People learn, organisations don’t?

I was at an excellent presentation by Tim Chittenden (ex RN, ex BAe Systems, now with Sellafield Ltd) about developing the Astute class of nuclear submarines and the lessons learned. Tim compared and contrasted various different nuclear submarine programmes and how different approaches had been taken and the effects they’d had on “success”.

The Astute programme started off aiming for cheapness, as the Batch 2 Trafalgar programme i.e. a simple repeat of the highly-successful Trafalgar class of nuclear hunter-killer submarines, with cost reductions through the reuse of technology from later programmes. Years late, and hugely over budget, the Astutes are a completely new design.  Failure? Yes and no – late and over budget – classic programme management criteria say “Failure”. Delighted customer, more effective and 2/3rds the cost of equivalent US submarines (the US Treasury green with envy) – Success!

Tim contrasted the Astute programme with the Vanguard programme, where cost wasn’t the driver but a quick, high-performance solution – Vanguard was a success on all counts – largely on cost and time, and once more the customer delighted.

All the lessons Tim drew out were well-known to me, especially that early focus on cost cutting leads to delays and cost overruns  – “cheap man, he pay twice”. yet the same problems seem to happen again and again, even in the same organisation.

So why don’t organisations learn from these experiences? Why are “Lessons learned” not?

What is organisational memory that it CAN learn? The key elements that I’m aware of include:

  1. The wisdom and experience (from personal learning) of individual leaders (at all levels) within the organisation
  2. The culture of the organisation – we’ve learned that this way is best
  3. External and internal Standards, standard operating procedures

How well do these instruments of corporate memory fare under the pressure for ever-higher business performance and constant change?

  1. Individual leaders with extensive experience can easily be seen as negative, and given early retirement, made redundant or forced out to make way for dynamic leaders (without the same experience)
  2. Established cultures MUST change to create a more responsive organisation – “We know this way works so we stick to it” cannot survive in the rapidly-changing world businesses operate in. Unfortunately this can lead to throwing out the baby with the bathwater
  3. Processes and standards are a nightmare to update and keep current in a rapidly changing world, and can soon be left behind when everyone is struggling just to get the work done and keep the business afloat.

Let me illustrate this from personal experiences:

  1.  An insurance company was seeking to cut costs, and made a very attractive early retirement offer to all staff over 50. Every eligible staff member outside the Executive took the offer, leaving the company run by much less experienced staff. This led to a more dynamic, but much less knowledgeable set of senior managers. It then had to bring in a team of management consultants to run the rest of their cost-cutting programme!
  2. A life assurer had already lost all senior staff from its pensions division. When their DOS-based tools were to be replaced by a new bespoke system, they resisted strongly ANY change to their practices, eventually admitting they didn’t know what they could safely change. They knew what they did was compliant, but not how they could change it while remaining compliant – knowledge had become rote. It took the recruitment of a new Head of Pensions (ex-Army) to unshackle the Pensions teams.
  3. A major engineering company, with a global reputation for quality, had become totally dependent on standards and procedures to deliver quality products. When a new CEO joined, to save the company from its slow decline, he demanded large-scale  and ongoing changes i.e. the company had to become agile, rather than steady-state. The burden of constantly updating procedures and standards was unsupportable, and the reputation for quality has since been badly tarnished

All three key elements that have supported organisational learning in the past are now heavily compromised in larger organisations, especially PLCs.  It is inevitable that corporate amnesia will grow unless an alternative solution is used.

Staff-turnover and rapidly-changing processes are with us for the foreseeable future, though technology can help – intranets, knowledge management etc.

The main hope for learning organisations lies in corporate culture – people are still the greatest resource (and liability) organisations have. One programme I managed was so successful in its approach that years later the client is still using the tools and techniques he learned from me then. Empowering individuals to do the job better, with cross-checks to ensure they are not doing it worse, are essential for learning.


Systems Thinking – what are the challenges?

At yesterday’s inaugural meeting of the APM’s Systems Thinking SIG, born out of the Joint Working Group with INCOSE UK, one of the critical questions asked was “What stands in the way of systems thinking that we have to overcome?”

Today I have at least some of that answer.  In a report on failed projects from a major organization that should be obsessed with getting things right, I saw that the underlying problem seemed to be habitual behaviours i.e. an absence of thinking, even when these behaviours led to unacceptable outcomes repeatedly.

Systems thinking has an under-pinning tenet that people are allowed to think and want to think, yet in many organisations (particularly those with Theory X management styles), thinking and initiative are actively suppressed by forcing people to conform mindlessly to standards, processes and procedures. Many years ago, people used to say “Nobody ever got fired for buying IBM”, hence its popularity long after it began to drag behind the state of the art.

|t is vitally important that lessons are learned and disseminated, and standards, processes and procedures can be powerful tools for ensuring conformity, but the active suppression of innovation, initiative and simply thinking are akin to mental slavery, where human beings become slaves to these standards set up and often not maintained dynamically, robbing the organisation of much of its human capital.

