10 questions the Board should ask projects.

FullSizeRenderIn the fast paced world of disruption, trade liberalisation, technology innovation and the availability of cheap capital competition faced by business is unprecedented in scope, scale and speed. This has driven management and Boards towards larger and more transformational projects to remain relevant in this new world. The following are my starting 10 questions when faced with the difficult task of approving such complicated projects.

1.     How does this project fulfil our strategy?

This assumes that the organisation has a well-considered, articulated and up to date strategy. Without this there is precious little criteria that a project’s merits can be tested against except basic financial measures. Management have a myriad of projects it could consider and are entitled to rely on an agreed strategy to guide the priorities.

Management has mastered the art of presenting the positive case and linking it to the business strategy. There is a tendency to be overly optimistic of the business case and the ability of management to deliver on it. (Read Thinking, fast and slow by Daniel Kahneman). This is not being deceptive but part of human psychology. It is up to the Board to recognise this, listen more deeply and rationalise more clearly the response to overcome the biases.

2.     What process and whose expertise was brought to bear on this proposal?

The Board needs to test if can rely on the information presented. Do the people involved have the requisite skill, knowledge, qualifications and experience to plan and execute the project? Is the process robust with external and internal due diligence? These are not superficial questions. Management need to understand that they must preempt these questions to ensure the process and expertise applied is appropriate for the nature of the project. From the Board’s perspective explicitly asking this question and applying appropriate consideration to the answer enables it to fulfil one of the basic director duties. It is more desirable to address this upfront rather than make regrettable assumptions. More mature organisations have a documented and well tested processes for project preparation and execution including the incorporation of lessons from previous projects.

3.     Is this a good deal?

This is the initial question of assessing the business case. Does this project meet the financial hurdles? Is the potential reward adequate to cover the potential risk? Has the cost and time been adequately assessed? What risks has the contingency covered and what risks it has not? Are the benefits real and have management signed up to deliver them? Which contractors will deliver the project? What due diligence has been done on the contractors that give you confidence they can and will deliver? How is it funded? These are some of the questions to test the efficacy of the proposal.

4.     What alternative outcomes are possible and how likely are they?

Projects by their very nature are uncertain beasts. Although management is likely to present a preferred outcome the Board must cast its attention to alternative outcomes that may be less desirable? Management typically use scenario planning or risk matrix tools to respond to this question. It is important that the work is robust and that management and the Board use their projection skills to experience what it would be like in the ‘alternative outcome world’. It is easy to overlook a critical scenario or underplay the effects of the realisation of an undesirable outcome. A clear appreciation of alternative outcomes is necessary to address the next question.

5.     What deviation from the parameters outlined in the business case is the Board prepared to accept?

With an appreciation of the response to question 4 the Board is in a position to address what is and is not an acceptable outcome. This could be in time, cost, quality, benefits or reputation terms. It is better to know at the beginning of the project what is tolerable to the Board and set up an option to ‘review and shutdown’ the project at the point it is forecast that the tolerances will be breached. The objective here is to keep it objective. It is much harder to address these questions in an unemotional way when a project has drifted off the business case parameters.

6.     How have the interests of the stakeholders (both internal and external) been considered and aligned?

Friction or misalignment costs are mostly hidden, unestimated and a huge burden on most projects mainly because the misalignment is not adequately addressed prior to commencement. Just because someone says it is aligned does not make it so. Words are cheap. What actions, resources, structures have management put in place to ensure alignment? Wherever possible, with external contractors, make that alignment contractual.

7.     What external factors will influence the success of this project and how will these be monitored?

Not everything is in the control of the project. A change in legislation, competitor landscape, technological change or even geopolitical dynamics can alter the success of the project. These need to be tabled and actively monitored to ensure that the project remains relevant. Its not about project failure but the world has changed.

8.     What is the organisation’s speed of learning?

The speed of learning is the pace at which the organisation can understand, absorb and adapt to change. It varies greatly by organisation. It may be a constraint, enabler or a cause to rethink the project or at least how the project is implemented. Most organisations fail to deal with this question appropriately. The consequences for some projects can be catastrophic. In Post Implementation Reviews (PIR’s) it is often described as high resistance to change, poor leadership from the top or the project was inconsistent with the prevailing culture. In my experience it is a failure in understanding how a particular organisation learns and at what pace. Drawing this out allows the sponsor to restructure the project in a way that raises its likelihood of success.

