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!

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.

Doing the right projects right

I’ve decided to review this post, especially as Brexit seems to get deeper and deeper into the mire.

I wrote up a paper for an academic journal, based on two guest lectures I gave at the University of Salamanca as part of their 8th Centenary celebrations.

Merging two talks, one on managing healthcare projects (for the Faculty of Pharmacy) and the other on challenges facing UK industry (for the Business School) made me think hard, and I resolved the challenge through considering uncertainty – healthcare projects nearly always face high levels of uncertainty, and the whole UK economy is waiting for the other Brexit shoe to drop, holding its breath (and tipping into recession, quite possibly) in the meantime.

It’s an old adage that successful change results from doing the right projects right, but how do you do that in an uncertain environment?

Professional change governance is a good start to identifying the right projects – portfolio management aligning change with strategy (tough with Brexit), programmes managing uncertainty and flexibility, leaving projects to deliver effectively and efficiently.

There is another facet to this, though – seeing the big picture, and considering a wide range of scenarios. This is where systems thinking comes in, helping to be clear on what the true requirements for project are. Many projects under-perform or fail because they are either not the right projects in the first place, or don’t correctly address their customer’s needs.

To survive and grow in the current economic environment means evolving, and that means changing faster and more effectively than ever – that means doing the right projects right!

Coping with disruption!

Took another look at this post as I’m working with innovative products. Disruption isn’t just in IT – new legislation and changing political environments are putting massive evolutionary pressure onto businesses. The thoughts below are still good, just more general that when originally written!

We live in an age of disruption, where new IT-driven models of commerce are ripping the heart out of the High Street, and transforming whole markets. What makes this possible is the rapid development of new IT solutions, linked to businesses that are adapting to the new technology; they are ready to deliver value.

Many of these disruptive organisations are new, though – starting from scratch, with the business built around a new, technology-driven business model.

Are existing businesses like dinosaurs, doomed to extinction as this comet of disruptive technology hits their world?

Some have already died out, and others will follow, but it’s a big world, and those organisations willing to evolve quickly can still prosper, I believe, if they address business change in an integrated way.

I was recently asked to help the University of Cumbria develop a new project management course for a major client, and in doing so I reread a lot of published wisdom on project management, illustrating it with case studies from my own experience.

The mismatch between the published wisdom (around which that client operates) and my experience of successful projects, is in business readiness to create value from the project. This is CORE to success, not a bolt-on at the end, I have found.

The published project management bodies of knowledge mention business engagement in the right places; it’s the emphasis that is wrong, as they are largely derived from major engineering activities. In the world of business change, the short timescales and return demanded on investment put business readiness at the heart of all successful change, and quite quickly, corporate survival.

Solicitors, accountants – take a look at estate agents!

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.