If people aren’t encouraged to think about what they are doing, how they can do it better and why it should be done differently, the bloom for business agility is burnt to the ground and the scorched earth is not fertile ground for reaping the benefits of systems thinking.

Unintended consequences – financial controls gone mad!

Just been reading about the impact the announcement of the tightening up of IR35 tax regulations is having on government projects – before a single penny in extra tax has been collected, government initiatives are starting to haemorrhage contract staff. This will cost the government way more in failed projects and delays than than HMRC will collect in extra tax, I expect.

It reminds me of the Thatcher Government’s cunning plan to increase the number of Free House pubs by limiting the number of tied house a brewery could own.  All that happened was that breweries exchanged brewing facilities for tied houses, either focusing on brewing or on running tied houses, massively reducing choice instead of increasing it as intended.

This inability to foresee the consequences of policies is by no means limited to government – since yesterday I have twice discussed large corporates that have shed too many permanent staff, resulting in them having to recruit contract staff to fill the gaps at a higher cost. Then, of course, they want to cut those costs – ah, back to the Government!

Earlier today, I was discussing this with an old friend and we got onto sea defences, as we were beside the sea – once more, actions taken with good intentions had led to unforeseen (but not unforeseeable) consequences.

Douglas Adams, in his Dirk Gently novels, refers to “the interconnectedness of all things” – we need financial leaders who understand that, and really consider the possible outcomes of their plans BEFORE they implement them.

Ageism: is this just another “ism” or is it a driver of social disintegration?

I recently reacted against an article praising the achievement of marketing leaders under 30, accusing the author of ageism. He neither liked nor understood my reaction.

The reality is we have an ageing population, who want change to slow down, not speed up. The public reaction against change has never been more apparent than in the Brexit vote and the election of Donald Trump as US President.

Putting ever-younger people driving change is one of the key reasons for accelerating change, because they have the drive and energy to make major change happen without the experience and accumulated wisdom to first ask whether it’s the right thing.

I often point out that people love change for the better – mobile phones, microwave ovens etc, but then hate the unforeseen consequences – shops closing, roads cluttered with delivery vans, call centres anywhere in the world other than the UK…

I was in my 20s when I first had a manager younger than me, and in my early 40s when I first had an MD younger than me.  Both business units went under quickly. In another client, an over-generous early retirement programme had stripped out every staff member over 50, leaving the remaining staff to run around like headless chickens.

The baby-boomers with their fat pensions have nearly all retired now; those of us still working will have to work longer and harder than for decades. Writing people off at 40 is crazy when they will have to work another 30 years.

A sustainable future requires that we work to service an ageing population, and employ that ageing population effectively, otherwise society will continue to disintegrate.

Teamworking: wishing you peace and happiness at Christmas and in the new year.

Just over 4 weeks ago I went into an NHS hospital for a hip replacement. I was stunned by the efficient and effective way I was treated, and how quickly I was discharged to go home – 30 hours.  What really struck me was that the staff were working together as a team, despite the usual NHS pressures, and I was treated as a human being, not  a number.

Has that  stayed the standard? Well, not quite – when I went to see Outpatients Physio, the handover and integration were less slick and integrated.  After, I felt less comfortable both physically and mentally than I had done. My GP surgery has done a lot to balance that out though, whipping out a couple of undissolved sutures at less than 24 hours notice.

Teamworking is something that makes everyone involved feel better, which directly and indirectly boosts performance.  I spend a lot of my time building up team behaviour in the early days of the projects I lead as I know the investment will repay huge dividends.

So why is it that the wreckers and tearers-apart are in the political ascendancy? People are feeling under pressure, for whatever reason, and this forces behaviours towards the extremes of the build up/split apart spectrum.

War is a major pressure, obviously. I’ve just finished reading a reference work on the British invasion of Madagascar during the Second World War, and it revealed to me the huge political impact of individuals’ relationships; Churchill and de Gaulle couldn’t get on together, which led to decades of Anglo-French acrimony after the was was over, and the UK’s delayed entry to the Common Market. Churchill didn’t trust the Vichy regime to stand up to Germany and Japan and stay truly neutral, leading to tragic events like the shelling of the French fleet at Mers el Kebir and the consequent vicious fighting by the Vichy French forces against the UK and its allies.

However, we are not at war, and the UK hasn’t had to fight a war locally within the lifetime of many people.  It’s something that others fight and suffer through – we just have to pay taxes to support our forces. The paradox is that the apparently despised EU, with NATO, has reduced the level of military conflict in Europe almost to zero as more states appreciate that membership means stopping fighting their neighbours and minorities.