9.     What is the one question you were hoping we would not ask?

This is an excellent catchall question that I use every time I review a project. Look for incongruence between what is said and the body language of management. You will be handed strong indicators as to where to probe further.

10. What reporting and monitoring of the project does the Board require?

The answer will vary depending on the scale of the project, delegations, capability of management, trust in management and the inherent risks in the project. As a minimum I would require management to forecast and report against the tolerance parameters addressed in question 5, a schedule of future Board decisions for the project (a good way measure that progress is going to plan), monitoring of the external factors from question 7 and the other critical risks identified in the proposal.

Feel free to add to the list!

10 questions the Board should ask projects.

Advance your project leadership. Please!

killer-slide-on-5-waysAfter many years of reviewing project performance and Post Implementation Reviews it is astounding that the soft skills of Project Professionals is almost NEVER mentioned as a root cause of failure. Upon further reflection it should not be that surprising. A blind spot is a blind spot. It’s expecting the physician to “heal thyself”.

What tends to happen is the effect is reported as the cause. Take for example the case of a project team under distress. One natural response is to “shrink the project responsibility” and put a wall up around the project team. This would be reported as a mis-match of objectives between the project and the customer when in fact it is an inability to find more constructive ways to alleviate the distress. The learning is often recorded as more governance or communication required. This response never fixes the real problem.

Another experience is the inability to speak truth to power. This leads to very late reporting of problems. In reality the problems are known to someone early but keeping the peace is valued more highly than the truth or preservation trumps success. Again the common treatment is more governance or project controls which makes the problem worse not better.

These are just a few examples addressed in the Advanced Project Leaders Workshop developed by Tony Sattout Consulting specifically for project professionals to address soft skill development using very simple frameworks. The workshop is designed to tap the collective genius in the room in an engaging and effective adult learning style. It is rich on interaction and immediately implementable actions, lite on PowerPoint and starved of profiling tools appealing to you hardened project professionals.

Follow the link to find out more.  Advanced Project Leaders Workshop

Feel free to share this with your network as appropriate.

Advance your project leadership. Please!

Banking culture. The root of all evil!

Skull thing.jpgEven if it were true is that the most helpful construct for addressing the issue? Blaming “it” on culture is a classic system 1 response (see Thinking fast and slow by Daniel Kahneman for definition). It sounds true, an alluring expression of the root cause of the problem. But is it?

Let’s assume that it is true for a moment. How should the Board respond to the ASIC challenge?

A culture problem warrants a culture response.

To respond the Board insists on a new corporate culture:

  1. A target culture is defined incorporating more system 1 words such as customer centric, agile, compliant, trustworthy, and courageous just to name a few.
  2. This is published with internal marketing and communications. Beautiful posters are up everywhere and executives are out in force like politicians espousing the merits, aspirations and expectations of the new culture.
  3. Scorecards and bonuses are linked to the new culture. The carrot and stick are in place.
  4. Performance is measured using employee surveys. Reports are incorporated into board papers.

Congratulations you have new culture! The Board has met it obligations.

Really?! A more in depth analysis of what is happening needs to be undertaken.

What is the purpose of enterprise including banks and how do they function?

  • The enterprise must fulfil a customer need at a price the customer is willing to pay. Even a monopoly must achieve this or face the threat of a potential competitor.
  • The enterprise must be efficient and effective. Without this, in time, they will be overtaken by a more competent competitor.
  • The enterprise must conduct its affairs within the law (as a minimum in the short term and within the expectations of society in the long term).

The modern enterprise achieves these requirements by taking a goal orientated approach. This means setting informed business targets and going about achieving those targets, often with bonuses at risk (but not necessarily so). By its very nature goal orientation creates tension. Without tension then the enterprise is baking in inefficiency and ineffectiveness and will ultimately fall.

Individuals have the potential to respond differently to that tension and sometimes that response is inappropriate for the situation. This is where the core of the issue lives.

An inappropriate response could occur because:

  1. The individual or group is overly invested in that particular outcome.
  2. In their mind the goal is beyond their reach through conducting business appropriately.
  3. The risk/reward profile is such that they are prepared to cross the line.
  4. Their personal values accept the inappropriate behaviour as “their normal”
  5. The individual feels threatened and is acting under duress.

