Why business initiatives fail – Part I – Our Spartacus is missing

Standard methodologies that are commonly used to define the division of ownership at management and executive level are the primary cause of the ‘I am not Spartacus’ syndrome.

It is not possible to have failure without fault. Our approach and authenticity towards learning from our mistakes reflect our attitude to our work and what we produce. This alone dictates whether we truly strive to achieve excellence, or just settle for mediocrity.

It is worth highlighting a subtle distinction. In my view, there are two types of failures: constructive or epidemic.

There are times when teams of committed and capable individuals with a shared goal – operating in a supportive environment and with appropriate leadership – fail to achieve their goal. In such cases, these teams will truly embrace the lessons learned from failures and become more capable and, in the right environment, more committed than before. Clearly, we cannot create wonders without this type of failure.

The second type of failure is where we avoid evaluating the cause of our failures openly, authentically and constructively, or allow our biases to interfere with the diagnosis. Teams operating in this type of culture who continue to use the same approach or technique deliver disappointing results, but keep blaming individuals or the circumstances for their failures. This type of failure is more like a disease that we are either blind to or choose to ignore. This is epidemic failure.

In the next few blogs, I will share my views on various issues that we are blind to when implementing new business initiatives, commonly referred to as change management implementation. We don’t need to look hard to find these issues. There is a simple rule: where common sense prevails, blindness begins.

What has this got to do with Spartacus? As I see it, he was a change leader. He was a military leader, a former gladiator, and he led a change movement opposing the status quo. As the 1960s movie of the same name depicted, Spartacus was an expert in his domain and committed to improving living conditions for himself and others. When the slave revolt he led was eventually crushed, one of the Roman generals stood in front of the captured slave army and issued an ultimatum: turn over Spartacus or they would all die. Spartacus stood up and said: “I am Spartacus”. This was followed by all the captured slaves, one by one, standing up and saying: “No, I am Spartacus”. This is a far cry from what we see when a change programme goes wrong.

Standard methodologies that are commonly used to define the division of ownership at management and executive level are the primary cause of the ‘I am not Spartacus’ syndrome. Nowadays, every change initiative has a business sponsor, a business owner, one or many programme managers and project managers, governed by a steering committee and managed through well-understood processes and tools. In summary, we now have a well-structured methodology for managing change. Why then do change initiatives still result in producing countless disappointments, or at best acceptable mediocrity? In my view, there is nothing wrong with the methodology. The issue is the framework that is used to apply the methodology.

Practically all methodologies advocate that achieving business results is the responsibility of the business owner. The role of a programme manager is to enable the business owner to be successful. While this makes logical sense, the word ‘enable’ creates an ambiguity which often results in the ‘I am not Spartacus’ attitude. Such a structure is only appropriate when the business owner is an experienced change leader. However, in most cases, business owners do not have a background in implementing change and they rely on their ‘expert’ project manager/programme manager to do the right things. When facing the challenge of implementing change, we need to redefine the responsibilities of project managers and programme managers. I would redefine this list as follows:

  1. Project managers are committed to delivering products and artefacts within a defined timeframe and budget. They are largely concerned with ensuring that predefined processes are followed, that various log files and trackers are completed and that everything is signed off.
  2. Programme managers need to ensure that all projects deliver what is required in order to achieve the right business outcome. They hold a promise that the business results committed in the business case are being achieved.
  3. Project managers manage a well-defined budget. They manage cost centres.
  4. Programme managers work with business executives to ensure that revenue, budget, business targets, etc. are aligned. They maximise what is being produced by cost centres (the projects) to deliver defined business value.
  5. Project managers implement well-defined ‘scope (change) management’ processes, mainly in order to manage their own individual budgets and timelines.
  6. Programme managers are responsible for delivering against business strategy and business targets. They need to thrive in changing environments and they need to have leadership skills which enable them to get the results they need from projects.
  7. Business owners are responsible for ensuring the right political environment is in place and that Programme Managers have what they need.
  8. Programme management entails having an executive level of governance in place. The programme manager needs to exert influence at this level, so that:
    • Control and oversight are in place.
    • Achievable business transformation objectives are in place.
    • A network of commitments among executives is in place to deliver the agreed business objectives.
    • Appropriate functions are mobilised accordingly.
    • Steering committee is properly informed, and well-grounded options are available to them.
    • Breakdowns caused by diverse priorities among executives are resolved.
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