Are we just bored with peace and prosperity? In 1957, just 12 years after the end of WW2, the PM, Harold Macmillan, had to rally the country and remind them that most people had never had it so good, following 6 years of war that bankrupted the country and 12 years of austerity.

People are often quite bad at comparing where they are now with where they were in the past, and are disillusioned they don’t have everything they could possibly want, when in reality nearly everyone has FAR MORE now than when I was growing up.

According to Oprah Winfrey, “Be thankful for what you have; you’ll end up having more. If you concentrate on what you don’t have, you will never, ever have enough”

At this time of year, with the awful prospects facing the word from the “votes of hate”, and the very real  fighting destroying the lives of so many, please relax for a moment, think of everything you have achieved in your life, and decide whether you can step back from our society’s obsession with accumulating yet more money and possessions and focus on working with people in peace and harmony as teams.

Oh – and stop buying newspapers. They lie to make money, and make you miserable and dissatisfied without any basis. You won’t find anything in the papers praising the NHS!


Deadlines – the great motivators

I went to “Joint School” on Friday, our local pre-surgery induction for hip replacement patients.  I came away really fired up with all the things I need to get done before I go in for surgery in 2 weeks.

So what is it that this deadline has triggered?

  1. Priority – I now have a list of things that must be done, a list of things that should be done, and a list of things I’d like to do.
  2. Focus – I’ve immediately cancelled all the “nice to haves” that require significant time and distract me from hitting the deadline
  3. Timeliness – I’ve already done lots of things that I’ve known needed doing for months but kept postponing due to “high priorities”
  4. Energy – I will be the one to suffer if I don’t hit the deadline, and  I’ve discovered that lots of “huge” tasks have been finished pretty quickly and easily because they have to be done now, rather than shuffled off into the future
  5. Personal effectiveness – because a change is BETTER than a rest. Swapping to another task when I run out of steam re-energises me while doing something useful

Setting deadlines is a key skill in project management, and if done well can stimulate the team very powerfully.

Are deadlines always so effective?

Well, no. Deadlines can be hugely demotivating when:

  • They are not real – they have been created by an executive or manager to “motivate” the team
  • They are too tight:
    • perhaps they are labelled “stretch” but failure to achieve them is unacceptable
    • perhaps they’re simply impossible
  • They are too far in the future:
    • breeding complacency and indolence
    • relying on staff to create their own interim deadlines and motivate themselves
  • They are too abstract – the team can’t relate emotionally to hitting or missing the deadline, so their energies are not tapped into.

Ensuring these do not happen is the responsibility of business leadership, portfolio and programme management, and a critical requirement for such leaders is to have their fingers on the pulse of reality, and occasionally lift their noses from Excel spreadsheets and abstract numbers.

Over the last few years I have seen 2 glaring examples of deadlines being set without a sound justification for considering them viable, then the leaders going ballistic on being told, when the feasibility studies were completed, that the targets were not achievable.

The other end of the spectrum is as bad – many years earlier, I saw a project team that had been set up 6 years before the regulatory deadline, and had spent 5 years making very limited progress. This demanded a huge effort to rescue the project at the last moment

Business leaders need to think very hard about using deadlines to motivate teams – they can work very powerfully both towards success and right into failure!

The Elephant in the room – delay in project start

Isn’t it frightening that we take delays to project start so much for granted that we don’t recognize one of the most common causes of “failure” in projects?

Over the last 2 weeks I’ve been talking to many project professional, at the University of Manchester, in a major construction company and at the recent APM conference on Risk Management at Alderley Park (which was excellent, by the way).

We were all discussing the things that go wrong with projects, but the startling point that everyone was making is that late project start against an agreed plan is the most common problem, and that it usually threatens project success before it even starts.

It’s bad enough when the start date slips and the end date matches it, as the context of the project has changed (summer becomes winter, resource is redeployed while waiting etc) but what is even worse is that the target date often slips less than the start date, if at all.

As project professionals, we give realistic estimates for the cost and duration of our projects, only to find that we have to do most of them more quickly with less resource, in more demanding circumstances.

Late starts to projects are not a project management failure, they are a commercial issue, and project managers rarely have any influence over this, but we have to do the best we can and are accused of failure if we fail to do the impossible.

This is due to poor accountability within organisations – if Procurement were held to account for delaying the start of the project  and its consequent failure,  instead of being measured on penny-pinching and trying to squeeze out the last penny on price, things might get better. The cost or project delay needs to be understood and measured, and commercial teams held accountable.

None of that helps the project manager, of course. I’m currently working up my thoughts on this as part of a new programme for the University of Manchester and some industrial clients.