In the end we can chose to lower the “performance tension” to such a level that enables everyone to exceed it. This has serious long term performance ramifications for the existence of the enterprise and is not in the best interest of society.

The better alternative, in my mind, is to deal with the underlying conditions through better quality management, coaching, and better selection of individuals for the job. Above all the enterprise should operate with full transparency and appropriate segregation of duties to ensure that failures are identified quickly and corrective action taken to minimise the damage.

How is that a culture problem?!

Banking culture. The root of all evil!

To PMO or not to PMO. Is that really the question?!


The strategy consultants have weaved their magic with the Executive Team and the Board to define an exciting new direction. This typically involves pulling a number of  big strategic levers including downsizing, outsourcing, new market entry or old market exit and product reform just to name a few.

If you have participated in such an exercise you will know how intense that activity can be. BUT the heavy lifting of implementation is still before you.

At this point many organisations take a breath and really lose momentum or try to proceed without expert implementation management help which causes them to fumble the ball.

It is only natural for this to occur. When your management skills and mindsets are geared to managing the business effectively you are unlikely to be tooled up for the transformation and will generally focus most attention to BAU leaving the strategy implementation to piecemeal activity.

That is why it is a no brainer to deploy some form of PMO to drive, report and hold the implementation performance mirror up to the organisation. This is critical but the minimum standard stuff.

The most successful PMO’s add so much more:

  • An elegant balance of IQ/EQ to effectively navigate the inevitable tensions that will emerge.
  • Be behind the scenes to help struggling executives deal with their personal challenges of facing large scale change with poise and confidence building leadership.
  • To free up the CEO to be the point of escalation rather than the facilitator of resolution.
  • To be the tough guy when necessary allowing the CEO and others to maintain their relationships.
  • To leave at the end of the assignment and take any “lingering resentment” with you leaving behind a “clean”, high functioning executive.

The question should not be whether to have a PMO for implementation but who is the right person to be the temporary PMO leader and “extra executive” with the attributes to hold us accountable in a constructive manner?

To PMO or not to PMO. Is that really the question?!

Chop chop when will the restructure stop?!

IMG_8911 copy.jpgIt seems that almost every day the Australian Financial Review is reporting on a major Company reorganisation with each newly appointed CEO routinely restructuring the organisation on the way in and then again after a few years.

In Australia this problem is exacerbated with the average CEO tenure now below 5 years and 30% of CEO’s in the top 200 fail to last 3 years. As a result you can see how some organisations restructure every year.

The conflicting structural thesis to centralise for cost control or decentralise for speed of decision making, to be customer centric or product centric, manage with a disruptive business environment or manage efficiently within a stable environment or my favourite “to break down silos” are often used to justify a major change. Unfortunately most (two thirds based on Bain & Co study) fail to deliver any meaningful result.

Should the Board be concerned about this trend? They most certainly should be very, very concerned. The damage caused can be very difficult to repair and include:

  • Protracted distraction of employees as they jockey for position. They are not focused on the customer, market and competitor.
  • Breaking and reforming of operational bonds within the organisation means it can take up to 18 months to settle down into a fully functioning operational rhythm.
  • Weak handover protocols mean that important controls are broken and corporate knowledge is permanently lost. This can manifest itself in significant audit items being raised.
  • Learning energy is spent patching the organisation back together rather than the higher value work of improving service, product etc.
  • Scarce financial capital is consumed for no return.
  • Employee engagement crashes with focus on self-preservation and self-interest. This can become a long term problem rather than a transitional one (as it is often reported).

If a restructure happens once no big deal (as long as it is a true solution to a well understood problem) but if it happens often organisations are unlikely to get better they just get different.

Boards and their executive team are better served by focusing their energy on:

  1. CEO and Executive talent development to reduce disruption of leadership changeover
  2. Coherent and ongoing strategy development and execution rather than lurching from one position to anonther.
  3. Clarity of team and individual purpose to achieve better alignment
  4. Building and maintaining a deep learning, collaborative and performance culture so each employee is able to deal with whatever is thrown at them.
  5. Sufficient flexibility in the performance management framework to support the “best decision in the moment” rather than a fixed set of objectives.
  6. Internal protocols that are fit for the conditions.
  7. Replacing people when needed rather than “restructuring them out” retaining a stable organisation structure.
  8. Create effective metrics and board reporting to ensure the 7 items above being actively achieved.

