Why Build A Rocket When You Need A Bike Chain?

Friday 1st April, 2016

Whilst working on a client site recently one of the team was reflecting on the most recent senior leader to depart the organisation.  Recognising that this individual had created a strong vision of the future, my colleague pondered why the leader had struck out to develop a grand plan (the space rocket) when the fundamentals (the bike chain) weren’t being addressed.   I felt this statement gave a real insight into why many IT and business transformation programmes fail.

Grand plans and getting the basics right

The first thing that I reflected on was why organisations continue to parachute in leaders, particularly in IT, give them unrealistic timescales to achieve ill-defined goals and then wonder why the transformation they so urgently need, fails to materialise.

It is critical that organisations provide the time and space for the leader to understand the organisation and build relationships with their teams, so that they can create an environment where people are willing to contribute to the development and implementation of the strategy. 

By doing this, they are recognising that the people on the ground frequently know what it is that needs to be changed and are giving them a voice.  All they need, is to know the direction they are going in and then be given the authority to prioritise those changes.

Today’s reality and the distance to tomorrow

Another aspect of the top-down grand plan is that it rarely recognises the current reality.  It is simply not possible for a transformation programme to be designed properly if the design phase is not tackled effectively.

Taking the time to use tools such as maturity models, or continuous improvement techniques, is essential when constructing the programme, to provide real insight into the current state of the organisation.

We’ve seen this during one of our recent engagements – the client was looking to build a new service management organisation.  Working with them, we developed an ITIL maturity model that flagged the areas which needed the most work and they could then prioritise the programme accordingly.  The biggest benefit of taking this approach was that the teams felt that they were part of the change, helping to shape and design the programme, rather than have it imposed on them.

Links of the chain

So, you’ll have gathered by now that I’m not a fan of a pure top-down planning approach, but neither am I advocating a long-drawn out bottom-up process that gets lost in the detail.  The need is there for the leader to clearly articulate the vision, strategy and constraints and  (the shape of the shuttle) then give their teams the scope and responsibility to contribute to developing the different modules needed to create the whole (the links of the chain).

This is hard, and frequently counter-intuitive to many leaders, however it is clear that the model of having a charismatic individual standing at the front leading everyone has had its time.  The new reality needs to be focusing on developing leaders who can mentor their teams to recognise the change that they themselves can bring about, giving them the space and ‘air cover’ to develop (i.e. make mistakes) but still provide them with clear direction.

In conclusion, my belief is that my colleague’s sentiment would have replayed differently, had the leader adopted a more inclusive approach. 

Only then would he would have seen that making the bike chain shiny and pristine was in fact making a big contribution to delivering the space shuttle!