How To Kill Doomed Projects

The challenge for managers in the “can-do” culture of business is to distinguish between belief as a key driver of success—and belief as something that can blind managers to a project’s ultimate failure – Isabelle Royer 

It’s always easier to start something new than it is to stop doing something.

Many of our organisations are prone to a form of corporate initiativitis – where people are rewarded for the creation of new activities rather than the scrutiny and hunting down of unnecessary zombie projects. Zombies are projects that, for any number of reasons, fail to fulfill their promise and yet still they keep going, with people unwilling or unable to put them out of their misery. 

These activities often make sense on paper – the benefits they bring and the development timeline sounds achievable. But somewhere along the way, something changes.

Why can’t companies kill projects that are clearly doomed?

Contrary to just poor management or bureaucratic inertia, the research of Isabelle Royer showed that many failures result, ironically, from a fervent and widespread belief among managers in the inevitability of their projects’ ultimate success. As she writes – “this sentiment typically originates with a project’s champion; it then spreads throughout the organization, often to the highest levels, reinforcing itself each step of the way. The result is what I call collective belief, and it can lead an otherwise rational organization into some very irrational behavior.”

The modern obsession with change champions – equipping armies of people to go out into organisations like evangelical missionaries proselytizing change – can reinforce this behaviour.

We can restore some rationality through transparency and effective scrutiny. Some of the most successful companies have cultures with just enough friction: with teams having regular, intense debates. Discord, rather than agreement, has to be allowed to take its proper place if we are to solve the problems that matter.

As Chris Bolton has written, not speaking truth to power contributes to very many project failures. It’s a complex problem that is cultural rather than merely the fault of managers. Organisational systems and culture often prevent people speaking truth to power, even if the ultimate boss is willing to listen.

Lessons Learned from the ‘RMS Titanic of IT disasters’

In 2011, U.K. government officials finally scrapped a massive 9-year, $16 billion project to create a unified electronic health records system for British citizens. 

The project – described as ‘doomed from the beginning’ – was criticised for being too large, too ambitious, too monolithic, and for having too many changing requirements. 

The warning signs were there from the start. The government chose the top-down,  approach. The solution was initially designed, not with actual users, but by a large central team, and intended as a complete “big-bang” replacement for the many and varied existing systems. 

A research paper summed up the main lessons learned:

  • Efforts should ideally begin with the user, before moving on to more general organizational and national requirements.
  • The initial focus should have been on making the software usable. This should be informed by users. 
  • A balance between customised approaches and standardisation is vital. 
  • An incremental roll out – with a more iterative approach, would have minimised risk

It’s not rocket science is it?

In fact the determinants of success seem to be weighted on just four factors: avoiding top down design, effective user involvement, speaking truth to power and avoiding silver bullets.

Project Flow Chart (2)

Zombie projects occur when all these factors converge and confirmation bias sets in. Even though everyone knows this isn’t really working, we carry on regardless.

As part of the work we’ve been doing at Bromford we recognise that slaying zombies is just part of good governance. Innovation is all about discipline in the creation and implementation of new ideas that create value. However it’s about stopping doing things too. As a general rule each new service or activity should lead to the decommissioning of an existing one.

It’s often harder to stop doing things that used to be valuable than start new things.  It’s that fear of stopping activity that holds real innovation back. 

Stopping a project isn’t failure. But failing to stop a project that is going bad –  that is failure.

Ultimately this is about keeping ego, ownership and politics out of the equation. We only need to be really good at a few things to have more successful outcomes:

  • Effective problem definition
  • Avoiding top down initiatives
  • Involving users in the actual design
  • Promoting local customisation and avoiding silver bullets
  • Iteration rather than mass deployment
  • Speaking truth to power and critically questioning the direction of travel

If we can get better at those – and make them foundational principles of new activities – we won’t need to kill doomed projects.

We’ll have no zombies left to slay.

Does Regulation Really Stifle Innovation?

Last week I did a presentation to a group of managers when the issue of governance and regulation ‘getting in the way’ of innovation came up.

People often think regulations stifle innovation, new business and services. They assume that regulators are there to control and curtail what they want to do.

“We are so heavily regulated, we can’t change what we do” is a familiar cry from those in the public sector.

Is it true that regulators are blockers of innovation, or is it false perception?

Even worse – is this simply a convenient excuse used to resist change?

It’s true that if you looked at the websites and reports of most regulators you’d likely get a view that they are a pretty conservative bunch. There’s plenty of talk of consistency, best practice and benchmarking. And we all know that best practice and benchmarking are often just a race to be first at being average.