In summary, organisation restructuring is a lever that should be used sparingly as the damage it causes often exceeds the problem purported to be solved. Focus on the conditions within the organisation are more likely to yield performance results.

Chop chop when will the restructure stop?!

Protect your PURPOSE in a CI transformation

IMG_3691 copyHave you ever led a Continuous Improvement transformation (CI), achieved considerable early success only to see it go off track and fail? If not then you haven’t lived!

From my experience there are 4 categories of causes:

  1. The intervention team lost sight of its purpose and therefore shifted its posture
  2. The intervention team failed to morph as the organisation developed its CI abilities
  3. Executive interest was lost or lost the executive.
  4. The sustaining systems of the organisation were not treated to effectively support the CI transformation.

In this article I will be dealing with the intervention team losing sight of its purpose.

If the organisation is shooting for true CI then the intervention team’s purpose is likely to be something like:

“To be the catalyst, coach and mentor to initiate and embed CI in the organisation so that it delivers the required business value in a self-sustaining way”

After intervening in  about 3 locations  the team will see a few patterns emerging and an opportunity to make changes to the approach. This, of course, should be encouraged. We should all be seeking to find better ways. The problem starts when those changes are inconsistent with the purpose of the intervention (purpose drift).

By way of example. The training modules for a particular program were designed to be a deep discovery and learning experience. This enabled participants to gain a better appreciation and integration of the learning into their daily work practices. This was consistent with the purpose and the learning posture of that intervention. It was very successful.

After the 3 cycles it was decided to simplify the approach to save time and codify the training into detailed manuals so that a general trainer could recite the material. This saved time and cost of implementation (or so they thought). What occurred here was a drift in purpose away from being a catalyst to embed an improvement system to being an efficient delivery of information. A significant part of the learning posture was lost and the meaning of that training diminished. The recovery work to achieve a successful implementation far exceeded any perceived time and cost saving in the training.

Things to consider to prevent Purpose Drift:

  1. Will the change being considered further the purpose or compromise it?
  2. Be alert to attempts to be more efficient in delivery at the expense of effectiveness of take up.
  3. Each “client” assignment must start where the client is at not where the intervention team has evolved to.
  4. Don’t get too smart. What you have learnt may be perceived as arrogant and damage the long term goal.
  5. Avoid the complacency of success. You should remain as alert and attentive in your next assignment as the first. You owe it to your new client team.


In summary, protect your purpose and hold your learning posture. To do otherwise will result in an intervention team that is mechanistic rather than a catalyst for transformation.

Protect your PURPOSE in a CI transformation

Process reviews make not an organisation improvement system!

IMG_6898[1].jpgThe most common observation in my consulting practice is the claim that process reviews conducted by an “intervention group” are the organisation’s improvement system. Unfortunately on their own process reviews will only solve point in time problems.

Process reviews can be very effective interventions to improve a process and many process reviews combined may cover much of the organisation. However the outcome is usually a temporary or even a permanent improvement that plateaus very quickly. That is because an organisation, like any living thing, has an immune system that will fight off foreign bodies and seek to maintain the status quo.

The immune system should not be considered as “resistant to change” or “acts of sabotage of the program.” It is how systems work and we should be grateful for its existence. Rather the intervention team should consider what makes up that immune system, how to temporarily dampen it to enable the intervention to take hold and finally how to re-engage it in a way that it now supports the changed organisation.

There is no one way to achieve this outcome but there are a few principles that should be considered:

  1. Treat people like adults and respect their position. There is normally a very good reason for it.
  2. Be clear on the intent and live by it.
  3. Design the intervention in a way that builds demonstrable, and well-earned trust with those affected by that intervention.
  4. Adopt a learning posture to the program balancing EQ/IQ.
  5. Be the catalyst. It is not your party.
  6. People need to experience what “it” is, not be told what “it” is.
  7. The teacher arrives when the student is ready.

These are the main ones. I am sure you can think of others. Living these principles within the intervention should lead to a well formed self-sustaining system.

It is much easier to run a process review than to build a true improvement system. It is a bit like chess. The rules are simple but the strategies are not! Those that have mastered the strategy  reap deep rewards in customer experience, employee engagement, productivity, profitability and change agility.

Take the plunge and go all the way!


Process reviews make not an organisation improvement system!
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