader Gordon Brown was, an unexpected testimonial for someone vilified by the press.

Unsurprisingly, Andy oozed charm, charisma and personality – an easy person to follow.

The second was Andrew Brown, speaking about the HyNet project at the Association for Project Management in Liverpool. Andrew is an engineer, not a politician. His talk didn’t mention himself at all – the focus throughout was on how it really was practical and achievable to convert natural gas to hydrogen, and capture the CO2 for storage under Liverpool Bay (in the exhausted Hamilton gas field). He explained clearly and logically how this this was possible, how limited the uncertainties were. He answered questions on how the hydrogen could be used; immediately in some Merseyside factories and to stimulate hydrogen fuelled vehicles.

Andrew didn’t “ooze charm and personality” – he was an engineer telling it straight. His leadership was just as powerful though. Many of the audience wanted to know how they could get involved.

Despite their very different styles and personalities, what they had in common were:

  • Sharing a clear vision of what they were trying to achieve, and why
  • A substantiated and convincing argument as to how it’s possible

Sadly, many of our “leaders” have neither – they play on emotions (like greed and hate). This style of leadership is not sustainable – some day even the most selfish and vitriolic followers become exhausted.

Motivating others in a sustainable way starts with hearts and minds.

Confirmation bias – sleep-walking into the same old problems

I was watching an episode of “Air Crash Investigation”, a great programme for understanding what can go wrong and how, in the  very public and challenging world of civil aviation.

An airliner ran out of fuel and crash-landed more than 700 miles from its destination, having flow in the opposite direction to its destination.

The pilots blamed technical failure, but there was none – they had mis-set the autopilot and set off in completely the wrong direction, and when they realised they were really lost, instead of asking air traffic control for help, tried to sort it out themselves, making the problem even worse, because they interpreted what they saw as what they wanted to see, not what was really there (confirmation bias).

Many project teams start with a low expectation of success because they have always fallen short of delighting the customer. Repeated failures confirm their bias that they will always fail, so why bother?

Since they are not expecting to succeed, they don’t look how they could do things differently to improve their chances of success. I had a very serious argument with the existing team I inherited when asked to recover a failing programme. “We always do it this way” they said, to which I replied “and you always fail!”

I won the argument, losing one team member in the process, and we tried a completely different approach, very focused on customer experience, and succeeded beyond all expectations.

Taking a fresh look at the complete problem, understanding the true success criteria and designing the whole approach to achieve success, quickly transformed project performance, lifting the team’s self-esteem in a virtuous circle!

This isn’t a one-off – tackling the root causes of frequent problems in a railway infrastructure company saw a 25% reduction in recurrent problems in just 4 weeks!

Is there a problem with project quality? Let’s use a “canary” for early warning.

In general the quality of products is vastly better than in the 1970s – they do their job well , are reasonably reliable and tend to last, rather than not working at all, or breaking quickly, or just rusting away (in the case of cars). This is less true for projects, and my personal experiences make me concerned that today business leadership takes quality for granted, and in the continuing drive to cut costs and improve efficiency, has turned the tide against good quality by cutting investment in it.

To test this we need a “canary” (miners used this sensitive creature as an early warning of toxic gas) for projects to see whether a decline in quality focus is really happening, and what its consequences are.

I suggest we use the air transport industry for this, where quality and safety are tightly coupled, so is high-profile, transparent and familiar to nearly everyone.

This NOT an aviation-bashing article – air transport is still a  high-performing industry.  I want to use its experiences as a warning to the rest of us.

The Boeing 737 Max crashes seem to result from quality failures in Boeing design and test processes – it would appear that the system design that kept pilots from having to requalify for the Max version wasn’t fit for purpose (i.e. safe) and the training didn’t meet the requirements (i.e. for safety).

Sadly, that isn’t Boeing’s only major problem. It’s reported that:

  • Their 787 production line in South Carolina has attracted considerable criticism about manufacturing quality, with airlines complaining due to the high level of defects
  • The US Air Force’s KC 46 Pegasus tanker transport was first accepted  18 months after the first 18 aircraft were planned to be delivered, due to quality issues with the wiring and refuelling system, the key new parts in this 767 conversion
  • In recent structural tests, a 777X cargo door blew out from the fuselage, probably delaying the programme further (after engine-related delays)

It’s not just Boeing that are facing quality challenges. Rolls-Royce has suffered from chronic problems with its Trent 1000 engine family where innovative components haven’t met durability requirements, grounding many 787s and resulting in at least one serious in-flight failure.

Recently, Emirates’ President was highly critical about the lack of reliability of products it was receiving from Boeing, Airbus, Rolls-Royce and General Electric. As reliability is a requirement, this implies an industry-wide quality issue. All of these problems are taking $100 millions to resolve, and are potentially disastrous commercially.

There is always a tension between time, cost and quality in projects, but I suggest that the growth of monetarism has driven Executive focus onto cost without appreciating that the investment in quality up front is vital to delivering on time and budget. Good quality minimises redesign, rework and delays, with their attendant costs.

As our canary, the aviation industry, seems to warn us all, cost-cutting on quality results in delays, cost escalation and, potentially, fatalities.

I wish the aviation industry every success in recovering from these issues, and suggest they look at quality first.

What is quality in the project context?