In reality though, when you meet face to face, I’ve never met a regulator who doesn’t want to see more innovation in their industry.

Last year I did two pieces of work, one for Ofwat, the economic regulator of the water sector in England and Wales, and the other for the Regulator of Social Housing. Both organisations were looking for ways to innovate within their own organisations and to spur on a greater drive for experimentation within their wider sectors.

It’s not in the interests of a regulator to be anti-innovation. A report last year  found that respondents were looking to regulators to support innovation, and to an extent most organisations are seeing this take place. 1 in 4 though see regulators as innovation blockers.

2018-10-04-080736299-How-do-you-see-regulators-impacting-innovation-in-your-sector

Part of the problem here is the definition of innovation, a disruptive pioneer (Uber for example) to one person is the unregulated aggressive exploiter of people to another.

Unregulated disruption is sometimes necessary. Had ride-sharing firms been prevented from entering the traditional taxi cab market, we would not be enjoying a better customer experience today. Arguably, the incumbents would never have improved their services left to their own devices.

In today’s world of speed and digital innovation though, regulators need adaptive regulations -and a more responsive, iterative approach.

That said – innovation gone bad requires regulation. Arguably “financial innovations” such as easy credit, subprime lending, mortgage-backed securities caused the financial crisis. It was a perfect storm to have uncontrolled innovation at the same time as encouraging light touch regulation.

Innovation as risk management

The fear of innovation within any organisation is far more likely to come from heavy handed approaches to governance and risk than it comes from external regulation.

At the event earlier this week, Ian Wright, Managing Director of the Disruptive Innovators Network asked a very good question: what is your risk patience? 

Most of our organisations and institutions lean toward control and order and away from chaos and risk.

How does your organisation actively seek out risk? Only 20% of strategy officers describe their organisation as risk seeking. We need to transform risk management from being about “stopping doing things” to being about “starting doing different things” within a well managed framework.

Traditionally we have not being good at focussing risk management on the right areas. Significant amounts of time are spent auditing areas that are highly unlikely to ever cause major reputational damage. This can be a huge inhibitor of potential innovation.

Whenever you innovate you’re taking a risk. What I’m anxious to get across to the public sector is that you DO need to take those risks – the Auditor General for Wales.

The work of the Wales Audit Office and in particular their Good Practice Exchange is a great example of an audit and assurance approach that encourages well managed risks

Innovation done badly IS a risk, but innovation done well is good risk management.

Having a framework that protects the host organisation from early stage experiments until they have proven value is actually good governance.

Orbit Innovation Event

The best approaches to innovation always have a way of framing and strategising, allocating and diversifying risk – whilst buffering the rest of the organisation from it. Organisations equipped with this will be less risk averse and conduct more risk-taking behaviour.

Ultimately, your organisation has plenty of excuses not to take risks, to stick to the tried and tested, to follow the same path as everyone else.

But fear of the regulator isn’t one of them.

How To Kill Ideas

We were asked a really good question last week with the visit to Bromford of the Disruptive Innovators Network.

How long should you spend on an idea?

In the early days of Bromford Lab we had a 12 WEEKS MAX rule. If we couldn’t get an idea up and running within that time – it should be killed.

We soon realised the error of our ways. Some ideas need to be timed exactly right. Now we don’t so much kill ideas as leave them languishing in the pits of our Exploration Pipeline – waiting for the stars to align.

The Premature Death of Ideas

Many organisations , without realising it , act as inhibitors of innovation.

Our colleagues generate ideas every single day about how their job could be done more efficiently or how customers could be better served. These ideas – hundreds of thousands over the course of a year – mostly disappear , never to be harvested.

Organisations have developed numerous tools to kill off ideas.

1: Have A Meeting About It

The best way to assassinate an idea.

Meetings can crush ideas. People want to look like they are adding something in meetings and being hypercritical is highly valued. Putting your freshly hatched idea in that scenario is asking for trouble.

It’s only a matter of time before someone says “That sounds good in theory, but what’s the business benefit?” or even…“We’ve already tried that.”

Meetings are the best place to shoot down an unsuspecting victim who is trying to generate new ideas.

2: Take It To Your Manager

The middle layers of organisations are trapped between management (keeping wheels turning and not rocking the boat) and leadership (inspiring and taking risk).

People here are often scared to take risks because they’re responsible for so much. The bright spark on the team is often seeing as someone who is trying to mess with success.

