Guest article by OEE Consulting:

When you are annoyed by a fly buzzing around in a room, you may have noticed the random movements it makes which result in the fly bouncing off the windows and walls while it searches for whatever it is trying to achieve. This activity can be compared to many of the large change and transformation functions in various organisations; too much activity without valuable outcomes, projects that take the business in many different directions, and no clear priorities and questionable business cases.

Contrast this with an ant column; all the ants are working in a coordinated way with all activity supporting the common objective – supplying food and building materials to the colony to support survival and growth.

Effective businesses ensure that all change progresses the key strategic objectives and adds real value to the business or their customers.

Common Fly Behaviours

1) The bucket list

A change portfolio that contains everything that everyone wants to do. Trying to satisfy everyone’s needs and desires (either practical or political) leads to burgeoning change portfolios with no clarity of what is either essential or strategic.

2) The kitchen sink

The same mentality applied to individual projects. A combination of high hurdle business case requirements and “If I don’t get it in this project, I will never get it” thinking results in projects with unrealistic and unnecessary scope. This is made worse during delivery with multiple dubious extensions to scope routinely accepted.

3) The governance black hole

Governance is important and necessary – though it doesn’t in itself add any value for the customer. Many projects are undermined by bad processes and practices. However, instead of fixing the root cause, organisations have layered many additional levels of unnecessary governance (and significant additional cost) on top of essential governance to try and filter out the problems created by the poor processes. Every new failure results in an additional control. Multiple levels of business case and approval gates are a common symptom.

4) Over the wall mentality

Siloed functions with localised objectives and incentives result in duplication of roles and activities along the end to end change journey. This is characterised by each team doing their part and passing the work along with little or no appreciation of the end to end process or how their input influences it. There can be 2 or 3 project managers on a single project each covering their own function’s activities. There Is no sense of a single team delivering the change for the benefit of the business or customer.

The Negative Consequences of Fly Behaviour

Only 41% of projects were considered successful in meeting project objectives within planned time, budget and quality constraints1.

The Fly behaviours combine and conspire to extend project timescales, add unforeseen costs and destroy planned benefits. Together these have the consistent high level impact of:

  • Slow, limited and uncertain progress towards the business’ strategic break-through objectives
  • Customers having to suffer for too long from poor and inadequate service due to processes and systems not being fit for purpose
  • Massively inflated change cost overhead that doesn’t drive real long term value
  • Lack of creativity and innovation – no one has the headroom to think of fresh approaches and alternate ways of approaching and solving the problems.

67% of companies failed to terminate unsuccessful projects,
61% of managers reported major conflicts between project and line organizations,
34% of companies undertook projects that were not aligned with corporate strategy,
32% of companies performed redundant work because of unharmonized projects2.

How to be more Ant

1)    Put a lid on the bucket list

Establish clear, simple and rigid portfolio entry hurdles – kill bad ideas early. Ensure projects either: are mandated by regulatory authorities (even these should be challenged), progress the business’ strategic objectives, or address a customer service issue. Many change projects drag on over many years only to find on completion that the perceived requirement no longer exists – total waste.

Ants only expend effort to bring home items that are useful and of value to the colony.

2)    Leave out the kitchen sink

Prioritise ruthlessly, both across projects but also on the requirements within individual projects. Deliver fewer smaller projects, faster and sequentially, rather than many in parallel. Get the scope right, strictly defend the original scope and deliver what was scoped on time. Segregate small change requests from large strategic change and apply different rules.

Ants know exactly what the colony needs and deliver only what is needed, when it is needed, one piece at a time direct to the colony by the shortest route. Ants don’t batch!

3)    Close up the governance black hole

Address the root cause of project failures so that excessive, costly and time consuming governance can be stripped away. For example, test concepts simply to ensure validity and value rather than investing time and effort on detailed studies and initial business cases. Clear success criteria and a simple, small review panel should be adequate to pass concepts for full business case preparation.
Ants don’t write business cases. They have a very clear idea of what adds value and simply get it done with minimum overhead.

4)    Knock down the walls.

Overcome silo structures to create single end to end ownership for change projects with a single coordinated team working together in parallel on common objectives. Best practice product development teams exemplify this approach: representatives from all functions (the customer, marketing, sales, production, engineering, software, quality, procurement, service) all work together under a single programme leader, with parallel workstreams ensuring that all aspects and their interactions are considered, to achieve a successful product delivery that meets the customer requirements, can be built, at an acceptable price, will operate reliably and can be serviced in the field.

Ants work together as selfless teams to achieve the required outcomes for the colony  as a whole.

1 IBM   2 Harvard Business Review   Second ant picture courtesy of Safiorrahaman / CC-BY-SA-3.0


Thanks to OEE Consulting for this guest blog, which originally appeared in the OEE newsletter in January 2014, click here to view it.