A quick Google search will reveal study after study showing the staggering percentage of organizations reporting failure in their strategic programs. One report indicates less than 60% of projects are completed within their original budget, and another study reveals only 21% of projects consistently deliver on their benefits. There is an undeniable gap in expected value at the onset of a program and the resulting outcomes.
Target experienced this first hand in 2013 when their highly anticipated rollout to Canada revealed poor supply chain planning and misalignment with customer expectations, ultimately resulting in a net loss of over $2 billion.
While it has become commonplace in recent years to embrace the philosophy of failure (e.g., “fail fast,” “fail often,” or “fail forward”) for the betterment of ideation and innovation, there are ways to incorporate the best facets of this mindset while also avoiding the massive financial loss that can emerge from a haphazard approach to program management.
How to Identify a Program Headed for Failure?
Organizations will often adamantly declare a program is going well when there are clear signs of trouble ahead. We all can fall prey to “missing the forest for the trees” when we become so entwined in the day-to-day details and fail to zoom out and see the bigger picture. The following are three questions to ask when assessing the overall health of a program:
1. Are the Program Objectives Clearly Defined and Informed by the Customer?
Identifying objectives is a common task in most program management plans. However, successful organizations will allocate more time to this task up front to ensure the objectives are aligned with the broader business goals, clearly delineate the scope of the program, and are informed by customer data. Additionally, there will be well defined roles and responsibilities to inform who is owning what.
Securing buy-in up front from stakeholders ranging from individual contributors to executive sponsors ensures all resources are putting time and energy toward the same goal. Successful programs will regularly revisit their objectives to reinforce the larger vision as well as recalibrate if the program begins to deviate.
2. Can the Program Communicate and Demonstrate Tangible Progress?
When a program enters a build or development phase, it is important to display results on a regular basis. Following agile principles, this often looks like sprints where a chunk of the scope is prioritized and agreed upon before a one to two week working period. The sprint is followed by a review of the completed work and retrospective discussion aimed at improving performance in the next sprint. This tactic helps ensure the team is not only moving forward but is working on the items with the highest priority.
Whether a program is utilizing sprint methodology or not, there should be transparent communication across projects and cross-functional teams with a focus on concrete progress instead of generic status reporting. A culture of demonstrable progress promotes accountability and avoids the common churn effect present in large programs. Lack of communication is a tell-tale sign something unhealthy may be lurking beneath.
3. Does the Organizational Culture and Program Structure Support Success?
Anyone in the thick of delivering a program knows success can often feel like an ever-moving and often-changing target. Even with a clearly defined vision and objectives, the exact product or solution evolves over time. Programs can lose sight of their original intentions if they hold too tightly to an idea or a list of requirements and don’t consider outside factors like shifts in the market or concurrent programs.
Additionally, cultures where challenging viewpoints or the delivery of bad news is not received well can lead to a false perception of program health. This symptom was present in NASA’s culture during the tragic Space Shuttle Challenger disaster. The Rogers Commission Report submitted to President Ronald Reagan identified the “propensity of management … to contain potentially serious problems and to attempt to resolve them internally rather than communicate them forward” as one of the contributing causes of the accident.
Executing a Rescue and Recovery
If you find your program exhibiting one or more of the indicators above, there may be merit in considering a program rescue and recovery. It should be noted that all programs experience risks and issues. Ongoing mitigation efforts are a normal part of program management. Program rescue and recovery takes risk mitigation a step further. The process can be defined by identifying a program in jeopardy, systematically assessing the contributing elements, and operationalizing new strategies and methodologies to support successful execution of the program’s intended objectives.
The following four tips should be kept in mind when pursuing a rescue and recovery effort:
1. Consider Utilizing a Third Party to Assess the Program
Often rescue and recovery efforts involve bringing in a third party to assist with the program assessment and provide an unbiased perspective on the situation. The assessment should consider all aspects of program management including strategic alignment, scope definition, operational practices, communication, stakeholder engagement, and change management.
2. Seek Input From the “Boots on the Ground”
During the entire process, it is important to consider the program’s day-to-day resources and seek input from a wide variety of stakeholders. New strategies should be catered to the organization’s unique culture and incorporate behavior-based project management.
3. Incorporate Stage Gates Moving Forward
Additionally, programs should look to build in stage gates to avoid getting too far along a failing program. By defining expected metrics and outcomes at various points in the program, leadership can perform an ROI analysis to determine if the program is positioned to deliver on the expected value.
4. Promote the Change From the Top Down
Lastly, abrupt program changes can create an atmosphere of fear and frustration among the team. Having program leadership and executive sponsors regularly promote the go-forward plan can help to mitigate opposition.
Rescue and Recovery Saves Money
No program imagines getting into a rescue and recovery situation at the onset. However, it is prudent for program leaders and executive sponsors to regularly assess the direction of the program and look for warning signs of potential failure. Identifying a problem early on and course correcting through rescue and recovery tactics can save your organization significant time, money, and the headache that accompanies the fallout of a failed program.
With losses due to project failure estimated between $50 billion to $150 billion in the U.S. alone, the cost is too high for organizations to consider themselves impervious to failure. Program rescue and recovery could be the answer to transform a sinking ship into a value-add initiative.
If you would like to learn more about program rescue and recovery or Credera’s program leadership capabilities, please reach out to us here.