There is evidence too that managers can undermine employee creativity through interference – changing goals and getting over involved when they should just steer clear.

3: Suggest The Idea Is “Escalated”

Most hierarchical structures are uniquely designed to ensure that any decent idea never goes near the top table.

Any idea that emerges closest to the customer has to work its way up through a series of managers, any one of whom is likely to veto it. As David Burkus points out, research suggests that there is often a cognitive bias against new, innovative ideas – a “hierarchy of no”.

The higher an idea moves up the chain of command, the more likely it is to be rejected, as the people furthest from the idea’s source will have a lesser understanding of its potential value.

4: Ask For A Report On It

Once you’ve written a report about an idea – it’s no longer an idea. It’s a project.

That will attract all sorts of project management attention, far too early. As soon as the Gaant chart appears it’s time to pack up and go home.

5: Ask To See The Data On It

“Data fixation” is an innovation killer. The trend towards having an evidence base for absolutely everything removes the gut instinct from your idea.  Measuring things too early means you constrain experimentation. And experimentation includes the possibility, the high probability even, of failure.

It’s not necessary, or even possible, to completely remove these idea killers. But knowing your enemy , and developing strategies to avoid these pitfalls, will boost your capability for innovation.

The Four Stages of Ideation

Often we think of ideas as being single events when instead they should happen in stages:

Idea Generation

Having the idea is the easy part. What separates successful innovation approaches over ‘innovation theatre’ is the latter promotes generation over action. The successful ones know know that an idea without execution remains simply that—an idea, a paper exercise, no more impactful than a passing thought.

Idea Selection

Most of our organisations don’t suffer from a lack of ideas, they suffer from a lack of process that identifies the ideas worth having.  It’s not an idea problem; it’s a recognition problem.

Perversely, the answer to unlocking creativity isn’t to go looking for ideas – but to go looking for really good problems. That’s the way to select the ideas that matter.

Idea Deployment

We need to move from reporting about things we are going to do and shift it to things we have done.

Spend less time talking about ‘What would happen?’ and start demonstrating ‘What happened’.  That means we need to make available resources for prototyping and space where we can turn ideas into reality.

Idea Extermination

Your ideas might be wrong, even when your instincts are right. Knowing when to let go is vital.

Innovation is all about discipline in the creation and implementation of new ideas that create value. If ideas are allowed to live too long they can become zombie projects.

To support innovation , we need to create a climate that protects early stage ideas and become comfortable existing with ambiguity.

Rather than just being highly efficient killers our organisations need to become better at idea generation, selection, deployment AND extermination.

And if you’re really struggling to get traction for your idea why don’t you follow this advice from Helen Reynolds? Don’t tell anyone about and just do it anyway.

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Photo by Jason Abdilla on Unsplash

Lessons Learned From Five Years of Failure

Sometimes the execution of the idea doesn’t need to be the best to succeed.

In 1989 a video game designer called Gunpei Yokoi changed the world with the launch of the original Nintendo Game Boy. It took gaming out of the hands of geeks and paved the way for the industry to become the most profitable and popular form of entertainment.

However the Game Boy was far from best in class. Its black and white display was made up from old technologies well past their sell by date. Gunpei called his philosophy Lateral Thinking with Withered Technology. 

Withered: mature technology which is cheap and well understood.

Lateral thinking: combining these ideas and technologies in creative new ways

Innovation doesn’t actually need to be cutting edge. Rather it needs to be simple, useful and to make someone’s day that little bit easier. 

This week I was invited by Ian Wright of the Disruptive Innovators’ Network to outline the lessons learned from five years of Bromford Lab about making innovation simple and accessible for colleagues.

I was speaking to L&Q Futures which has been put together by Tom Way to provide people with the digital mindset and skills of modern businesses while also looking for creative ways to solve the housing crisis. The 25 people selected via a competitive process are spending 1 day per month away from their day job to learn and apply the tools and techniques being taught.

The key things I wanted to put across were:

Five Years of Problem Solving with Bromford Lab (5)

Think big. Start small.

Most of our organisations avoid doing things because we let them get too complicated. It’s easy to talk yourself out of doing anything. If you wait for perfection before you put an idea to work, it will stall before it gets off the ground. The key for us is to assemble small teams with limited resources who are prepared to get their hands dirty.

Five Years of Problem Solving with Bromford Lab (4)

The idea is the driver

Most corporate structures are uniquely designed to ensure that any decent idea never goes near the top table. Structures that support hierarchical decision making limit opportunities for people to have influence and innovate.