The “Iron Triangle” of project management comes in 2 versions:

  1. Time:Cost:Scope
  2. Time:Cost:Quality

Scope and quality are not the same thing though.

In this context a definition of scope is “those requirements that will be met”.

In contrast, there are 2 critical definitions of quality:

  • Fitness-for-purpose – the solution delivered by the project must do the job needed
  • Conformance to requirements – the solution must meet what the business has asked for

What is the difference?

  • The documented requirements may ask for something that isn’t fit for purpose. History is littered with projects that delivered just what was asked for only to find it doesn’t meet the needs e.g. power station steel-work with no corrosion protection
  • The documented requirements may demand things well beyond what makes the solution fit for purpose, known as “gold-plating” e.g. nuclear standards of documentation applied to non-nuclear items

Reducing scope to stick to time or budget constraints often leads to the excuse of “that feature will be in phase 2”. Such scope cutting can unintentionally compromise project quality, though.

How does cutting scope damage quality?

Obviously some requirements will not be met, and this will have a business impact. Cutting individual requirements may be done piecemeal, and when the time and budget pressures rise, may be done quickly without full impact assessment.

Dangerously, missing out requirements may undermine fitness for purpose. It’s the last straw that breaks the camel’s back, and many projects fail when it becomes clear that scope cuts leave a solution that is no longer fit for purpose, wasting all the effort and budget spent.

True story: a major global manufacturer was looking to cut its IT infrastructure costs and started a programme centralising electronic document management – a visionary and innovative step, ahead of anyone else in the world. Sadly, trying to meet aggressive time targets led to a focus on time not quality, and the programme was cancelled having wasted €2M on hardware and effort, delivering no benefits.

If it’s not fit for purpose, it’s a waste!

For more in-depth discussions, see here.

Fitness for purpose and meeting the requirements: prerequisites for project success

Where has the last year gone? For me it’s been spent publishing a book on the need to re-balance the “iron triangle” in favour of quality i.e. getting things right to boost project success, and developing courses in that for Sellafield’s Project Academy and UCL.

The book illustrates the principles with real case studies, both personal experiences and public domain.

I recently watched a documentary, just 1 year after the tragic event,  on the collapse of the “Morandi” bridge in Genoa, killing 43 and injuring others. This is a case study I would have used in the book had it not been finalised then.

As with so many disasters, a number of quality failures conspired to result in death and destruction:

  1. The design was not fit for purpose – the design had a single point of failure; if one of the stays failed, the bridge would fail. By encasing the stay cables in concrete to “protect against” corrosion, it made visual inspection of corrosion impossible too.
  2. The build did not meet requirements – the steel stay cables were supposed to be completely embedded in highly alkaline grout that would prevent corrosion, but there were voids in the grout that left steel cables exposed to air and water, leading to corrosion.
  3. Maintenance did not meet the requirements – only two of the 3 pylons supporting the bridge were repaired, when corrosion in them was discovered to be dangerously advanced. The third was considered to be non-urgent due to the state of corrosion being under-estimated – the corrosion measuring techniques were inaccurate and not fit for purpose. This was the pylon that collapsed.

Getting things right is a prerequisite for project success; using completion on time and budget as primary KPIs for project success drives skimping and corner-cutting. These lead to rework, delays and subsequent failures, sometimes with tragic results.

Skimping on getting it right doesn’t save time and definitely doesn’t save money!

Leadership plus good management?

I’ve recently been working with two groups from the same organisation, and there was a huge contrast between them. One group was outspoken, enjoyed active learning and working in groups, the other group was almost silent, expected to sit and listen, and resented the “wasted time” of working on exercises in groups.

This was a surprise to me – I had expected to work with both groups in the same way, but it simply didn’t play out that way.

This led to a lot of soul searching – what was the critical difference between the groups, and why did the difference result in such different responses?

The conclusion I arrived at was that the first group was primarily composed of leaders, in a wide range from very junior to very senior; they were prepared to voice their concerns and make the most of the situation when it wasn’t what they expected. The second group, though in management roles, were more operational, mature and, apparently, less willing to make the most of things. Expecting a dull workshop, that is what they wanted; they were unwilling to engage in something more interesting and productive.

This highlighted a lesson I have learned throughout my career – leadership is a characteristic that is not strongly correlated to seniority.  There are many middle and even senior managers that lack leadership drivers and motivations. Conversely, there are many young, energetic people that are active leaders.

Management is a skill that usually improves with experience, but the same is not necessarily true of leadership, which demand energy and stamina. The best business leaders are also good managers, because they need to deliver results through others, but they have the energy and stamina to create the vision and inspire their team through the rough patches.

When an organisation engages in major change, it faces many challenges, both foreseen and unforeseen, and dealing with these requires skilled management, but it needs more. Leadership, with clear vision and the energy and discipline to address the issues that arise and “keep the wheels on the wagon”, is essential through the project/programme.

Leadership is more than pointing at the map and sending off the wagon train – it’s scouting, riding shot-gun and fighting off the bandits to make sure it gets there.

A lot of change initiatives fail because the executive “leadership” start it off then lose interest, moving onto the next idea, leaving managers to deal with the problems without the leadership that is essential for success. Fewer ideas, fewer initiatives and sustained leadership  transform the success rate of business projects.