We often don’t have a choice in the path our ideas take. They don’t fit within our structure charts or management meetings. You’ve got to develop a space and process that works around them and allows them to flourish. Let the idea go where it needs to go, and when.

Five Years of Problem Solving with Bromford Lab (3)

Don’t get distracted by Intergalactic Space Cats

Not all ideas are good ones. Some are very bad indeed. But even bad ones can prove worthwhile to look at, if only by helping to shape better alternatives.

Innovation is all about getting better at being wrong. However it must be founded in a deep understanding of the problem we are seeking to solve.

Everyone thinks that their idea is the one worthy of most attention.

Try and get the organisation to fall in love with problems rather than solutions.

Five Years of Problem Solving with Bromford Lab (1)

Everything is connected

People are working on the same things as us all over the world. We won’t solve things on our own. We are desperately inward looking. There will always be more talented people outside your organisation than within it – so lets seek them out. Collaboration is a central theme to innovation because of speed , connections, energy and the ability to fast track implementation.

The talent in our organisations is siloed. Our first task is to connect and leverage that talent and combine it with the creativity in our communities.

Five Years of Problem Solving with Bromford Lab (2)

Learning from failure is the measure to obsess about

Nielsen research suggests that “about two out of every three products are destined to fail.” However this is rarely acknowledged and hardly ever promoted. 

In the public sector , where projects take years rather than weeks,  and pilots become mainstream services without any evaluation – things are worse.

Nothing fails. Everything is a success.

Failure is only bad if we are doomed to repeat it. Breaking our organisations out of cyclical failure is a huge challenge.

At Bromford as part of our Lab Planning we meet to talk about failure every single week. We tweak our processes to learn from it and limit it. The real learning is in our stalled concepts, not the one’s that have been successful. 

Ultimately the message I tried to give was not to overthink things, keep a wide field of vision and try to think laterally.

In many ways I think an effective innovation approach is to encourage organisations to be more childlike. As kids we learned through exploration and experimentation, not through people talking at us from a PowerPoint presentation at a team meeting.

Our organisations need to relearn how to learn, rapidly and efficiently.

Learning and innovation go hand in hand, but learning always comes first.


 

This is a brief extract of the original talk – the full presentation can be seen here 

 

 

Minority Dissent: Why Intelligent People Fail To Solve Problems

At the end of November 2018 my blog posts dried up.

I’ve not published one for over seven weeks – the longest gap for a couple of years. The problem wasn’t that I had nothing to write, rather I was afraid of the reaction to what I’d say.

I have five draft posts I’ve struggled to finish because of a fear of being misinterpreted – or a fear they might upset someone.

It’s hard to believe it was only five years ago when we had huge hopes for social media – that a genuine counter-culture was disrupting our established organisations. We finally had a decentralized communication platform for knowledge sharing and idea exchange.

With hindsight that was overly optimistic.

The two seismic events of 2016 – Brexit and the election of Donald Trump – were partly a reaction to that misplaced optimism. Plenty of people felt shut out and left behind from the party. The fallout has caused mayhem ever since.

  • Fake news – a term no-one really used until a couple of years ago is now seen as one of the biggest threats to democracy.
  • We seem to be getting a bit nastier to each other online –  where the lack of eye contact allows us to be particularly rude to people in ways we’d never consider in real life.
  • We’ve arguably got a bit too sensitive , with hurt feelings meaning you can be reported to the Police for upsetting someone.

Analysis of social media use shows that we tend to engage most with information that aligns to our existing beliefs and perceptions on the world.  With people spending up to two hours a day on social media that’s a significant amount of time spent in a bubble.

If you are mostly friends with people on social media who share your views,  naturally you are more likely to hear confirmation of your views than dissent.  You share your views on Brexit for example, and everyone agrees with you. This reinforces your world view rather than making you question it. When you do hear dissent it seems like an anomaly. You’re clearly on the side of the angels!

Last year I made a deliberate effort to spend more time engaging with people and content that offered completely opposing views to my own. I only drew the line at anything that was truly hateful.

I think I understand other people’s views and experiences better as a result, and I definitely acknowledge that I was more comfortable living in a bubble. It’s unsettling when you’re not so sure you are right.

Why Intelligent People Fail To Solve Problems

In 1972 a psychologist named Irving Janis published an essay explaining how a group of very clever people working together to solve a problem can sometimes arrive at the worst possible answer.

He paid particular attention to foreign policy, the US involvement in Vietnam and JFK’s disastrous intervention into Cuba.

The paper inspired the phrase ‘group-think’ – the psychological drive for consensus at any cost that suppresses disagreement and prevents the consideration of alternatives.

As facilitators and designers at Bromford Lab, we see this all the time. Well-intentioned people can make irrational decisions when they are spurred on by the urge to conform. This can simply be because we value harmony above rational thinking.

Minority Dissent and Innovation 

It may go against a happy-clappy harmonious view of the workplace, but discord has to be allowed to take its proper place if we are to solve the problems that matter.

Agreeableness is not always the best personality trait for innovation. Agreeable people like to work in places where everyone gets along, rather than places that are competitive, or where people are openly challenged. They prefer the status quo to rocking the boat with new or controversial ideas.

Ultimately we do need to create safe team climates, but ones in which dissenting opinions are used effectively to create radical change.

  • We need to regularly seek out views that are different to our own – and create conditions where people are comfortable expressing dissenter views.
  • We need to debate more and be a lot less sure we are right. There are very few absolutes in the world today.
  • Every organisation needs a truly safe space where beliefs can be challenged and assumptions put to the test.
  • Remember that dissenting for the sake of dissenting is not useful or clever. Don’t be a dick.
  • However, authentic and sincere dissent stimulates thought and improves the quality of ideas.

Diversity is important,  but we need to embrace a diversity of perspectives too.  It’s easy to say that but not so easy to do.

It means challenging yourself on where you spend your time, and who with. Listening to voices you’d probably prefer not to hear.

Nine Ways To Unlock Creativity In Your Organisation

Inside Housing Deck

Some organisations are obsessive about finding the silver bullet—the one-shot wonder that solves everything. In an effort to strengthen performance, we’ll often make disproportionate investments in a single initiative to invoke change.

Others are fixed on generating ideas – jumping towards uncontrolled creativity as the solution.

However most of our organisations don’t suffer from a lack of ideas, they suffer from a lack of process that identifies the ideas worth having. 

As David Burkus has said – it’s not an idea problem; it’s a recognition problem. And it’s not always about creativity either.

Creativity is not innovation. Creativity is a prerequisite for sure. Innovation, however, is the practical application of creativity.

Perversely, the answer to unlocking creativity isn’t to go looking for ideas – but to go looking for really good problems.

Many of our organisations have a bias towards getting quick answers. We favour execution rather than contemplation. Great performance at work is usually defined as creating and implementing solutions rather than finding the best problems to tackle.

When you’ve nailed the right problems – that’s the time to go looking for ideas.

This on its own though – isn’t enough.

Many of our organisations , without realising it, act as inhibitors of innovation.

Rules and protocols are put in place — often for very good reasons — that preserve the status quo. Over time, organisations develop a set of social norms — ‘the way we do things around here’ designed to protect the business from failure.

The discipline of innovation, and it is a discipline, takes commitment, resources, and the right skills set to challenge these norms.

Inside Housing Deck (1)

Your innovation approach won’t last long unless senior leadership has a deep investment in it. Innovation dies from the top.

At Bromford we’ve tried to focus on problems — those incomprehensibly complex and messy issues that need to be understood and defined before they can be incorporated into organisational strategy.

Once we’ve done that we involve colleagues formed from a horizontal slice of people from around the business – and grouped around non-siloed themesThey are a way of seeding innovation throughout the organisation and beginning a wider cultural transformation.

We also link up with our Data and Insight colleagues to make sure every concept is supported by sound evidence. One of the big challenges of fostering an evidence-based culture is that it requires a shift in thinking. It’s not easy for people who are used to making instinctive gut decisions to transition to a world in which the smart decisions are data-driven.

How do you unlock creativity?

  1. You find space – mentally and physically to translate thinking into practical applications – and to ensure that any ideas that are pursued connect with the organisations overall strategy
  2. You bring people together to conceive, champion, and carefully develop new approaches that have not been tried before
  3. You nurture bright ideas and protect them from the established practices (and the people) they threaten
  4. You open up internal and external channels and become a conduit with organisations, individuals, and ideas outside
  5. You act as a pressure chamber that allows these external influences into your organisation in a safe and controlled way
  6. You use a mix of methodologies including design thinking and prototyping to help visualise solutions
  7. You don’t talk yourselves out of change where it appears too difficult or complex
  8. You build a culture around evidence and inquiry
  9. You constantly strive to ask better questions

Do that and you’ll always get better answers


This is an extract from a talk I’m doing on 29th October on Unlocking Creativity

Photos from Pexels by Jonas Svidras  David McEachan